Monday, May 27, 2024

The dunk is basketball’s most lionized play. The most iconic ones are canonized, referenced fondly and often, debated for their merits and significance. The sport’s language has created so many names for it: jam, yam, slam, poster, stuff, hammer. It’s a unique club that only few on this world can join. It’s marvelous.And it hurts like hell.“Can you think of any other concept where your hand swings at something metal?” 11-year NBA veteran Austin Rivers asks. “It’ll probably hurt, yeah?”When asked, players catalog the pain dunking has caused: broken nails; bent fingers; recent bruises; lasting scars; midair collisions; twisted necks; dangerous landings. Injuries that cost them games or even seasons.Derrick Jones Jr., a former NBA All-Star Weekend dunk contest winner now with the Dallas Mavericks, points out two specific marks on his left wrist. Larry Nance Jr., another high flier in his ninth NBA season and third with the New Orleans Pelicans, recalls childhood memories of his father’s scarred arms from a 14-year NBA career that included winning the first-ever dunk contest in 1984. Dallas’ Josh Green remembers one pregame dunk that set his nerves afire.“I remember thinking, ‘Why would I do this before a game,’” the 23-year-old Green says.And yet still they dunk.In the modern NBA, the dunk’s frequency has been increasing, going from 8,254 in the 2002-03 regular season to 11,664 last year. The rise is mostly due to the 3-point revolution and the increased spacing and cleaner driving lanes that come with it. But the league also has taller, more explosive athletes entering every year. With them come even more spectacular aerial feats, ones that enrapture fans and wow even the players who witness them.What players think of the dunk, and the agony that can come with it, is ever changing. This isn’t some new trend. It’s just that the dunk, for all its allure and mystique, is the most visceral mark of a player’s maturation.Basketball’s most exclusive club, one only entered 10 feet in the air, isn’t one that players can — or always want to — live in forever. Dennis Smith Jr., now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, had a 48-inch vertical as a prospect, but says now his struggles with landing affected his shooting form. (Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)When young basketball players first start dunking, they never want to stop.“It makes you the guy,” Dennis Smith Jr. says.Smith’s first in-game dunk was an off-the-backboard slam in a state title game when he was 13. His team was up big and his teammates were showing off. “Now it’s my turn,” the 26-year-old Brooklyn Nets guard recalls thinking. “I got one.” An in-game dunk is a status symbol he has never forgotten.Willie Green, now the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans after a 12-year NBA career, was told as a teenager that toe raises would help him reach above the rim. Every morning in the shower, he counted to 300 — rising onto the balls of his feet with each number until this club finally let him in.“If you could dunk, people looked up to you, they glorified you,” Green says. “You felt like you got over a big hurdle in basketball. It was a huge step in basketball when I was able to dunk.”Every player asked remembers how old they were when they first started. “You’re young, you’re bouncy,” Markieff Morris, 34, says. “You dunked so you could talk your s—.” It was the first thing youngsters like him did stepping into the gym, the last before they left.“When you’re first dunking, your fingers are full of blood because of the (contact),” Philadelphia 76ers forward Nicolas Batum recalls. “But you get used to it. You have so much joy of dunking. You’re one of the few people in the world that can.”Once players start dunking in games, it becomes even more addicting. “When you try to dunk on someone, you’re hyped up, you’re amped up,” the New York Knicks’ Donte DiVincenzo says. “You don’t feel any of that s—.” It’s the same as any adrenaline high. “It feels like energy,” 21-year-old Mavericks guard Jaden Hardy says. As the crowds grow bigger and the reactions reverberate louder, it’s even better.Marques Johnson, a five-time NBA All-Star who retired in 1990, remembers one slam he had at age 15 in a summer league over a player who had just been drafted to the NBA. To dunk on him, to knock him to the ground, proved something.“As a young player, if you can hang with guys on the next level,” he says, “it becomes that validation that you belong.”Johnson, currently the Milwaukee Bucks’ television analyst, played collegiately for UCLA, where he was named the Naismith College Player of the Year in 1977, the first season the dunk was re-legalized in college basketball. “I really believe it’s a big reason why I won,” he says. “People ain’t seen a dunk in college basketball in 10 years.” Johnson, a hyperathletic 6-foot-7 forward, took up residence above the rim.Once, he missed two weeks with a knee sprain after dunking on a teammate in practice and landing hard. As he lay on the ground in pain, he still remembers what his first question was.“Did the dunk go in?”“Yeah,” he was told. “You dunked on him.” Marques Johnson, shown here with the Bucks, believes dunking was a big reason he was the Naismith Player of the Year in 1977. (Heinz Kluetmeier / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)Last season, Christian Wood rebounded his own miss and found an empty path to the rim. He dribbled once, planted both feet, hurled the ball through the rim — and then clutched his left hand as he ran back down the court.Wood, who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers this summer after his one season with the Mavericks, finished the game but missed the next eight with a broken thumb. “I went for a tomahawk (dunk), trying to look flashy for some reason, and hit my thumb again,” he says. He had already injured it, he says, but that’s the moment when he knew he “had really hurt it.”As teenagers age into veterans, their relationships toward dunking often change. “To really dunk consistently in the NBA, you gotta be a freak athlete.” Rivers says. For those who aren’t, dunking becomes more akin to a tool than a feat.“S—, those things are really adding up,” the 26-year-old DiVincenzo says. “A lot of the younger guys want to dunk every single time. I am not like that anymore.”DiVincenzo still dunks — he had nine last year with the Golden State Warriors — but prefers layups when possible. It isn’t always possible, though. “Sometimes, (a dunk) is the only way to draw fouls,” he says.When Willie Green neared the end of his career, he recalls hating when defenders forced him into it.“They’re chasing you down hard on a fast break, and you want to lay it up, but you know if you lay it up, they’re going to block it,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Man. You made me dunk that.’”Green was a two-foot dunker, which meant accelerating into the air was hard on his knees, especially the left one, which was surgically repaired in 2005. “That force, that gravity, compounded with coming down,” he says. “It takes a toll on you.”Smith, the ninth pick in the 2017 draft, entered the league with a record-tying 48-inch vertical — and with a dangerous habit of coming down on one leg. While recovering from knee surgery, he learned to land on both of them. “I don’t even think about it now,” he says. But he still does thoracic therapy to treat scar tissues in his wrist from his childhood dunks, which he believes has had an effect on his shooting form.The league’s freak athletes, the ones Rivers referenced, do have different experiences. Nance Jr., who remembers his father’s forearm scars, has none of his own. His hands are large enough to engulf the ball rather than pinning it against his wrist. “I never really learned how to cup it like everybody else,” Nance says. “I genuinely don’t believe I could do it if I tried.” He drops the ball through the rim rather than relying on inertia.“Not really,” he says when asked whether it hurts. “Unless I miss.”Players like him still experience pain from the midair collisions and the misses: when…

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