Authors: Asher Price
Copyright Â© 2015 by Asher Price
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
CROWN is a registered trademark and the Crown colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Â Â Â Year of the dunk : a modest defiance of gravity / by Asher Price.âFirst Edition.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â pages cm
Â Â Â Includes bibliographical references and index.
Â Â Â 1. Dunking (Basketball) 2. BasketballâOffense. I. Title.
Â Â Â GV888.15.P74 2015
Â Â Â 796.323â²2âdc23Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2014041716
Cover design: Rodrigo Corral
Cover photographs: Susanna Price / Getty Images (basketball hoop);
Jaroslaw Wojcik / Getty Images (player)
“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to âjump at de sun.' We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
ZORA NEALE HURSTON
Dust Tracks on a Road
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.
Jack jump over the candlestick.
Girl on Fire
ineteen eighty-six: a fun-sized Superman with closes-haven hair, dimples, and an adorable potato-chip of a name floats in his short shorts toward a basket.
It is the finals of the National Basketball Association slam-dunk contest at Reunion Arena in Dallas. Before a crackling Saturday night
sellout crowd of 16,573, in midair, is Spud, the unlikely corruption of the nickname Sputnik, earned by Anthony Webb as an infant, not for some obvious early ability to launch himself skyward but for his
unusually large head. A native sonâ
his parents own a convenience store in black South Dallasâhe knows the scalpers who sold him the tickets he needed tonight to pack in his
three sisters, two brothers, and mother and father. A good thing, tooâhe got a hometown discount.
The yolk-orange rim, like those on all official baskets, is 10 feet off the ground. Webb, at his perkiest, stands five feet seven inches tall: no taller than a
parking meter, as one newspaper commentator has described him. In fact, arena security has turned him away more than once when he's reported to road-game locker rooms. He weighs 133 pounds and
can't even palm a basketball. But his legsâthey are the thickness of bowling balls.
A 22-year-old rookie, Webb finds himself squaring off against his far more famous Atlanta Hawks teammate Dominique Wilkins. Also known as the Human Highlight Film, he is, at 6â²8â³ and 224 pounds, the defending slam-dunk champion.
Webb makes the league minimum, $70,000; Wilkins, $585,000. In regulation play, Webb normally feeds Wilkins the ball, yet on this early February night in Dallas the pair is trading acrobatics around the hoop, throwing down one jam after the other in a show of skywalking one-upmanship.
The winner gets nearly a fifth of Webb's annual salary: $12,500.
The judging panel is made up of several retired NBA players, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, and, curiously, Martina Navratilova. Webb has dunked many times beforeâ
as far back as high school, at a height of only 5â²3â³. In a sense, Webb's lightness works in his favor: Putting aside paper planes and Wiffle balls (disqualified for their aerodynamic flaws), you can throw a lighter object farther than a heavier one. Force equals mass times acceleration, and Webb has less mass to carry skyward. But to lift his 5â²7â³ frame to the rim, he must jump an extraordinary 42 inches off the ground, higher than your kitchen sink. And he faces the obvious physics problem encountered by any jumper: The moment your feet lose contact with the ground, you have no additional force to exertâeven as the force of gravity is pulling you back to earth. His solution to all these problems is elegant in its ferocity: He gathers and applies all his muscle strength in the shortest time possible, about a tenth of a secondâthe time his foot plants before he shoves off toward the rim. In essence, little Spud Webb is exerting nearly four Gs to push off the ground,
about the same acceleration a fighter jet creates as it blasts off an aircraft carrier.
An avalanche of dunks. Spud, small, self-contained, starts loud, with a reverse slam he throws down so hard that the ball ricochets off his still-airborne head and flies back up through the basket, as if to announce that, yes, indeed, I can put it down. From there, it gets
increasingly fancy: a short run-up to a two-handed double-pump dunk; a 360-degree helicopter one-handed dunk (a.k.a. “the Statue of Liberty”); a lob pass to no one that bounces high off the hardwood before Spud, in one fell swoop, catches it, spins 180 degrees, and jamsâa nasty bit of self-dealing. Each dunk begins with the run-up, then a super-brief foot-plant in which the legs coil and the Achilles tendons stretch to store up accumulated potential energyâand then,
Unleashed, upward kinetic force. To launch himself into orbit, Webb spends that coiled-up phase pushing against the hardwood floor with all those Gs, moving from zero miles per hour at the plant of a two-footed dunk to roughly 10 miles per hour through the air in less than a quarter second.
