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A Brief History Of The Slam Dunk

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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

United States Patent Office

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.

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42 Facts About Jackie Robinson
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Keystone, Getty Images

On April 15, 1947—71 years ago—Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color line and became the first African American to play on a major sports team. Here are 42 facts to celebrate the legendary athlete.

1. Jack "Jackie" Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia. Shortly after his birth, his family moved and settled in Pasadena, California.

2. President Theodore Roosevelt, who died 25 days before Robinson was born, was the inspiration for his middle name.

3. He was the youngest of five children—Edgar, Frank, Matthew “Mack,” and Willa Mae—and grew up in relative poverty in a well-off community in Pasadena.

4. Robinson attended John Muir High School, where he was placed on the Pomona Annual Baseball Tournament All-Star Team with fellow future Baseball Hall of Famers Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox and Bob Lemon of the Cleveland Indians.

5. He was also an accomplished tennis player, winning the junior boys singles championship in the Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament.

6. Jackie’s brother Mack was an adept athlete and a splendid sprinter. He won a Silver Medal in the 200 meters behind Jesse Owens during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

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7. In 1942, Jackie Robinson was drafted into the Army. He was assigned to a segregated Army Cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas.

8. While in the Army, Robinson became friends with boxing champion Joe Louis when the heavyweight, who was stationed at Fort Riley at the time, used his celebrity to protest the delayed entry of black soldiers in an Office Candidate School (OCS). As a result, Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943.

9. After an incident where he refused to sit in the back of an unsegregated bus, military police arrested Robinson at the request of a duty officer, who later requested Robinson be court-martialed. At the time of the proceedings, Robinson was prohibited from being deployed overseas to the World War II battlefronts. He never saw combat during the war.

10. Robinson was acquitted and then assigned to Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky, where he worked as an Army athletics coach until he was given an honorable discharge in 1944. During his time at the camp, Robinson was encouraged to tryout for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League.

11. In 1945, Robinson signed a contract to play for the Kansas City Monarchs. He was paid $400 a month (about $5100 today) to play shortstop and eventually was placed in the Negro League All-Star Game that year.

12. Robinson married Rachel Islum—who he had met in 1941 during his senior year at UCLA—in 1946. They had their first son, Jackie Robinson Jr., that November. The Robinsons had two more children: a daughter, Sharon, and another son, David.

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13. Robinson played Minor League Baseball for the Montreal Royals in 1946, until he was called up to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the Major Leagues in 1947.

14. He made his Major League Baseball debut on April 15, 1947, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York. He became the first African-American baseball player in Major League history.

15. He also won Rookie of the Year in 1947 with a batting average of .297, 175 hits, 12 home runs, and 48 runs batted in.

16. Jackie Robinson had a close friendship with Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians, who was the first African-American baseball player in the American League. The two men broke the color barrier in baseball in the same year and would talk to each other on the telephone to share their experiences with racism during the season.

17. Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese defended Robinson against violent and nasty racial slurs during his rookie season. Reese famously put his arm around him and said, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them,” as a response to fans shouting racial slurs at Robinson.

18. On August 29, 1948, in a 12-7 win against the St. Louis Cardinals, Robinson “hit for the cycle” with a home run, a triple, a double, and then a single in the same game.

19. Robinson was the National League Batting and Stolen Bases Champion with a batting average of .342 and 37 stolen bases in 1949.

20. He was also a six time All-Star between the years 1949 to 1954.

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21. In 1949, Robinson was called to testify before the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). He was subpoenaed because of comments made about him by prominent African-American actor Paul Robson. At first, Robinson was hesitant to testify, but then was ultimately compelled to do so because he feared not doing so would hurt his baseball career.

22. The National League’s Most Valuable Player Award went to Robinson in 1949, after his first appearance in the MLB All-Star Game. Robinson later took his team to the World Series, but would lose against the New York Yankees.

23. Jackie Robinson played himself in The Jackie Robinson Story, a biopic about his life released in 1950. Academy Award-nominated female actor Ruby Dee played Robinson’s wife Rachel “Rae” Isum Robinson.

24. During the off-season, Robinson went on a vaudeville and speaking tour of the South, where he would answer pre-set questions about his life. He actually made more money on these tours than he did on his contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

25. Robinson played in six World Series, but only won one in 1955 against the New York Yankees in a seven game series. Robinson didn’t play in 49 games that season and missed Game 7; Don Hoak played third base in Robinson’s place.

26. At 37, Robinson retired from Major League Baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956 due to the visible effects of diabetes. Unbeknownst to the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson took a position with the American coffee company Chock Full O’ Nuts and agreed to quit baseball.

27. From 1957 to 1964, Jackie Robinson served as the vice president of personnel for Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee. He was the first African-American vice president of a major American corporation.

28. Robinson was a political independent, but had very conservative views on the Vietnam War. He also supported Richard Nixon in the 1960 Presidential election against John F. Kennedy, although Robinson admired Kennedy’s stance on civil rights once he was elected. He was later dismayed with Republicans for not supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and soon after became a Democrat.

