How Viral Dunkers Can Revolutionize Women's Basketball

Natalie Weiner@natalieweinerStaff WriterSeptember 29, 2017

West's Brittney Griner, of the Phoenix Mercury, dunks during warm up's prior to the WNBA All-Star basketball game, Saturday, July 19, 2014, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York/Associated Press

When she first started playing basketball at 12, Laeticia Amihere remembers seeing people in the gym leaping up to grab the rim.

"I was like, 'Oh!' I was fascinated, but the rim seemed so high," the Canadian No. 2 class of 2019 recruit recalls now. "I couldn't really even imagine being able to touch it, but I kept trying, and trying, and trying."

Fast forward nearly four years to Amihere's Sportscenter debut: the 6'3" then-15-year-old turned a fast break into one of the most powerful dunks in women's basketball history—yes, as a high schooler—during a tournament this April, slamming the ball through the hoop with one hand. "Even just grabbing the rim was so cool," she says. "This was the exclamation point."

As pretty as it was, the breathless coverage around her jam makes more sense in context. The WNBA is 21 years old, and it's seen a total of 14 regular and postseason dunks (six more have come during WNBA All-Star Games). Stuffing the ball is only slightly more common for women at the college level, which can lead the casual observer to two erroneous conclusions: 1) women are physically incapable of dunking except in exceptional circumstances and 2) the women's game is about fundamentals, and dunking just doesn't fit. Amihere and her cohort of viral girl and women dunkers are helping debunk these excuses for keeping women below the rim while introducing a new set of rules for girls looking to get airborne: the same ones the guys have been using all along.

Of course, that's not to say they start off in the same place. The average WNBA player is around 6'0", and the average NBA player is about 6'7"—a difference amplified in their average verticals thanks to body chemistry. While most male athletes have around 6 to 8 percent body fat, the leanest women on the floor are usually at around 14 percent.

"You have less muscle mass helping you jump and more weight to carry as you're jumping, which makes it much harder," says Polly de Mille, a physiologist at the Women's Sports Medicine Center in New York, which partners with the WNBA's New York Liberty. Though getting to the rim can be more of a challenge for women, de Mille notes that there are no inherent limits to their capacity for strength and explosiveness training, both crucial for players of all genders who want to dunk.

The history of women electing to take on that challenge goes back much further than one might expect—in fact, women dunking predates the WNBA by over a decade. In late 1984, 6'7" West Virginia University sophomore Georgeann Wells became the first woman to dunk in a college basketball game. Years later, the women's team at the University of North Carolina started making headlines for their desire to dunk in games. "We got to a point where we actually had four people dunking in warm-ups," remembers Charlotte Smith, former WNBA player and current head women's basketball coach at Elon University. "Our opponents would even stop to watch us."

Smith, Sylvia Crawley, Marion Jones and Gwendolyn Gillingham were telling anyone who would listen about how their team would be the one to bring the dunk to women's hoops. In particular Smith, whose uncle is former NBA guard David "Skywalker" Thompson, wanted to follow in the footsteps of Michael Jordan. "Just seeing that little logo, I wanted to be able to do the Jumpman slam dunk," she says. Jumpman was paying attention: "A few years ago you couldn't fathom the idea of women dunking," Jordan told the Chicago Tribune in a 1993 article about Smith, Crawley and their cross-country dunking competitor Lisa Leslie. "... If they had it, I think you'd see people flocking to see women's basketball."

Finally in 1994—the season after she'd hit a buzzer-beater to win the NCAA championship—Smith, 5'11¾", landed the second dunk ever in women's college basketball, an almost identical replica of the Jordan logo. "I'd always said that anything boys can do, girls can do better," she says now. "I never let my gender limit anything I felt like I could accomplish."

In 1984, Wells' dunk prompted three-paragraph wire stories; in 1994, Smith's appeared to be the dawn of a movement. "Women Should Focus on Playing, Not Dunking," commanded a '94 editorial. "To Dunk or Not to Dunk, That Is the Question," another pondered. Debates about women dunking trickled all the way down to the kids. "I am a basketball player, so is my brother," one advice column query began. "He says I will never jump as high as boys. I don't want to believe that. Is it true? He slam-dunks." The response was simple: "With your determination, I would not rule it out." The expert's evidence? Charlotte Smith's jam.

