Remember when Vince Carter jumped over the seven-foot French guy? Even if you don’t, you’ve heard about it, and probably seen it no fewer than fifty to a hundred times.
Remember when Kirk Snyder jumped over Von Wafer? Unless you’re Kirk Snyder or Von Wafer or someone who happens to be obsessed with the idiosyncrasies of NBA basketball, probably not. Hell, there’s a good chance you’ve never even seen it.
So here it is.
Yesterday, I began to read a book entitled Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Maybe you’ve heard of it. If so, you might already understand where I’m going with this. If not, allow me to explain.
Outliers is basically a collection of stories about people who’ve achieved exceptional success in their field, whatever that field may be. The book tells the stories of Bill Gates, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Joe Flom, and many, many other famous world beaters. First, the book tells the stories in the same manner as you’ve heard them told before — the bright but underprivileged youth, against all odds, scraps and hustles his way to the top, purely on his own merits. It’s exciting, it’s inspiring, but it’s nothing you don’t know already.
Next, though, the book digs deeper into these stories and retells them with an emphasis on external factors such as culture, ethnicity, hometown, family background, and time (generation and birth date, for example). Further, Outliers contrasts these famous world beaters from their intellectual peers — those who, based on quantifiable individual characteristics (IQ, for example), were expected to become world beaters but “failed” (I put “failed” in quotations because not being a world beater obviously does not make one a failure). In doing so, the book demonstrates why external factors such as those I just mentioned are actually better predictors of extraordinary success than an individual’s characteristics. In short, according to the author Gladwell, it’s not that the “failures” weren’t as capable or ambitious as the world beaters; it’s just that they didn’t encounter, entirely coincidentally, all the right places, people, and opportunities at the exact right time.
Vince Carter’s dunk over Frederic Weis is the greatest dunk of all-time. But why? Well, obviously, a big part of it is that he jumped clear over the head of a seven-foot man. But there’s more.
Vince Carter’s dunk over Weis is the greatest dunk of all-time because it happened on a worldwide stage, in Olympic competition. Vince Carter’s dunk over Weis is the greatest dunk of all-time because it left super-freak athlete Kevin Garnett in a state of complete astonishment. Vince Carter’s dunk over Weis is the greatest dunk of all-time because a seasoned basketball fan can’t consider it without also considering Carter’s other aerial exploits, including his epic performance in the 2000 Dunk Contest. Vince Carter’s dunk over Weis is the greatest dunk of all-time because Vince Carter is Vince Carter — a collegiate superstar, NBA legend, and cultural icon. I would even go as far as to argue that Vince Carter’s dunk over Weis is the greatest dunk of all-time because Vince Carter is clean cut and handsome. Beyond the basic dunk, everything about the scenario appeals to some pleasant human sensation.
On its merits as a slam dunk, Kirk Snyder’s jam, to me, is every bit as impressive as Carter’s. Wafer may stand 6’5″ to Weis’s 7’2″, but Wafer put his hands up and jumped, whereas Weis ducked a little. Snyder didn’t push off as flagrantly as Vince did, either. Oh, and the way Desmond Mason reacted to Snyder’s jam is remarkably similar to the way Garnett reacted to Carter’s. And Mason is an even better dunker than Garnett.
Don’t get your drawers in a twist. I would never argue that Kirk Snyder’s dunk is the greatest dunk of all-time. Never. That would be absurd. My point, rather, is that it takes more than the greatest dunk of all-time to make the greatest dunk of all-time, if that makes any sense (it doesn’t, which is why I mentioned Outliers — that it takes more than a dunk to make a dunk is comparable to the premise that it takes more than a world beater to make a world beater).
Kirk Snyder’s dunk can’t be the greatest dunk of all-time because Kirk Snyder’s career scoring average is 6.3 points per game. It can’t be the greatest dunk of all-time because it happened in a February game between two middling teams that no one was watching (I used to watch every Hornets game and even I had changed the channel; the game was a blowout). It can’t be the greatest dunk of all-time because Kirk Snyder is funny looking, has pleaded not guilty to a felony by reason of insanity, and is named “Kirk.” Dunking, aside from scoring two points, is all about style and aesthetics. There’s nothing stylish or aesthetic about a homely felon named Kirk. Too many aspects of this scenario arouse the wrong human sensations; therefore, the dunk itself is seen as a lesser feat.
There are many dunks like Kirk Snyder on Von Wafer; Kirk Snyder on Von Wafer just so happens to be one of the very best, and one of my favorites. These dunks are not the greatest dunks of all-time, because whether it was the stage, the actors, or even the audience. Something just wasn’t quite right. But, for whatever reason, I’ve always been inclined to distill basketball highlights down to their purest form, assessing them based only on their most fundamental characteristics as isolated athletic incidents. Maybe it’s because I’ve often felt I never received the credit I deserved for my own basketball skills. Maybe it’s something else. I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter.
The point is that Kirk Snyder’s posterization of Von Wafer is every bit the slam dunk as any slam dunk you’ll see on a “Fifty Greatest Dunks of All-Time” highlight show. It’s just that you’ll never see it there, because the process we humans use to decide what is and isn’t exceptional is, I believe, such a mystery of the subconscious. This process, this mystery — it causes so many incredible plays to be swept under the rug.
I suppose I simply enjoy beating the rug.