The history of the slam dunk: from illegal move to beloved highlight | Basketball

IIt seems impossible to believe, but there was a time when basketball largely banned the dunk. From 1967 to 1976, high school and college players were outlawed from hitting the ball through the rim. Instead, they would have to pick up the ball or simply throw it through the hoop as they went up in the air. Now, as we look forward to this weekend’s NBA Slam Dunk Contest, the ban seems silly, especially considering the impressive shots produced by Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Shawn Kemp and Vince Carter.

But such was the situation half a century ago. At a time when the game was changing rapidly, when players like the 7ft 2in Kareem-Abdul Jabbar dominated instead of the shorter, stockier links like Bob Cousy, the dunk was considered taboo among the “purists”, against the very nature of the same of basketball. Although this perspective was not shared by many of the players.

“It didn’t make sense,” says Terry Tyler, a former double-digit scorer for the Pistons who played for the University of Detroit under coach Dick Vitale when the dunk was banned by the NCAA. Tyler later participated in one of the NBA’s first dunk contests in 1986 (won by diminutive 5-foot-7 guard Spud Webb over teammate Wilkins).

“The people who made that decision probably never played basketball before,” he says. “In their minds, it wasn’t fair. But that’s what happens to this day in sport – people make the wrong decisions.”

Tyler says he first shot a basketball when he was 13 years old. He hadn’t started playing organized high school hoops yet, but when he put the ball through the basket, he almost couldn’t believe what he’d done. “It was a exceptional feeling,” he says.

It is believed that the first dunk in organized basketball occurred in 1936 (before that it was all one-foot shots and layups). Joe Fortenberry, a 6-foot-8 Texan, made one at the Berlin Olympics for the USA basketball team en route to winning the sport’s first gold medal. At the time, the shot was likened to a roll dipped in coffee by New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Arthur Daly. Less than a decade later, in 1944, the first dunk was recorded in college basketball, when Oklahoma A&M’s 7ft center Bob Kurland knocked one down. “It wasn’t planned,” Kurland told the Orlando Sentinel in 2012. “Just a spontaneous play.”

At the time, the dunk was not considered a highlight. Instead, it was often seen as a sign of disrespect towards your opponents. Celtics Hall of Famer Satch Sanders played for Boston from 1960 to 1973. According to Sanders, if a player went for a dunk, defenders would try to hurt him by running under his feet as soon as he left his feet. “It was an unwritten rule,” Sanders once said.

Still, some of the league’s best would use the dunk as part of their repertoire, including Sanders’ teammate Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, who reportedly could dunk from the free throw line without much of a start. The tallest and most athletic players in the NBA only increased their dominance by taking advantage of the dunk. Dunks were worth the same number of points as any other field goal – three-pointers hadn’t made it to the league yet (1979 in the NBA, 1986 in college) – but they were very different from other shots. Their value was – and is – both psychological and mathematical. A sign of superiority over opponents a player soars.

Michael Jordan's dunks became part of his legend
Michael Jordan’s dunks became part of his legend. Photo: Nathaniel S Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

But when Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) started making headlines in high school and college in the 60s, basketball officials began to worry. Thus, the ban began. In fact, the long-standing “no dunk rule” is often referred to as the “Lew Alcindor Rule.” Some, including his namesake, felt the ban—which never made it to the NBA—was racially motivated. While the rule makers who banned the shot said they did so because it caused injuries and didn’t “show basketball skills — just a height advantage,” Alcindor thought otherwise. At the time, he told the Chicago Defender, “To me the new ‘no dive’ rule smacks of discrimination. When you look at it … most of the people who dang are black athletes.”

Further adding fuel to that fire, about a year before the dunk was banned, Texas Western’s men’s team, which included an all-black starting lineup, beat an all-white University of Kentucky team for the collegiate national championship. This fueled the belief that the ban was racially motivated.

Tyler doesn’t think race was a factor. Instead, he saw the ban as simply taking away the advantages of some players, particularly Abdul-Jabbar. “Black people weren’t the only ones who could dive,” says Tyler. “White guys could sink too. Bobby Jones, Tom Chambers – these were guys who came into the league and could sink. Period. Even Larry Bird could sink!”

However, one thing was certain: college and high school players had to develop different skills around the basket when the dunk was removed from the game. “It made me focus more on the fundamentals of creating what we called ‘power arrangements,'” says Tyler. We had to focus on getting the ball in the hole and getting through the defense, getting used to the contact and putting the ball in.”

Abdul-Jabbar, on the other hand, relied on finesse more than power. Although tall, his frame was lighter than, say, Chamberlain’s. So he developed his infamous “skyhook” in college. The shot was almost unguardable when he took it to the NBA and used it to become the league’s all-time leading scorer, a record he held until LeBron James broke it this month.

In 1976, the dunk returned to the high school and college game. Perhaps not coincidentally, the basketball pro soon held his first dunk contest. The ABA put on a dunk showcase during the All-Star Game in Denver that year. Julius Erving won, jumped from the free throw line, flew 15 feet in the air and hit the ball with power. The following season after the ABA and NBA merged, the NBA held its own dunk contest, which was won by former ABA player Darnell “Dr Dunk” Hillman. The NBA brought it back in 1984 (again in Denver, won by Larry Nance). It has continued ever since, with winners including Jordan, Wilkins, Kobe Bryant, Carter and Webb.

“The more creative the dunk, the more people paid attention to you,” says Tyler. “And these young men today make it so much more exciting. It’s like going to Yankee Stadium and seeing Aaron Judge hit a home run.”

Over the decades, the dunk remains an epic, beloved. A moment of TNT explosiveness. Other legendary dunkers include Darryl Dawkins, the player who said he was from Planet Lovetron, named his dunks and busted backboards (leading the NBA to develop the separating rim). “The Great Aristotle”, Shaquille O’Neal, also broke his share of boards when dunking. Jordan earned the nickname “Air” because he could jump and dunk like no one else. Wilkins was the “Human Highlight Film” and Carter was “Half-Man Half-Amazing” for his aerial antics.

But as for his own career, Tyler says he enjoyed both watching and finishing ally-oop dunks—a feat later made famous by Kemp and Gary Payton. “One of my favorite dunks of all time would always be the lob,” says Tyler. “And sinking it backwards.”

While the men get most of the shine for diving, women players have also been taking down slams with authority. Lisa Leslie of the LA Sparks first did it in the WNBA in 2002. Since then, players such as Michelle Snow, Candace Parker, Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner have demonstrated the skill. As a high school senior, Griner, the most prolific female dunker, made it 52 times in her senior season.

Basketball is constantly evolving. From its beginnings through the creator of the game Dr James Naismith, to innovations such as the slam dunk, the Eurostep, the killer crossover and now the back three, creativity has always been part of the equation. With the dunk – from the windmill to the tomahawk to the jam 360 – this was especially the case.

“It’s exciting to watch,” says Tyler. “Basketball fans from high school to college to the pros come to see it. I hope they never do something like this again and outlaw it. The dunk will always be a part of basketball – it should always be a part of basketball. So go on!”

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