A Brief History Of The Slam Dunk
In order to understand the first-ever slam dunk, you need to know how basketball courts were designed in the 1910s. Some hoops had backboards, and some simply jutted out from a pole. There wasn't always an out-of-bounds area, and the court would be hemmed by a net or a cage. It was in one of these caged courts where Jack Inglis, a star in New York and Pennsylvania’s upstart leagues, executed the first slam dunk in history. Kind of.
According to author Bill Gutman, sometime in the 1910s, Inglis “jumped up alongside the basket, grabbed the cage, and pulled himself up alongside the basket. While the defenders looked up at him helplessly, a teammate passed him the ball. Inglis caught it while hanging onto the cage with one hand and dropped it through the basket.” For those familiar with Street Fighter, Inglis pulled a Vega.
The Neil Armstrong Of Dunking
For the first “traditional” slam dunk—or, at least, the first regular dunker—you’d probably have to look to Joe Fortenberry. According to Evin Demirel in The Daily Beast, the 6’8” Fortenberry was the first player to dunk in an organized game. During workouts for the 1936 Olympic trials, the New York Times 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.”
Fortenberry is best-known for when he captained the United States basketball team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He scored eight points when the U.S. beat Canada 19-8 in the gold medal game. That final was played on a dirt court in the driving rain because, as Fortenberry told the Amarillo Globe-News, “Adolf Hitler said it was an outside game and that's where we were going to play it.” Besides being a genocidal maniac, Hitler was also an early proponent of streetball.
Rival teams were so incensed with the ease at which the Americans won, they lobbied the international basketball community to instill a 6’2” height limit for future competitions. They were humiliated—and the dunk as A Statement was born.
Threats to the slam dunk didn’t just come from overseas, though. Legendary Kansas basketball coach Phog Allen detested dunks and, in his 1937 book, wrote, “Dunking does not display basketball skill—only height advantage.” For years, Allen campaigned to raise hoops to 12 feet. “There’s nothing sacred about ten feet,” he said after a Rotary Club dinner in 1956. “I have plenty of tall boys on my teams, but I’m more determined than ever that the game should be taken away from them and given back to everyone.”
While Allen never got his wish to see a 12-foot hoop, the NCAA eventually joined him in loathing the slam dunk.
Before the 1967-'68 season, the NCAA announced it was banning the slam dunk from all competitions. In their words, it "was not a skillful shot," and the rules committee said they issued the ban partly due to injury concerns. Their report cited 1,500 events where a player was hurt around the backboard during the previous year. (How many of these were dunk-related? That remains unclear, though that number is undoubtedly much smaller.)
While the NCAA never admitted it explicitly, it is widely believed that the ban was enacted because of UCLA's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then named Lew Alcindor), who dunked all over his opponents with ease. It was nicknamed the "Lew Alcindor rule" by the press, and it prohibitted players from making shots above and directly over the cylinder.
UCLA Coach John Wooden argued that his player wasn't the reason for the ban. “Some on the committee told me Lewis’ name did come up in the discussion, but he wasn’t the reason," Wooden recalled. It's important to note that Wooden, a stickler for low-flash, fundamental team ball, was no fan of dunking, and he would have been the last person to stand in the way of a ban. "Lewis felt he was the reason [for the rule]," Wooden said. "I talked with him and said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference whether you are or not, [the rule] is going to make you a better basketball player.'”
Wooden, Jabbar, and the UCLA Bruins only lost two games in the following two seasons and took home the national championship both years. They did not dunk.
The ban lasted until the 1976-'77 season. During that time, players blessed with amazing athleticism had to drop the ball delicately through the hoop after skying well above it. NC State's David Thompson, one of the greatest dunkers of all time, played the entirety of his college career during the ban. "It was tough not to be able to dunk the ball when you are way over the rim. It would have been way easier to catch it and dunk it in one motion," Thompson said in an interview. For people who love watching slam dunks, sitting through his college highlight reel is a rather frustrating experience:
(Here, watch his pro highlights to release all that stress.)
Thompson did dunk once, however. It was during the final home game of his senior year and, after finding himself alone on a breakaway, he threw down a thunderous slam, rule be damned. "I got a technical foul and a standing ovation at the same time,'' Thompson says. He was immediately subbed out of the game to rapturous applause—it was his last moment as a player on his home court.
If you outlaw slam dunks, then only outlaws dunk. The NCAA rescinded the ban the following season.
