Daudi Abe – The 10 Most Influential Slam Dunks of All Time
by Daudi Abe aka Johnny Tradecraft
As hoop season returns, let us take a moment to review a brief list of some of the most influential slam dunks of all time. The dunk has evolved from something that was only done by tall people as the most efficient way of scoring the ball to all out cultural expression and symbolism. The last several generations of basketball players have grown up watching and idolizing the previous generations and their dunks, which set the stage for new and exciting stylistic elements that became almost like trademarks. In contests the use of angles and drama was mixed with tricks and props, while in-game dunks from players at all five positions began to display power, style and ferocity the sport had never seen.
Please note that this list is discussing the most influential dunks, not necessarily the greatest, because there is a difference. Over the years there have been literally thousands upon thousands of dunks; some weak, some great and some just aiight. I’m sure there are many more ridiculous bang-outs that would make a 'greatest dunk' list which I have not seen and am completely unaware of. However, the ones on this 'most influential' list have been judged on not only the dunk itself, but the time, the place, the player and any lasting cultural effects as well. So with that, let us begin:
In the sense of the modern day slam dunk as we know it, Julius Erving is undoubtedly the Godfather. Although plenty of people had dunked before him, Dr. J brought unprecedented flair and style to dunking. In posters he could be seen cocking the ball back with a scowl on his face just before throwing it down. Because of the emergence of African-American culture during the 1960s and 70s, Dr. J’s playground/streetball style of play combined with his Afro to actually become a social marker not only in American sports, but mainstream culture as well.
Tough choice here, because on the one hand there was Dr. J dunking on Bill Walton in the 1977 NBA Finals, after which Walton complained to the ref about Erving clearing out with his left arm. Because of the stage, who Bill Walton was and what he represented at the time this dunk makes a strong argument:
(Dr. J dunks on Bill Walton)
On the other hand, we've got what is frequently in the conversation as one of the greatest in-game dunks of all time: Dr. J's January 1983 cuff job over the Los Angeles Lakers' Michael Cooper, who was one of the best defensive players of that era. At the very least Cooper was smart enough to get out of the way, ducking to make sure he didn't hit his head on the backboard.
(Dr. J "rocks the baby")
Then there was the 1976 NBA All-Star weekend which saw Dr. J become the first man to take off from the free throw line in a dunk contest. Because this happened earlier in the season before the dunk on Bill Walton, Erving already had a high-flying reputation going into those Finals, due in large part to this dunk, which is why this one is the choice here:
(Dr. J from the free throw line)
Darryl Dawkins gained the nickname ‘Chocolate Thunder’ because of his ferocious throw downs. Dawkins was not the first man to dunk hard in a game, but he was the first to do so in such a spectacular fashion. In the 1979-80 season Dawkins shattered not one, but two backboards. He is nearly single-handedly responsible for the snap-back rim that is now standard in just about every gymnasium, from Madison Square Garden to your local YMCA.
(Darryl Dawkins shatters backboards)
Send it in Jerome!
Once the idea of dunking so hard that you could shatter the glass backboard was out there, it just put that much more into the dunks some people were trying. Of course backboard and rim makers now had to rethink their engineering dynamics, since no company wanted to be made a laughing stock by a high profile equipment failure on national television. In spite of all of that, Jerome Lane of the University of Pittsburgh got a chance to test the post-Darryl Dawkins era equipment when running the right wing on a fast break against Providence College in 1988. Lane’s glass shattering right hander off a pass from current University of Arizona head men’s basketball coach Sean Miller showed that you didn’t have to be an NBA player to pull this off.
