History of the Slam Dunk in Basketball

Michael Jordan during the 1987 NBA Slam Dunk Contest
Michael Jordan during the 1987 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, which was inaugurated in 1984

Since its introduction, the ‘Dunk’ or ‘Slam Dunk’ shot has been one of the most interesting and exciting moves in the game.

It is a type of basketball shot in which the player jumps in the air with ball in the hand and above the horizontal plane of the rim, and puts the ball through the basket. With time, the dunks have been reformed and tuned with more style and grace to add the WOW factor to it.

The term ‘Slam Dunk’ was coined by the Lakers announcer Chick Hearn in the 1960s. This term is now very popularly used in English as a phrase to mean ‘A Sure Thing’ or something with the best favourable outcome.

First ever slam dunk

There have been many stories about the dunks being performed ever since early 1900s but the first ever dunk in an organised format of the game will has to be the one by USA Olympian Joe Fortenberry in 1938 Olympic trials.

According to the The Daily Beast, the 6’8” Fortenberry was the first player to dunk during workouts for the 1936 Olympic trials. The New York Times had reported that Fortenberry and his 6’9” McPherson, Kansas teammate Willard Schmidt ‘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.’

Ban by NCAA

Kareem Abdul Jabber's constant dunking led to the shot's banning by the NCAA in 1967
Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s constant dunking led to a ban on the shot by the NCAA in 1967

At first, a lot of international teams opposed the practice of dunking as the Americans constantly taunted them in the game with their height and leaping abilities. The NCAA also joined the petition later on and moved to ban dunk shots from their tournaments.

In 1967 the NCAA announced dunking as not a skilful shot and banned it. Though they never admitted it, the popular belief is that the dunking was banned because of UCLA’s Kareem Abdul Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), who was constantly dunking over all his opponents with a lot of ease and grace (hence known as the "Lew Alcindor" rule). Another belief was that the organisation found it to be an injury concern of players.

During the ban, a lot of athletically blessed players had to smoothly put the ball in the basket even when they had it way above the basket.

NC State’s David Thompson, who could soar high above the ring, only dunked once in his entire college career in the 1976-1977 season, that too during the final game of his senior year on home court. It was an open fast break which he concluded with a thunderous slam, which saw the entire crowd rise up for a standing ovation.

Thompson picked up a technical foul for the act and was immediately substituted by his coach, in what was his last and proudest moment of his on-court college career.

The NCAA rescinded the ban in the following year, i.e. 1977.

Dunking in the NBA

Julius Erving revolutionised the art of dunking in the 1970's
Julius Erving aka Dr. J revolutionised the art of dunking in the 1970's

Dunking was revolutionised by the one and only Julius Erving, popularly known as Dr. J in the 1970s. He showed dunking skills like no one had ever done or seen before. He could windmill, rock the ball, go behind his back, head fake, and pull off many other impressive moves on the court.

Many NBA teams like New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics tried their best to lure Dr. J. Away from the ABA and bring his talents to NBA. Many NBA players start copying his styles, one such being Darryl Dawkins, who was popularly known for breaking the backboard against Kansas City.

In 1976, the ABA introduced the All-Star Dunk Contest, a new concept that changed the sport. Julius Erving went on to win the contest in it’s first ever edition, following which he was sold to the Philadelphia 76ers after the ABA merged with the NBA in the summer.

NBA made dunking a household name in the early 80s and in 1984 brought the All-Star Dunk Contest back to basketball. Then came the era of Michael Jordan, Dominic Wilkins, Spud Web (5’6’’ dunk contest winner) and Kobe Bryant who awestruck the crowd every time they took a leap.

Vince Carter leapt over Frederic Weis to dunk during the 2000 Olympics
Carter leapt over Weis to dunk during the Olympics in 2000

Nowadays, dunking has become one of the most awaited sights of the basketball game and many dunkers have emerged over the years to revolutionise the act, like when the United States’ Vince Carter dunked over a 7’2” Frenchman Frederic Weis in the Sydney Olympics. The former also displayed some WOW moments later on that year, during the 2000 All-Star Dunk contest.

And now we have athletes of the likes of Dwight Howard, De Andre Jordan, Lebron James, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis who make, now so common, dunking more and more fun whenever they rise.


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