The inaugural season of the WNBA began in 1997, and questions about when women were going to start dunking dominated conversation about the league. Lisa Leslie attempted and missed a dunk in the league's first game, only to be mocked on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Then, the NBA temporarily replaced the Slam Dunk Contest with a co-ed 2 Ball Contest during the 1998 All-Star Weekend, in which the women outshot the menevery article about the brand-new league mentioned the lack of dunking, so it tried to change the narrative.

"I don't think it's coincidental that the dunk becomes emblematic of men's basketball—and supposedly what makes men's basketball exciting—right at the moment the women's game is ascendent," says Michael Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at USC and co-author of the upcoming book No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport and the Unevenness of Social Change.

The WNBA's now-defunct competition, the American Basketball League, saw an opening to offer what the WNBA couldn't: an all-women professional dunking contest. Sylvia Crawley, who happens to be Wells' cousin, won the contest with a blindfolded dunk. "I showed women can dunk," the 6'5" forward told the Sun Sentinel. "A lot of slam-dunking is about confidence and mentality, whether you are a man or a woman." (The article studiously notes "there were no special handicaps in the slam dunk contest." The basketballs and rims met NBA regulations.) The 1998 event remains the only women's professional dunking contest to ever take place in the U.S.

Michelle Snow thought she might have a shot at driving home the first WNBA dunk, especially after she'd completed three during her college years. Snow initially learned how to dunk from Charlotte Smith at a basketball camp, and she brought her above-the-rim chops to Tennessee under legendary coach Pat Summitt. "The way I look at it is our game can stay the way it is forever or our game can get better,'" Summitt said in 2000, after Snow became the third woman ever to dunk in a college game. "What the dunk does, in my opinion, is bring something new to the game. You wouldn't believe the level of excitement that has filtered our way."

The flip side of that excitement, though, was more difficult for Snow to deal with. Letters to the editor, critical essays and more overwhelmed the hooper, especially given that the 6'5" forward was just 20 years old at the time. "I had a lot of people saying a lot of unnecessary things about women dunking," she says. She remembers going to Summit crying when people called her unladylike and says her coach told her to buck up: "You do realize you've just sealed your fate as far as going pro, right?"

"Some people don't think women should lift weights, they don't think they should dunk—they think they should be at home cooking and laying on their backs," Snow says today. "It's difficult. Sometimes people will make you cry. After you finish crying, go prove them wrong."

After her opening night miss, it was Leslie who, in 2002, would go on to prove everyone wrong by sinking the first dunk in WNBA history, dropping the ball in the hoop so smoothly you'd swear it was the easiest thing she'd done that day. The crowd exploded, and just like that—five years after it began—there was dunking in women's professional basketball. "In boys, it's ingrained in their heads that to dunk is just the highlight of basketball," Leslie, 6'5", told the AP afterward. "... Men aren't encouraging their little girls to try to work on their hops. It's such a sexist approach to the sport sometimes."

Brittney Griner dunks with two hands.
Brittney Griner dunks with two hands.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

It would be another six years before the WNBA would see another in-game dunk. Candace Parker, who's currently leading the reigning champion Los Angeles Sparks in their second consecutive Finals appearance, doesn't dunk much anymore ("I wish I wouldn't have gotten injured; my legs would still be a little bouncier"), but dunks in back-to-back games in 2008 made critics wonder if she would be the one to make women dunking finally stop being newsworthy. Four years earlier, her win over JR Smith and Rudy Gay at the McDonald's All-American Dunk Contest had prompted the same questions. "That would be my dream," Parker said then. "For 10 years from now for three or four girls entering the dunk contest and it's not a big deal."

"I like to think of myself as the first in this generation of dunking," the 6'4" center says now, alluding to the now-dominant—but sole active—WNBA dunker, Brittney Griner, 6'8", who's jammed the ball a completely unprecedented 11 times in games (Jonquel Jones, just 23, may be next up: She dunked during the 2017 All-Star Game). "More women are dunking than ever before, that's the evolution of basketball. Now, for example, it's more athletic than it was early on."

Candace Parker shows off her hops.
Candace Parker shows off her hops.David Sherman/Getty Images

There are plenty of current WNBA players who can dunk and just haven't in a regular or postseason game—they save their slams for warm-ups or practice. One of the primary reasons for that is injury prevention. Then there's job security: "The older you get, the more miles you have on your legs—those days are over for me," says the New York Liberty's Tina Charles, who dunked in high school and college.