(Jerome Lane backboard shatter)
Little Big Man
Coming into the 1986 NBA Slam Dunk Contest in Dallas, Texas, 6 foot 8 inch all-star dunking machine Dominique Wilkins was the heavy favorite, mostly because he was the defending champion and also Michael Jordan was in the process of missing 64 games that year with a broken foot. 5 foot 7 inch Spud Webb, Wilkins’ teammate with the Atlanta Hawks, was a relative unknown whose biggest claim to fame coming into All-Star Weekend was that he was going to be the shortest player ever to compete in the Dunk Contest. Webb’s dramatic performance and unexpected victory forced everyone to rethink perceptions and prejudices about players under 6 feet as high flyers. 5 foot 9 inch Nate Robinson would remind everyone of this by becoming the first 3-time Dunk Contest Champion, even getting an assist from Webb along the way:
(Spud Webb dunk contest)
(Nate Robinson dunking over Spud Webb)
As the dunk contest evolved one thing that was missing was a legit white challenger. When the NBA made a deep imprint on mainstream consciousness through the Michael Jordan years white players were present, but at the All-Star Weekend Saturday showcase most people expected them to stick to the 3-point shooting contest. However in 1996 Brent Barry defied the stereotype by winning the Dunk Contest in San Antonio, Texas. In some ways, Barry represented the Beastie Boys of dunk evolution in the sense the he was the first white guy to make a mark in this largely black domain. Without even taking off his warm-up jacket Barry sealed his victory with a Julius Erving-like dunk from the free throw line, giving hope to white athletes everywhere and discrediting the movie title “White Men Can’t Jump.” In all seriousness, like Spud Webb, Barry forced people to re-examine preconceived notions based on things like race and/or height.
(Brent Barry dunk contest)
The Meat Wall
Tough to say that anything about Shaquille O’Neal as a player was underplayed, but I actually think that his mobility to size ratio is taken for granted. Even though an exhausted Yao Ming called Shaq a ‘meat wall’ after playing against him for the first time, it was not simply Shaq’s size that made him special. There have been bigger big men on the court, but generally the larger someone is the more likely they are to be uncoordinated and clumsy. However, at 7 feet 1 inch tall and about 325 pounds it was the coordination, nimbleness and light feet of O’Neal that made him impossible to guard and the MDE (most dominant ever). There is video of Shaq breakdancing and doing the helicopter/windmills which, for anyone who knows, is nearly an impossible move for even an average size person to pull off. I’m guessing not too many other 7 footers in the world can do this. Anyway, Shaq’s contribution to this discussion was a rookie year 1992 dunk against the New Jersey Nets which destroyed an entire basket system. Although he didn’t shatter the glass he broke the support columns and the backboard, rim, shot clock and everything else came crashing down nearly on top of him. It was an announcement of Shaq’s arrival as well as another step in the destructive power of the slam dunk.
(Shaq destroys entire basket system)
In the 40 years since the passage of Title IX, which made gender equality in sports the law, more and more girls have begun to participate in sports. After a couple of generations that expansion has worked its way into women’s college and now professional sports, who have a much deeper talent pool to select top athletes from. This has resulted in women’s professional soccer and basketball leagues in the United States, which in turn has also completely transformed what young girls see and hear about sports as they grow up. In basketball and slam dunk terms this evolution can be seen beginning in 1983 with Georgann Wells of West Virginia University, the first woman to dunk in an official game. Lisa Leslie became the first woman to dunk in a WNBA game in 2002, and this year saw Phoenix Mercury rookie Brittney Griner’s 2 hand slam and chin-up on the rim.
