Fridays With Fenrich is a weekly feature here at Hickory-High, the aggregation of an extended, week-long email conversation on a single basketball theme, between myself and Kris Fenrich of Dancing With Noah.
Ian: In honor of All-Star weekend and the impending slam dunk contest, I thought we could talk dunks. Does the dunk contest hold any interest for you? What are few of your favorite slam dunk memories?
Kris: In short, no: the dunk contest doesn’t hold any interest for me anymore. The lack of big name talent, the incongruence between the best players in the game and the best dunkers in the game, the constant iterations of the contest and the painful embarrassment of Nate Robinson’s 17-plus dunk attempt victory in 2006 have helped water it down to a confusing sideshow that I don’t mind missing.
As for memories, well, ah, um, ahem, yes, yes. Back in the late 80s I remember tuning into All-Star Saturday night and seeing this light-skinned dude with a high high-top, a little goatee, a gold chain, New York Knicks jersey and extra-long compression shorts that stuck out beneath what I now realize were extra-short shorts. The man was the 1989 dunk contest winner Kenny “Sky” Walker. That was my earliest personal dunk contest experience and I was just eight years-old at the time.
There are more fond memories though … Dee Brown’s Pumps and covered eyes, Rex Chapman teaching me that white people could dunk too, Harold Miner, aka “Baby Jordan” with what seemed like a non-stop assault of variations of reverse dunks and Isaiah Rider’s through-the-legs dunk which was more radical and incomprehensible than anything I’d witnessed up to that point of my short life … oh, and any bounce-the-ball dunk was always cool to me. I thought Kenny Smith’s bounce-the-ball-through-the-legs with his back facing the hoop was a lot more creative than it actually was, but that’s childhood for you. But the crème de la crème for me was Vince Carter’s legendary 2000 when dunk after dunk after dunk pushed the envelope further and further into creative and competitive genius. When Vince said “It’s over” after his last dunk, we should’ve understood he was talking about the dunk contest for all time, not just that night.
Ian: As I’ve crawled further and further down the hole of basketball analytics, the luster has been rubbed off of many aesthetics aspects of the game. The dunk is not one of them. Nothing pulls down the curtain and rips you back to a wide-eyed childlike appreciation of basketball quite like an unexpected and thoroughly vicious assault of the rim. I’m with you that the dunk contest no longer holds any appeal. Like the All-Star game itself, the dunk contest feels entirely contrived and artificial, only tangentially related to actual NBA basketball.
For me the dunk is most powerful when it occurs in context, in the flow of a game. I like a degree of difficulty that comes from active defense, not blindfolds, cupcakes and capes. I’m also not one for artful grace. I like power and fury to be the defining components of a dunk. You can have LeBron, Kobe and McGrady. I’ll take Shawn Kemp, Dominique Wilkins, a young and unencumbered Vince Carter, and, in my mind, the best dunker of all time, Kenyon Martin. I realize that may be sacrilege, and that his career, dunking and otherwise, lacks all of the individual success and historical import of Jordan and Dr. J. But I’ve never watched a player so thoroughly determined to cram that ball through the rim with as much force as possible. Watching him snarl and pound his chest after a monstrous dunk always sent me running to the Nerf hoop hanging on the back of my closet door. There is one dunk of his that stands out in my mind above all others. I can’t remember the date or opponent. It’s from his time at the University of Cincinnati. A missed shot ricochets off the backboard and Martin rises up until his shoulders are even with the rim, corrals the ball with his right hand, brings the ball to his left and jackhammers it through the rim with both hands. Oh, and he does it while going over the back of two opposing bigs. I’ve scanned Youtube for hours and can’t seem to find a clip of it. Perhaps it is an imaginary amalgamation of several of his efforts. But that visual is what’s usually playing on the inside of my eyelids when I fade out during a work meeting.
Kris: Ha … that’s a hell of an image to be daydreaming about during work meetings. I’m picturing you suddenly slapping the table authoritatively with two hands and glaring at your colleagues, K-Mart style.
I’m OK with the dunk contest being for the kids. After all, the NBA is family entertainment or something. I just fail to see the draw of a bunch of players who spend the majority of their time on the bench or putting on a show (likely for the kids) during pregame warm-ups. But as you mention, the dunk contest is completely contrived. The league uses its previous highlights to sell a stale event. While I want to tap into my cynicism and take a literary dump all over the league for their shameless money grab, I’m going to hold back and join you on the high road in celebration.
When I was in junior high, there was an AAU Tournament in Des Moines, Iowa. I don’t know if it was 18 and under or what, but there were a few standout players in this tourney: Shawnta Rodgers, a 5’4” PG who played for Mike Jarvis at George Washington, Quincy Lewis who played at Minnesota and for the Jazz, Mike Chappell who played at Duke and Michigan State, Albert White who played at Michigan and Missouri and Terrence Roberson who played at Fresno State and appeared in a total of three games for the Charlotte Hornets. Not exactly an illustrious batch, but these kids were all studs. Roberson, Chappell and White were both on a squad from Michigan that was stacked (my memory fails to recall their other players). I was in the stands, just minding my own teenage business, probably ogling some older girls and daydreaming of playing at the level I was watching when all of a sudden Roberson drives into a crowded lane. There were hands everywhere trying to strip him, but Roberson somehow bounced the ball through that web of outstretched hands and fingers (think Catherine Zeta-Jones slithering through those red lasers in some forgettable movie), elevated right alongside the ball, caught it up near the rim and smashed it home. Now, whether or not he intended to bounce the ball (I’ll always believe it was intentional) or he just lost it and it took a favorable bounce, I’ll never know, but the degree of difficulty was ridiculous and at that moment, I was convinced he’d be a star somewhere someday. Of course I was wrong, but a there’s a reason boys in their early teens aren’t pro scouts.
This isn’t my favorite dunk of all-time, but it captures the magic you articulated above. And there’s something ungraspably beautiful in that you can’t find that K-Mart dunk on Youtube and I’m fairly confident that Roberson dunk has escaped the archives. In a world where every damn thing is captured, catalogued, tagged, uploaded, rated, ranked and deconstructed; memories and stories still hold a Ruthian romance.