The History of Dunk

Where does the most spectacular action in basketball come from? What is so fascinating about it? What’s it like … to dunk? This is the history of the dunk!

Admit it: every one of us wants this feeling. Catching the ball, looking, realizing that now is the moment. One dribble – maybe two, leap, meet the defender in the air, feel the contact. The rush of adrenaline as you throw down the dunk. Land, let the flood of endorphin go through you. Yes! That’s the feeling.

There is nothing in basketball that means so much, that creates so much emotion – nothing like the dunk in all of sports.

“Dunking is better than sex,” said Shawn Kemp once – a vicious dunker in his time.

One of the reasons for its popularity is because not everyone can do it. They can do a behind-the-back pass or a crossover dribble but a 360 dunk? You dream of doing the things that Vince Carter, Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins have done.

Established in 1936 Basketball has existed for 115 years but the dunk has only been accepted since 1967. The term dunk first appeared in 1936 in the New York Times as Arthur Daley wrote about the McPherson Oilers practice: “The McPherson version of a lay-up shot left observers simply flabbergasted. Joe Fortenberry, 6-foot-8-inch center, and Willard Schmidt, 6-foot-9-inch forward, did not use an ordinary curling toss. Not those giants. They left the floor, reached up and pitched the ball downward into the hoop, much like a cafeteria customer dunking a roll in coffee.”
There was no established basketball league in the 1930s as teams like the Oilers would just have exhibitions across the country. And to make games fairer, McPherson’s players were not allowed to dunk in games – though they did slam it home in warmups, impressing the spectators.

Oscar Robertson was one of the first guards to play above the rim but he says he never dunked in a game, citing that when he played there was just “straight-up poles with a basket on it” so he feared for his safety if he had dunked.
The slam also used to be considered against the code of respect. No one wanted to be ridiculed and it was made clear that if you dunked on somebody you would be punished later in the game.

Dunking was even banned from high school and college basketball in the United States. The NCAA hoped a ban going into the 1967-68 season would keep Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) from dominating the game for UCLA. It didn’t work as Alcindor and the Bruins won the title each year he was in college.

In the meantime, the dunk was starting to grow in popularity on the playgrounds of New York. And it was clear the dunk ban was robbing basketball fans of the greatest of two players in particular: Julius “Dr. J” Erving of the University of Massachusetts and David “Skywalker” Thompson of North Carolina State University, who were just a different class of athletes. Thompson all but originated the alley-oop as he would have his teammates throw a ball up at the rim and he would catch it and lay it in.

Erving and Thompson were finally freed of their dunking ban in the American Basketball Association (ABA), which saw itself as the rebellious rival to the NBA by allowing individualism and creativity to flourish and pushing for the dunk with the start of the league in 1967.

Despite not having television broadcasts, Dr. J’s and Thompson’s spectacular jams grew their legacy across the country – and began changing the game.

America wanted the dunk, which was the drug of the fans. And the ABA – along with the playgrounds – was their dealer. The NBA finally recognized that by 1976.

The ABA was about to die off but they came up with one more show for the ages – the first slam dunk contest. And the battle between Thompson and Erving in Denver was legendary: 360s, tomahawks and Dr. J’s famous dunk from the free throw line.

The year 1976 is an important one for the dunk as it saw the merger between the NBA and ABA as well as the NCAA lifting the dunk ban, giving dunkers the freedom to wow fans throughout the country.

Despite the dunk, interest in the NBA dwindled drastically with a number of drug scandals rocking the league. The arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed that and then the emergence of athletic and majestic figures such as Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins in the 1980s brought back the dunk for good.

The slam dunk contest battles between Jordan and Wilkins took the game to another level. Thanks to replays, VHS highlight tapes pushed the game as well – not to mention youngsters’ desire to fly.

The dunk also had a dark side as it created athletes who could be classified as mainly just dunkers. Players such as Harold Miner, Isaiah Rider and Shawn Kemp were pushed as superstars but they were dunks, not really basketball players.

Still, the dunk is the dunk and the fans’ excitement for it will also remain.

The best dunkers

1. Vince Carter
Years of unbelievable dunks – and one of the most incredible dunks of all-time (over Frederic Weis) – put Carter atop the list. Nobody had the combination of hangtime, flying distance and power. How amazing was the slam dunk contest between him and Jordan?

2. Michael Jordan
The young MJ carried the dunk (and the NBA) into the mainstream media, completing Dr. J’s work. The early work of His Airness was simply breathtaking!

3. Dominique Wilkins
The “Human Highlight Film” was Wilkins’ nickname – enough said.

4. Julius Erving
Dr. J cultivated the dunk culture in the ABA and NBA. Too bad very few people really could see it. If there were cellphone cameras in the 1970s, Erving would be number one.

5. David Thompson
“Skywalker” enjoyed the nightlife and a fall down the stairs at the Studio 54 disco ruined his knee and career – which until then had provided countless highlights.

Top 5 dunks

1. “Vince over Weis” – Vince Carter, Team USA
All you have to say about this dunk is that Frederic Weis also became famous because of it.

2. “The Get-Away” – Michael Jordan, Bulls
Charles Oakley and John Starks had MJ cornered on the baseline but His Airness took one dribble up-court and the baseline was open and he met Patrick Ewing for a date on a poster.

3. “Knee to the face” – Tom Chambers, Suns
Mark Jackson thought he could take the charge but Chambers thought differently. The VHS recorder was made for this dunk as still-frame had Chambers’ eyes at rim level.

4. “Send it in Jerome!” – Jerome Lane, University of Pittsburgh
Just look it up on YouTube and thank us later for it. Even better with Bill Raftery on the call.

5. “KJ over the Dream” – Kevin Johnson, Suns
Size doesn’t matter sometimes and KJ showed that going over Hakeem Olajuwon.


by FIVE Magazine #168 – The History of Dunk – Text: André Voigt

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