Only 9 Humans Know the Glory of Blocking a LeBron James Dunk

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IOctober 2, 2020

Miami Heat's LeBron James (6) has his shot blocked by Charlotte Bobcats' Gerald Henderson (15) during the second half of the Heat's 96-95 win in an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

There is LeBron James, all 6'9" and 250 pounds of him, rocketing toward the basket, soaring through the air. You have two choices. You can rise and meet his brute force, with the likelihood James will drop a ferocious hammer atop your head. Or, you can back away graciously, opening his runway for another highlight—and saving yourself the embarrassment.  

If you challenge him, the odds are, strikingly, not in your favor. James has reached the NBA Finals more times (10) during his career than there are opposing players (9) who have ever blocked one of his 1,982 dunk attempts, according to tracking data provided to Bleacher Report. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo has already been swatted 29 times on dunk attempts since he entered the NBA in 2013. Even 7'3" pick-and-roll finisher Rudy Gobert has seen his jams rejected on 48 occasions, and Clint Capela 30. Karl-Anthony Towns has been blocked on 19 dunk efforts since he entered the league in 2015.  

James made it through his entire rookie season without being denied for a jam. But Amar'e Stoudemire got him twice in 2004, first on Nov. 10 and then again on Dec. 1. On both occasions, James drove right, lifted off his left foot and cocked the ball back with his strong hand. In each sequence, he nearly bumped his head on the rubber padding underneath the backboard. 

"We both were two of the top young phenoms in the NBA," recalls Stoudemire, who earned his first career All-Star nod that season. "Any time you're playing against top players in the league, you want to prove yourself."

In November, Stoudemire wiped the shot helping over from the weak side. According to the former Suns forward, denying James requires perfect precision, especially as a secondary defender. "You have to time it. It's all about the timing," Stoudemire tells Bleacher Report. "You want to meet him at his peak. If he's 38 inches off the ground, you want to be 38, 39, maybe 40 inches off the ground, too." 

And while James climbs the ladder, nostrils flaring, opponents must, well, "stand tall and talented." "You have to try and block that with no fear," Stoudemire says.  

A few weeks later, Stoudemire trailed James' drive, once again in the half-court, and pinned it against the glass with both hands. The highlight came with 1:09 remaining in the third quarter, helping Phoenix maintain a 13-point edge entering the fourth quarter. "When the game's on the line," Stoudemire says, "you want to make sure you make the play to help change the momentum of the game." 

James went another full calendar year before a dunk attempt was denied. On the opening play against the visiting Indiana Pacers on Dec. 23, 2005, James burst past Stephen Jackson. But when he launched toward the rim, Jermaine O'Neal met him in the air and sent the ball backward.

And then, James seemed to learn when to unleash his thundering hammers. He entered his prime. He won four MVP awards. He dunked and dunked, undeterred, for the next seven years.  

"It's how often he gets to the rim unscathed, running the floor for pitch aheads and lobs," says David Fizdale, a former Miami Heat assistant. Fizdale also notes how later in James' career, the superstar began joining forces with "some of history's best shooters." Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Chris Bosh kept defenses honest in Miami, before Ray Allen added even more space. "His explosive first bounce past defenders, without resistance, the help is often late." 

That is until Dec. 26, 2012, when Gerald Henderson chased James down from behind, blowing up a Miami Heat fast break, becoming just the third NBA player to ever swat a James attempt at a flush. "It's a pretty crazy stat if you think about it," Henderson says, "because you see that dude dunk all the time."

A wing shooter, Henderson only tallied 183 blocks during his eight-year NBA career. Many foes in that predicament would let James skate free for an unbridled breakaway. Challenging those attempts can often lead to scary fouls, crashing both bodies onto the hardwood. And when you foul LeBron, Henderson says, your teammates will often give you flak for unnecessarily waking the beast. 

Alas, Henderson's lack of rim-protecting prowess never entered his mind as he rose to combat James. "Look, I love LeBron, but showing your respect towards him is playing aggressively, playing him straight up," Henderson says.

James went on to win his second championship in South Beach that June and withstood another year-and-a-half before his dunk efforts were thwarted again, this time on April 8, 2014, just before the Heat reached their fourth straight NBA Finals. 

That's when then-rookie Mason Plumlee met James above the iron. His hand sliced between The King's two paws, with under five seconds remaining, punching the ball free and saving Brooklyn's 88-87 victory. 

For Plumlee, the rejection didn't taste any sweeter because it came against one of the game's greatest of all time. "It meant more just because it was to seal the game," he says.  

Another two years passed before LeBon was denied at the rim. 

***

It seems rookie bigs might have some beginner's luck when it comes to contesting James at the basket. 

As his own first NBA season was winding down—Feb. 1, 2016—Myles Turner joined the club. 

James split two defenders, with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, his Cavaliers nursing a two-point edge, and rumbled into the paint. Turner started backpedaling—and then sent the ball into the backboard. 

That November, at the start of the next season, James danced in front of Andre Drummond on the left wing. 

He crossed left to right at the elbow, gathered, galloped and rose into the air. Then the big left arm of the Pistons center, cloaked in a red sleeve, barricaded the basket. 

"I've blocked a lot of shots in my time. It's against LeBron James? I don't really put that in the trophy case," Drummond says. "He's a great player, don't get it twisted. He's got his accolades, but it's nothing that I pride myself on."

To Drummond, any true rim protector knows how narrow the margin between victory and defeat stands in those situations. 

"He's gotten me plenty of times, too." 

A shot-blocker has to accept those odds and risk ending up on a poster. "I'm going for everything," Drummond says. "If I get dunked on, I get dunked on. If I don't, I'm blocking the shot. That's just part of the game." 

James went another two years before it happened once more. He skied toward the iron on April 5, 2018, seemingly flying unencumbered toward another athletic putback jam. That's when Kelly Oubre Jr., then a Wizards forward, swooped in from out of nowhere to swat James' attempt from behind, becoming just the seventh professional to do so. 

"I plan to block him again," Oubre says, his voice trailing off. "Or try to." 

Eight months later, James met his match once more. 

Then in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers, a third title and four additional years in Cleveland in the rearview, James entered Barclays Center ready to put on a show. 

After James beat Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jarrett Allen left his assignment, Tyson Chandler, to protect the cup instead. It marked the Brooklyn center's 102nd career game, at just 20 years old.

"You have to go up with the mentality that you are going to block it," Allen says, "or else you're going to get dunked on."

Allen's right hand stood between the ball and the basket, and sent James' attempt ricocheting back down the hardwood. 

Allen finds contesting dunks a simpler task than challenging an opposing layup, where rivals often twist around the hoop, sometimes following a change-of-pace Eurostep. "A lot of dunkers go 100 percent, so it's easier to see when they're loading up," Allen says. "It's easier to time their apex." 

***

Another year later, just a few months before the NBA shutdown in March, James was denied a dunk by the ninth and final individual. 

On Dec. 11, 2019, inside the Amway Center, he spun off the left block and bounded baseline toward the hoop. James rose, palming the rock per usual in his right hand. Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba flashed over from the right side of the lane, and the string-bean rim protector lived up to his billing. 

B/R

Time will tell when the next challenger finds success against James at the rim. He doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Any foe will need to launch at him with all their might. "It's like mano y mano," Stoudemire says. "It's a battle of two forces meeting in the air. It's just a beautiful situation to be up that high."