Let the Dunkers Dunk: A Special “Let the People Speak” Diss-Cussion

Editor’s Note: Yesterday, I (over)thought the power and symbolism of the dunk in our imaginations.  Today, I let some folks who can (or could) actually dunk share their thoughts on what the act means to them and basketball fans (and society) at large.  Our dunking Diss-cussants today: Austin Christensen, Jacob Smith, Connor Huchton, Wayne Washington, Seth Johnston and Kris Fenrich.  Wayne, Seth, and Kris have been featured on The Diss before.  These are Austin, Jacob and Connor’s brilliant debuts.  

***

1. Where were you when you completed your first dunk? Set the stage.

Jacob Smith: Fike Athletic Center, right next to Clemson University.  Several people run pick-up games all day there, and since all of my classes were early in the day, it was only natural.

Austin Christensen: Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. I was playing an intramural basketball game. I was able to regularly dunk in warm-ups, so I was just waiting for the right moment, in the game.

Seth Johnston: I was eighteen, too old to be dunking for the first time. Real dunkers figure this out long before they can vote. My excuse is that I didn’t attempt throwing down much before that time. I was kind of fat and not one for working out so was more the type to go up and under rather than over on the basketball court.

When some friends moved away for college I needed a hobby. I lost weight and I started playing more basketball. I was an avid SLAM reader and they ran these advertisements for Air Alert, this mail order learn to dunk program. It was a collection of leg workouts. (It was not the one that came with the Kramer Shoes.) I did the jumping exercises in my parent’s garage and was dunking within a few weeks.

Connor Huchton: The year was 2011. The world was pretty different back then. In 2011 anyone with an average vertical and just enough belief could dunk a basketball into a hoop. A less cynical world existed, and we miss it now.

All I had to do was find a basketball and make the ultimate leap. Fate took care of the rest.

Wayne Washington: My first dunk period was when I was a Junior in high school.  I was actually still recovering from a broken left arm and was messing around before practice.  I still had on my soft cast and just went up off one leg and dunked it with my right hand. My first game dunk the next year in this league I played in.  My friend threw me an oop and I flushed it with 2 hands off 2 feet.

Kris Fenrich: I could put it down around 15-years-old, but just these little soft drop-ins over the rim. The first time I actually dunked in a competitive setting was in a random game of one-on-one against a friend at the Walnut Creek YMCA in Des Moines, Iowa. I was on the left wing and faked hard left, he cut me off and in the process gave me the middle where I happily went and flushed it with the right. Another buddy was watching and the three of us just stood there slack-jawed, not at the magnificence, but at the surprise. Needless to say, I was feeling myself at that point.

2. If you could describe your first thought and/or emotion after dunking the ball for the first time, it would be ____________ .

Jacob Smith: Surprise!  My hands are too small to palm a basketball, but I had gotten one or two while goofing around in high school, off of bounce passes.  I was just chasing an offensive rebound; I noticed my guy had turned his back, I snuck baseline and jumped in perfect stride.  Once I caught it, I realized how high I was and realized how unprepared I was for it.  So I quickly, weakly threw it through with an average “clang” on the rim, and ran back on defense, slightly shellshocked with myself while my teammates gave me a mildly excited pat on the back.

Austin Christensen: I realize it wasn’t a big time game, or anything, but it was one of the best moments of my basketball playing life. Got a one-on-none fastbreak, went up with the right hand and hammered it home. Since there aren’t a lot of dunkers in Utah, it totally swayed the momentum of the game. The opposing team called timeout, I held my emotions in until I got to the bench.

Seth Johnston: It wasn’t a big deal. Maybe I thought, “Cool.” I know this breaks the heart of people who long to fly but listen: Dunking is not a big deal. Too many people can do it. Your dreams are empty.

Dunking matters if:

1. You are as good at it as Wayne Washington

Or at least

2.  You dunk on people in a game

(Note: If you caught me after my morning coffee I’d probably say that dunking improved my confidence and gave me a sense of contentment that I had achieved a basic basketball skill.)

Connor Huchton:  I remember thinking, “Wow. I really am the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Wow.” And I was right.

Wayne Washington: My first dunks weren’t that exciting to me.  Actually my friends were more excited at times.  The reaction was similar to Lebron’s first championship when he said “about damn time”.  I had always wanted to be able to dunk my whole life so I knew it was coming one day.  When I was younger I would win all the neighborhood driveway dunk contest when kids would lower the rim.  Also, the court near my house growing up was like 9’8 instead of a legit 10 feet which was good practice.  So finally dunking on a 10 foot rim was probably similar to how a high jumper might feel about a new PR.

Kris Fenrich: That was sweet! Can’t wait till I can do that in games (which never really manifested).

3. Can you still dunk on a regular basis? Do you?

Jacob Smith: Probably not.  After I moved out on my own, there wasn’t anywhere to play, at least not for free.  I’ve still stayed in decent shape, but I haven’t been able to find good 3-on-3 (or even 1-on-1) competition.  As a skinny guy, enough time without that exercise and conditioning will take it out of you really quickly.  With a few months of working out, maybe. I’m lanky as hell.