The Farmer Who Made Dunking Safe
Shattering a backboard with a dunk is like setting off fireworks in a Pottery Barn: It's awesome and fun and incredible when it happens, but you have to clean up a bunch of glass afterwards and someone might get hurt.
The first documented backboard shattering didn't happen during a dunk, but as the result of a tame jumpshot. Before a game in 1946, the Boston Celtics' Chuck Connors shot around during pre-game warmups, and one of his jumpers hit the front of the rim. The rim was bolted directly to the backboard—a worker forgot to put a protective rubber sheet in between—and Connors' errant shot broke it, sending glass everywhere.
Even when proper safety precautions were taken, old school hoops and backboards were prone to break, shatter, or hurt players' hands with their rigidity.
When Arthur Erhat heard about this, he got to thinking. Erhat wasn't a basketball fan, but he knew how to fix things. He lived in central Illinois and operated a grain elevator, a job that called on his ingenuity quite often. So when his nephew, who was a basketball coach at St. Louis University, complained about dangerous and impractical basketball hoops, Erhat went to his workshop and started to tinker.
That tinkering went on for 29 years. He eventually found his solution—ironically, in the middle of the NCAA's dunking ban. By rigging a spring from a John Deere cultivator into a hinged base, Erhat invented a rim that had give but immediately returned to its original position. Erhat filed a patent for this new mechanism in 1976, and its existence helped bring the dunk back to college. In 1978 at the first Final Four after the dunking ban was lifted, the NCAA used his rims (even though John Wooden wasn't an immediate fan). After Daryl Dawkins broke multiple NBA backboards, Erhat's invention got drafted to the pros.
A variation on Erhat's original rim is still being used today. Other tweaks like flexible stanchions were added, and modern-day hoops are nearly unbreakable (although you do hear about the occasional outlier).
"Honest to pieces, I know practically nothing about the damn game," Erhat said in an interview. "I pay attention to the dunk. That's the only thing I wait for."
The Long Wait To See The First Women's Dunk In History
For years, many people didn't believe that Georgeann Wells actually dunked. The 6'7" sophomore at West Virginia University threw it down against the University of Charleston in 1984, and only about 100 people were live witnesses to it—the first official dunk in the history of women's basketball. There was video of Wells' one-handed breakaway slam, but it was kept hidden for decades, fueling the arguments of any doubters.
As the Wall Street Journal's Reed Albergotti reported, Bud Francis, the University of Charleston's coach, had set up a video camera under one of the hoops. West Virginia University and members of the media made repeated requests to see the tape but, for whatever reason, Coach Francis refused to hand it over. Perhaps his reticence was out of pride.
Georgeann Wells' leaping ability was well known, and her team had tried to set her up for dunks throughout the season. Francis gave his University of Charleston squad a rousing pep-talk before the game reminding them not to allow any dunks—no one wants to get jammed on, even if said jam is historically notable. The only definitive proof of the dunk was in Francis' possession, and he didn't want to let it see the light of day. When Bud Francis died in 1999, his son found a box of old VHS tapes, one of which was marked "W.V.U.-84 Elkins." It was the dunk.
Because it lay in a pile of old stuff, the tape remained unwatched for an entire decade. In 2009, Reed Albergotti of the Wall Street Journal gave the younger Francis a call to inquire. He had kept the VHS, unaware of what was on it.
After a quarter-century's worth of doubt and hearsay, the first official woman's dunk in history was viewed by people who weren't in that small Elkins, West Virginia gym:
Twenty five years is a long time to wait, but you can now watch Georgeann Wells' dunk over and over again.
The Modern Dunk
Vince Carter's dunk over 7'2" Frenchman Frédéric Weis in the 2000 Olympics was so devastating, the second section of Weis' Wikipedia page is titled, "Le dunk de la mort." After being leapt over and into immortality, Weis told reporters that he asked Carter, ''Why on me? I'm going to be the poster dunk and I don't like this." He was humiliated. Joe Fortenberry would have been proud:
Carter's dunk is a good synecdoche for the slam dunk itself. If John Wooden or Phog Allen were around to see it, they would've insisted that it didn't sway the game any more than a short jumper or an easy layup—it was only worth two points. But just ask Frédéric Weis (or his Wikipedia page), and he'll say that dunk meant something far beyond points.
The slam dunk will never be banned again. Long live the slam dunk.