Countering, Wilkins executes some of the same muscular dunks that won him the contest the previous year: First a two-handed windmill dunk, in which the ball is spun around as if it's in a washing machine before being thrown through the hoop; he manages, next, a dunk that starts as a windmill and ends as a one-handed tomahawk, the fierce piercing of the basket that not even vaguely recalls the American Indians; and then, beautifully, he performs a reverse dunk in which he reaches the ball down toward his ankles even as he is ascending through the Reunion Arena ether and then, swiftly, pulls it back and slams it behind his head just before making his way back to planet Earth.
A TV man asks Martina what she makes of the contest thus far. “
In my next life,” she says, “I'd like to come back as a black basketball player.”
Webb has one final opportunity to best Wilkins. The crowd, now clearly in the corner of the little guy even as it respects the Highlight Film, starts chanting “Spud.” He moves to half-court, his lightly upraised fist moving in small circles, Arsenio Hallâstyle, as he prepares for the coup de grÃ¢ce: a one-handed overhand bounce pass that leaps from the ground, bounces off the backboard, and goes
back into his outstretched, soaring hand. He snatches the rock as a quick, collective inhale whooshes through the arena, and slingshots it home.
Martina goes nuts. Staubach goes nuts. America goes bananas.
And, as a six-year-old in New York City, I looked up from my GI Joes toward our bulky Sony television to witness the mini miracle. “Let's go to the videotape!” shouted Warner Wolf, the WCBS sportscaster, and suddenly seeing the small, boyish manâonly a few inches taller than I was!âdunk, I was captivated. In the odd pick-and-choose cultural moments imprinted upon a kid's brain, Spud Webb joined a constellation that burned with the faces of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher chosen to board the
space shuttle, which less than a month earlier had disintegrated on its way toward outer space; Ronald Reagan; the entire roster of the New York Mets, who would go on to win the World Series in October; and Billy Idol, whose “White Wedding” music video my two older brothers obsessively watched on MTV. That, for me, was the sum of 1986.
Webb himself didn't know how to describe his unlikely ability.
“I haven't the slightest idea,” he said when asked about how he jumped so high. “When I find out I'm going to write a book about it. I guess it's just
This is the book that Webb never wrote. Maybe Spud Webb's gifts were God-given; on the other hand, maybe he somehow bested the destiny appointed to his five feet, seven inches. I'm interested in the limits of human talentâwhy some people have the mojo and others don't, and how far, as individuals and as a species, we can push what talent we possess.
Everybody wants to dunk, at least metaphorically. We think that if we spent just a year away from our everyday distractions, we could rise above our terrestrial lot: learn Spanish, pick up the piano, re-master calculus, paint. In our fantasies, we think we might all be naturalsâthe capability of mastering some talent hidden inside us. A few years ago,
cheekily mocked our unspent dreams in an obituary with the headline “97-Year-Old Dies Unaware of Being Violin Prodigy.”
The notion of a “hidden talent” can haunt, too. My mother stopped making art after a junior high school teacher told her she had little talent; she became an art historian instead, her days spent tromping through museums to examine other people's work. It's a familiar story: We leave our singing in the shower. Most adults never bother to pick up a violin, write fiction, or learn other languages. Why acquire a talent just to explore its limits?
I meant to take this dunking metaphor literally: I wanted to slam a basketball through an orange rim. My quest was to make the most of the piece of flesh I'd been given. At the extreme margin of human talent and effort, elite athletes stretch the boundaries that define our capabilities as a species. Will there come a day, the former Trinidadian sprinter Ato Boldon was once asked, when someone runs the 100-meter dash in less than nine seconds? (The record is now 9.58 seconds, set by Usain Bolt.) “Sprinters believe thatâsomedayâsomebody will run the 100 meters and
the clock will read 0.00,” Boldon said. “And when a sprinter thinks like that, he's not trying to trick himself. It's how you have to think. This idea of human limitation is exactly what we're competing against.” I would never run as fast as Bolt or Boldon. It's just not in my DNA. But the test I had set myself was just possibly manageable: Given my height and vague athleticism, I felt that with a lot of effort I should be able to push a nine-and-a-half-inch ball through a 10-foot-high hoop.