Austin Christensen: I can’t anymore, but I’m working on it.

Seth Johnston: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAAHHAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAAHAAHHA

/takes breath/

HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHHHHAAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAAHHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHHAAAHAHA.

No. I am an old and broken office worker. I have returned to my roots as a fat basketball slug.

Connor Huchton: I can touch the rim on a regulation hoop and one of these days it might happen again. But genius doesn’t always last.

Wayne Washington: Yes.  I can dunk.  That’s actually the name of my vertical program e-book I developed.  www.icandunk.com   Come fly with me.

Dunking is one of the best feelings in the world and I’m going to attempt to continue dunking as long as possible.  My worst nightmare is the day I can no longer play above the rim.

Kris Fenrich: No, absolutely not. I’ve been in a few games where the ball’s gotten stuck between the rim and the backboard. A few guys will jump up trying to tip it out. That’s about nine and a half feet. At this point, it hurts my knees and back to put effort into just getting a finger on that ball. In terms of basketball, I’ve become an energy conservationist.

4. When you hear a player type-casted as a “dunker”, do you feel that carries a positive or negative connotation? Why?

Jacob Smith: It depends on what kind of fan you are.  If you’re a basketball junkie, it’s a bad thing.  Jamario Moon, Fred Jones, James White.  If you watch for entertainment and don’t care for the league itself, it’s a good thing.  For many on basketball Twitter who watch baseball or football just for entertainment, they enjoy the “big hitters” and don’t care if he gambles for those hits so much that he hurts the defensive scheme, or they enjoy the home run hitters and don’t care that he’s swinging .184 and can’t cover first base.  This explains why the casual fan is drawn so easily to guards and athletic wing players - the highlights are easier to come by.  They don’t care that he couldn’t guard Mike Bibby, and they appreciate Dwight’s sheer power more than Hakeem’s mastery of all things everything.

Austin Christensen: In today’s NBA I think it’s positive and negative. Positive in the sense that they are an exciting player to watch. Negative in the sense that they probably aren’t capable of much else. When I hear the term “dunker”, I think of someone who is lazy on defense and only gives 100% when he sees the possibility of a highlight play. A decade or two ago, I think the term “dunker” was more positive.

Seth Johnston: It is a compliment in every context except professional basketball. Below the pro level, calling someone a dunker doesn’t carry the implication that they can’t do anything else, it just means they are athletic. At the pro level being labeled a dunker implies that this is the only basketball value the player offers. That is dumb and people need to stop.

Connor Huchton: Positive, at least for me. Dunking is cool.

Wayne Washington: Labeling a professional basketball player as a “dunker” is an insult.  There is a difference between an athletic basketball player and an athlete who plays basketball.  A dunker is just an athlete that has selected basketball to play.  He has low skill level, low basketball IQ, and only contributes to his team by using his athletic ability.  Deandre Jordan is the perfect example.  Dwight Howard gets flack for his lack of moves in the post but he looks like Kevin Mchale compared to Deandre Jordan.

Kris Fenrich: I don’t know how I feel when I hear someone classified as a “dunker.” At the pro level, if dunking prowess is your calling card, it’s likely because other parts of your game aren’t fully developed. LeBron is a “dunker,” but he’s so much more than a dunker that no one bothers limiting their description of him to that simple designation. Blake Griffin is one of the few guys in the league that can carry the “dunker” title without it being a referendum on the rest of his game. Josh Smith is still known for his dunking, but like Blake, his total ability exceeds his dunking reputation. So, I don’t necessarily see it as positive or negative, but if you’re a pro and dunking is how people identify you (Jeremy Evans, Gerald Green for a time), it’s likely because the rest of your game hasn’t developed.

5. Given the rise of players like Steph Curry and James Harden — skilled offensive players, but never really thought of as dunkers — do you feel the dunker is dying?

Jacob Smith: Not so much dying as much as becoming endangered, but that can a good thing.  You don’t have as many mind-blowing dunkers like you did in the 80s and 90s, no Reign Men, Chocolate Thunders, or Human Highlight Films, but that’s in part because defenses have become so much better that it’s harder to get a dunk.  Often you’ll find the best dunkers are some of the smartest offensive players; LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, J.R. Smith (more instinctually smart), etc.  This is a bad thing, as we get fewer dunks, but a good thing, because they can be more appreciated when they’re achieved.

Austin Christensen: I do. In the 80′s and 90′s we had A LOT of dudes who could flat out dunk. Dawkins, Dr. J, Dominique, MJ, Barkley, Malone, Shaq, Kemp, among others, are all dudes who could throw down. Nowadays we have just a couple of guys that you could mention in the same breath as those guys.

Seth Johnston: Never. Dunking on people will always be awesome. If Steph Curry could dunk on people he would dunk on people and everyone would like him more.