(Georgann Wells first woman to dunk in an official game)
(Lisa Leslie first dunk in WNBA history)
(Brittney Griner 2 hands + chin-up)
For most of the 1990s every high-flyer that came along in basketball was either branded the ‘next’ Jordan or ‘baby’ Jordan (see Harold Miner). Of all the candidates that were up for the award over the years, it was Vince Carter who provided the most electricity and excitement with his aerials. Beginning with his first dunk at his first Dunk Contest appearance in February 2000 in Oakland, California, Carter began to build his reputation. His jump the wrong way-360-one handed windmill to start things off brought the house down like no other first dunk in history. However, it was what Carter did a few months later that made this list. At the Olympics in Sydney, Australia during a game between France and the United States Carter stole an outlet pass just outside the 3-point line on the left wing, took one dribble and elevated. Carter spread his legs, cleared 7 foot 2 inch French center Fredric Weis who was in position to take a charge, and threw down a vicious right hand tomahawk. The worldwide Olympic stage and the fact that it was done over a seven-footer cemented this dunk’s place in history and on this list:
(Vince Carter reverse 360 windmill)
(Vince Carter dunks over French 7-footer in Olympics)
RIP Brandon Knight
When Chris Paul threw the lob pass that became DeAndre Jordan’s career highlight, he probably didn’t think twice about what might happen. Clearly neither did Brandon Knight, which is how he ended up on his back in pain looking at the Staples Center ceiling with a foul called on him. Although this dunk could have made it to this list on its own, the key thing here was the social media avalanche that came with it. Since forums like Twitter and Facebook have come around people can offer instant commentary on the latest happenings, and this play signified the tipping point where an unexpected, spectacular sports moment met the full force of social media. Everyone, from fans eulogizing the ‘dearly departed’ Brandon Knight, to ESPN personalities to other NBA players, including LeBron James, had to get on social media to express their amazement. Like I said the dunk itself was ill enough, but the social media firestorm, which included labeling the area where Knight lay under the basket as a ‘crime scene,’ put this dunk into this conversation:
(DeAndre Jordan on Brandon Knight)
If Dr. J is the Godfather of modern dunking, then Michael Jordan is undoubtedly Michael Corleone. Dr. J introduced new style and flair to the game. Building on this, Michael Jordan took the model and refined it. One way he did it was by bringing the rest of his body into the act. Today even at the high school level, dunking involves a very specific way of hanging on the rim and/or flaring your legs, both of which were Jordan trademarks. If Erving brought that flash, Jordan polished and repackaged it. Jordan has had so many highlight reel dunks that there are plenty of high quality choices. Among those, you have a badly mistaken Kelly Tripuka:
(Jordan on Tripuka)
Another thing Jordan was known for was picking targets to victimize. An equally foolish Dikembe Mutombo, who just had to open his mouth, found this out the hard way:
(Jordan on Mutombo)
Then there was that Jordan favorite Patrick Ewing, whom he tormented both team wise and individually. This one was wrong on so many levels. Just listen to that rim snap:
(Jordan on Ewing baseline)
All of the dunks on this list up to this point have not been in any particular order, until now. While these first three examples of Jordan have been in-game dunks, the one selected as most influential of all time was from the 1987 Dunk Contest in Seattle, Washington. In some ways this dunk was overshadowed by another one from that same contest, a free throw line job that resurrected Dunk Contest memories of Dr. J from eleven years before and won this contest for Jordan. But instead, the chosen one here was the ‘leaner’ which Jordan broke out that year. Although it may escape the eye at first look, this dunk was unlike anything before it. Jordan’s horizontal flight path as he threw it down with a right hand windmill was an angle most people weren’t aware the human body could achieve in relation to dunking a basketball. The slow motion replay also amplifies the flying effect, as the reaction of the announcers and the crowd show. In fact it worked so well that Jordan world replicate the leaner and free throw line dunks to repeat as Slam Dunk champion at NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago the following year.
(Jordan lean in Seattle)
At the time of this dunk Jordan was only into the second edition of the Air Jordan basketball shoe, so his legacy was still in its infancy. The flying motion of the leaner added to the ‘flight’ mystique of Michael Jordan and the Jordan brand over the years. Before he got down to the business of winning NBA championships, Jordan captured the imaginations of young people and advertising executives everywhere by doing shit like the leaner and winning meaningless but marketable titles like the Slam Dunk Contest. As a result in 2011 Forbes.com reported that Air Jordans accounted for an astounding 71 percent of all basketball shoes sold (that number has probably risen since then), and this is entirely due to the heritage of basketball highlights and excellence produced by Mr. Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Certainly his career as the GOAT is the sum of all its parts, but I would point to February 7, 1987 as the turning point in the evolution of what dunking has come to look like and represent in the modern popular culture of basketball.
Dr. Abe teaches at Seattle Central Community College and is the author of "6 ‘N the Morning: West Coast Hip-Hop 1987-1992 & the Transformation of Mainstream Culture.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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