I faced some challenges. I'm of Austro-Hungarian stock, more
closely associated with making good pastries than with jumping ability: At the start of this project I could only swipe the rim with the tips of my middle and index fingers. As Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) famously tells Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson): “Billy, listen to me:
White men can't jump.” I owned healthy love-handlesâI weighed 203 poundsâso I was going to have to lose weight and put on muscle. But I had some things going for me: heightâI'm 6â²2Â½” with orangutan arms; what a former coworker once called a “big ol' sprinter's butt,” just the kind of powerful posterior I'd need to propel myself hoopward; and, as I neared my 34th birthday, some leftover sportiness (I had never played a varsity sport, but once upon a time I had captained my college Frisbee team). I had never weight-lifted, eitherâI despise weightliftingâand so, to my mind, at least, I remained a tabula rasa. “Pure potential,” my wife, Rebecca, said, with a not-so-small degree of skepticism.
Naturally this would be a navel-gazing exercise: “
I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well,” Thoreau wrote, by way of apology, at the outset of
. Because in its bones this is a peculiarly American story, a story about optimism, about self-reliance, about the ability to remake oneself, Thoreau, who counted on the labor of his two hands just as I was to count on the labor of my feet, was a lodestar. The dunk is, yes, as American as jazz or apple pie. But it stretches beyond thatâit is literally about upward mobility, about the very American idea, evoked so often in
and by Thoreau's contemporaries, that everyone is capable of self-improvement, of rising above her lot. For me, the test was physical; for others, the barriers, involving everything from class to gender, are obviously harder to overcome. Americans have long thought that they could move on up, as they say in
. They believe in self-made men, and, I suppose, that's what I was trying to do: remake myself.
On some level, then, this mission is also about wish-fulfillment.
In 2008, candidate Barack Obama was asked whether he'd rather be the president or Julius Erving, the great dunker of the 1970s and early 1980s, in his prime. “The Doctor,” he said like a shot. “I think any kid growing up, if you got a chance to throw down the ball from the free-throw line, that's better than just about anything.” (
Obama first dunked when he was 16: “I still remember the day that it first happened,” he told
. “One of those magical days when you're just in a zone.”)
Yet there is an unfairness to our birthright: You grow up and the fantasy fades. Every kid wants to be an astronaut or an NBA star, but pretty quickly as we grow older we're narrowed down into doing something more realistic. Some people simply aren't as good, can't be as good, as others. Basketball, like other sports, illuminates how far effort will take you. LeBron James surely works his butt off, but he was also just born with more capital. And the dunk, shorn of the thousand techniques and instincts that take years to develop on a court or a field, further crystallizes that difference: It is a simple, extremely basic maneuver; for my purposes, the beauty of the dunk (as a goal) is that either you can do it or you can't. It has empirical finality.
Hovering over my story is the psychological question of how we disappoint ourselves when we grow up and how we try to overcome that disappointment. A “slam-dunk,” of course, means a “sure thing,” and in this sense the dunk stands counter to the adult challenges that we face, finding certainty in our lives amid the shifting questions of career, of marriage, and of children. Trying to dunk appeals because there is something childlike and uncomplicated about it. And going after it was a way, in a modestly rebellious act, of not acting my age. The idea of an adult trying to learn to dunk seemed half-ridiculous, as if trying to re-create the kind of footloose physical freedom of childhood. Yet that's part of the joy of sports: Someone once asked Michael Johnson, the great sprinter, what it was like to
run as fast as he did. He said the only thing that compared was, as a kid, going downhill go-karting on his birthday. “So you go get yourself a go-kart and find yourself a hill, and you'll know how it feels.”
I was no kid, making this my last chance to dunk. I gave myself from the end of one August to the end of the next to improve. It was a year to discover whether, embedded in my bones, muscles, and DNA, was some grand jumping potential. A year was long enough to train my feet, hips, legs, and butt in the strange arts of explosive movement. Any longer and I figured I'd see diminishing returns; competing against my efforts were the natural force of aging and the reality of having to return to my daily work. Besides, working out the way I did was a wretched business, and I'm not one to engage in too much voluntary misery. The only rule I set myself was what I'll call the no-needle pledgeâI wouldn't ingest or inject any medical-grade material to make myself jump higher. Lord knows I'd absorbed enough of that stuff in my time.