Connor Huchton: I hope not. I hope the dunker is all right. I hope he or she has a nice life full of love and optimism. I really hope so.

Wayne Washington: Go on Youtube and there’s 7th and 8th graders doing windmills in games.  The game is evolving physically The dunker isn’t going anywhere.  Actually everybody is a dunker now.  The problem is we as basketball fans expect more from our players while growing harder to be impressed every season.

Look at the guards in our league.  Rose, Westbrook, Lillard, Wall, Rondo, Teague, Jennings, Deron Williams, Holiday, Nate Robinson, Bledsoe.  These guys are amazing athletes and it’s almost a prerequisite these days.  We witnessed Eric Bledsoe do a 360 between the legs dunks at All-Star weekend and many said “meh that was okay”.  We watched James White attempt windmills from the free throw line and people said “ehhh but he didn’t make it”.  The NBA is more athletic than ever but the fans are more snobby than ever

Kris Fenrich: I see where you’re coming from with this question, but see it less as the dunker is dying and more that the dunker is expanding — or our view of the dunker is expanding. We still love a violent smash or a facial as much as we did when it was Shawn Kemp or Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins exploding in some poor defender’s face. Dunks still get retweeted and make NBA TV’s and ESPN’s top plays. Part of the difference is that we have more access to every dunk that happens from high school to the pros. It seems like every college prospect can pull off a between-the-legs dunk whereas 20 years ago when Isaiah Rider did it, we had collective convulsions. Everyone can do it these days and make no mistake, James Harden will dunk on your ass and leave you picking bristly beard hairs out of your teeth. Dunking and dunkers continue to awe, but in a world where everyone can do it, we need more than your free throw line, through the legs, off the glass dunks.

6. The dunk as a symbol is ambiguous — dunks are marketable, yet dunkers are often not.  How do you rationalize the dunk in the NBA? Do you see a disconnect between the brilliance of the dunk and the often one-sidedness of the dunker?

Jacob Smith: Speaking as an overall view, from casual to hardcore, the dunk is basketball.  Not just the NBA, basketball.  A majority of people, when they think of LeBron, they think this, not this.  When they think Kobe Bryant, they think this, not his mastery of the fake-pass.  We think of Jordan’s baseline dunk on Ewing, not the all-time great move that separated him from the double team.  When you’re fifteen years old and goofing off, you’re jumping off each other’s back to dunk.  The dunk is the single descriptive action of the entire game; it’s a celebration in football, even!  Because of that, it will always be one of the most important and popular plays of the game - the dunk will never, by any means, go away.  But as far as an era of dunking, it’s been done and gone.  We’re in an era where we value efficiency and style … but we’ll still cheer when this happens.

Austin Christensen: Absolutely. A lot of guys that we see in the dunk contest are capable of getting you out of your seat. Few of those guys are selling tickets, though. 2012′s dunk contest had Derrick Williams-whom many consider to be a bust-, Jeremy Evans-who rarely sees playing time-, Chase Budinger-who is better known for outside shooting than dunking-, and Paul George. 1 of those 4 dudes will increase ticket sales. Dunks are awesome, but the era of the dunker is rapidly coming to a close.

Seth Johnston: Suppose two players are equal in every conceivable way (position, effectiveness at basketball, cultural background, race, twitter followers, charm, etc.) except that one of them is a dunker and one of them is not. Who is more marketable? I’d say dunker. Dunks are cool. If dunks are ever not cool I will burn this planet to the ground.

If a player is average in games but wins dunk contests he or she will be more famous than an average player who wins three point contests or skills contests or the Taco Bell nacho eating contests. I believe the dunk is safe and we are safe and you need not worry.

Connor Huchton: This is a pretty important issue for me. I’ve always thought of my athleticism as pretty marketable, so I think there’s a definite disconnect there. People always want to talk about my dunk and the hundreds of YouTube views it has since recorded, but no one ever wants to ask me about it. That’s why this has been such a great opportunity for me, this chance to answer blog questions. Someone has to spread the word.

Wayne Washington: The dunk is the most exciting scoring method in sports.  Better than any touchdown, homerun, or goal.  Lets look at Blake Griffin, he is one of the league’s most marketed players.  Sure he has great comedic timing and plays in a big market like LA but none of that would matter if he wasn’t Mosgov’ing people. Dr.J, Jordan, Lebron, Blake, Kobe, and Vince Carter are great players but dunking put them into a special marketable category.

Dunking as an actual skill is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted or dismissed as “only 2 points”.  Reggie Miller wouldn’t have been blocked by Tayshaun Prince if he dunked it.  Dunking demoralizes opponents and energizes your teammates.  I’ve never seen a player put his head down and sulk to the bench after being “layed up” on.

Kris Fenrich: I ran out of time to give this one the analysis it deserves.

About Jacob Greenberg

Jacob is a behaviorist by day, blogger by night, and founded the Diss. Follow him on Twitter @jacobjbg
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