"A lot of women, like myself, are more concerned with getting into the league and keeping a job," adds Snow, who played in the WNBA for 13 years without ever manifesting her dream of throwing down the ball in a regular-season or playoff game (she's currently playing with Turkey's Mersin Buyuksehir Belediyesi). Given the relatively modest salaries of professional women's basketball players (and smaller set of options for those who can't hang in the WNBA), it's pragmatic to avoid, say, breaking your arm in three places during practice. "That's far more important than the beauty of showboating with the dunk," she concludes.

Women dunking is no longer revolutionary, but it's still far from ubiquitous—and the recent spate of viral dunks, including Amihere's, could expedite what all signs point to being just another phase in the evolution of the women's game. "It's so inspirational," Parker says. "In order for more things to be done, you have to first realize that they can be done. Whether they're entering dunk contests or just posting videos on Instagram, I think it's huge."

"More and more I've seen female players able to dunk all over my social media," Amihere says. "Even two years ago you didn't really see that. I've gotten a lot of people messaging me to ask about how I do it because I think that for a lot of female players, it's never a thing you really get taught."

Take, for example, South Carolina's Ashlyn Watkins, who first made the internet rounds for dunking at 11—this summer, at 13 years old and 6'2", she's been dunking on regulation rims. Watkins is part of an all-girls AAU club, the South Carolina 76ers, that has dunking contests at the beginning of each year. It was her coaches who saw her height and pushed her to reach for the rim; now as a rising eighth-grader, she already has offers from the University of South Carolina and Kentucky, among others. "If you watch video of her first dunk, in the gym it was like when Wilt [Chamberlain] scored 100 points," says 76ers co-director Roshan Myers, laughing. "Were you there?! I was there."

Watkins' dunk began, as most do, with a lot of training. "I just started doing calf raises and stuff like that to make me jump higher," she says. Fittingly, given her skill set, she mostly consumes basketball in the form of YouTube highlight reels. About finally nailing it, she adds, "I was happy and proud of myself—as I kept practicing it and doing it, I kept getting more and more proud of myself."

Whenever these sorts of young players hit the mainstream, as 15-year-old Francesca Belibi did when she became the first girl to dunk in a Colorado high school basketball game earlier this year, they're typically met with a mix of awe and skepticism. "Why is this a big deal?" "She's just tall." "That's a man." "Barely skimmed the rim." Certainly overwhelming criticism to read as a middle or high schooler, but also just wrong.

"I've seen 6'3" guys who are juniors in high school and they can't dunk—which tells you how phenomenal this thing is," Myers says. "For people to make comments about someone just being tall...you still have to get off the floor, put the ball over the rim with control, land. I don't know what an average person's vertical leap is, but Ashlyn probably clears over two feet, which is hard for anyone."

Somehow, the implications of this move have barely changed in the last 20 years. "A double standard exists for dunking women," Nicole Lavoi, now co-director of the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, wrote of Parker in 2006. "On one hand, if a woman dunks, her dunk is dismissed and compared to men's dunks as 'not a real dunk' or lacking proper elevation above the rim. On the other hand, the lack of female dunking is often used as evidence that the women's game is a 'lesser' version of basketball."

Encouraging girls and women to feel free to work toward dunking, with all the strength training and practice that requires, is a task for both coaches and the media. "When you see LeBron James dunking on a highlight reel, they don't say, 'It's a man dunking!'" says USC's Messner. "As long as we're gender-marking every time a woman dunks a ball, essentially we're diminishing the accomplishment and marking it as abnormal."

"It would be really cool to see people drawing up plays for the dunk like Pat Summitt did at Tennessee," Snow says. Both Snow and Parker dunked in games on Summitt's team. "It would also establish the dunk as part of the women's game, not just something that you do on a fast break. It can be done within a half-court set." The WNBA has hosted an informal "pregame dunkfest" before its last few All-Star Games, but Snow believes it should start an official dunking contest. "You know how much fun that would be?" she says. "I might come back just to be in the contest!"

Every player B/R spoke to emphasized the importance of continuing to push forward the evolution of the women's game—of seeing themselves as part of an ever-growing lineage of women who dared seek the rarified air above the rim. "Being able to dunk inspires more girls and women to want to try the same thing, and who knows what they're capable of?" Parker says. "All those players going viral right now are passing the torch to that next generation," Snow adds.

For Ashlyn, the process is much more straightforward. "It's not impossible; you can do it," she says, almost as though explaining this writer's self-evident potential for hang time. "Everyone can do it as long as they put their mind to it."

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