29. In 1962, Jackie Robinson was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility. He was the first African American inducted at the Cooperstown Hall of Fame and Museum.

30. Jackie Robinson was always seen as a large figure in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said Robinson was “a legend and symbol in his own time” who “challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.”

Jackie Robinson with his son at the Civil Rights March on Washington DC in 1963
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

31. In 1964, Robinson co-founded the Freedom National Bank—a black owned and operated bank in Harlem, New York—with businessman Dunbar McLaurin. Robinson was the commercial bank’s first Chairman of the Board. His wife later served as Chairman until 1990 when the bank closed.

32. Robinson was also the first African-American TV sports analyst. He broadcasted for ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week telecasts in 1965. Robinson later worked as a part-time commentator for the Montreal Expos in 1972.

33. On June 4, 1972, the Dodgers retired Jackie Robinson’s uniform number 42, as well as Sandy Koufax’s number 32 and Roy Campanella’s number 39.

34. Robinson died of a heart attack on October 24, 1972 in Stamford, Connecticut, at age 53.

35. In 1973, Robinson’s widow, Rachel, started the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a non-profit organization that gives college scholarships to minorities. The Foundation also preserves the legacy of Jackie Robinson as a baseball player and a civil rights pioneer.

36. The house in Brooklyn, New York, where Jackie Robinson lived while he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1976.

37. On March 1, 1981, American astronomer Schelte John “Bobby” Bus discovered an asteroid at the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. Bus named the asteroid “4319 Jackierobinson,” after his favorite baseball player.

38. President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Jackie Robinson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest award given to a civilian for their contributions to world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private endeavors—on March 26, 1984.

39. You won't see any baseball players wearing the number 42: In 1997, Robinson’s number was retired throughout Major League Baseball. This was the first and only time a jersey number had been retired throughout an entire professional sports league.

40. In 1999, Robinson was added to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team along with Cal Ripken Jr., Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, and Ty Cobb. Fans chose the final selections from a list compiled of the 100 greatest Major League Baseball players from the past century.

41. April 15, 2004, became Jackie Robinson Day and all uniformed players in Major League Baseball were required to wear number 42 on their jerseys to honor Robinson’s memory and legacy to the sport.

42. More than 20 years after he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President George W. Bush also posthumously awarded Jackie Robinson with the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest honor the legislative branch can bestow on a civilian and must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of members in the House and the Senate—for his contributions to American history. He became the second baseball player to receive this accolade after Pittsburgh Pirates Right-Fielder Roberto Clemente in 1973.

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2013.

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Pop Culture
10 Larger-Than-Life Facts About André the Giant
Business Wire/WWE
Business Wire/WWE

Although a number of professional wrestlers have transcended the squared circle to become worldwide stars—Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and Jesse Ventura among them—few have captivated the public quite like André the Giant. Born André Roussimoff in Grenoble, France on May 19, 1946, the towering grappler stood nearly 7 feet tall and weighed over 500 pounds shortly before his death in 1993 due to heart failure.

It’s fitting that André’s mythological proportions have led to a number of myths surrounding his life, from an exaggerated height (he was often billed as 7 feet, 4 inches) to his alleged propensity for drinking hundreds of beers. HBO's new documentary, which just premiered, may resolve some of those urban legends. In the meantime, we’ve sifted through some of the more sensational stories to separate fact from fiction. As it turns out, the Giant’s life needed no embellishment.


In the 1950s, playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett took up residence in Ussy-sur-Marne in France and commissioned local laborers to construct a cottage. The property was just a few hundred yards from the Roussimoff residence and along a stretch of road where Andre and other school children started their walk to class. (There was no bus.) Like many of the kids, Andre would sometimes accept Beckett's invitation to hop on the back of his pick-up truck to get a ride to school. Over the years, the story has been exaggerated to the point where Beckett and Andre are the only occupants in the truck, though it's unlikely Beckett paid him any particular attention. Still, the unlikely pairing has inspired several plays, including the recent Sam & Dede, Or My Dinner with André the Giant.


Andre the Giant is interviewed ringside by Vince McMahon
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When Andre turned 14, he left home to seek employment and opportunities outside the boundaries of his rural farm community in France. At 19, he visited his parents for the first time, having already broken into the professional wrestling business. According to a 1981 Sports Illustrated profile, André had grown so dramatically in the interim, stretching to nearly 7 feet tall, that his parents did not recognize the stranger who knocked on their door. As André explained his career choice, they realized they had even seen him wrestle on television under his alias, Jean Ferré, without ever knowing they had been watching their own son.


André’s dimensions were the result of acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland that causes uninhibited growth hormone secretion. Because his body was so generous in its strength, André rarely (if ever) lifted weights for additional power. His resistance training seemed to come in the form of moving his friends' cars around during nights he was out drinking with friends. The smaller vehicles could be easily slid over to tight spaces or turned to face the opposite direction.


While André’s height and girth proved to be problematic when it came to traveling—most vehicles made for uncomfortable rides that required him to slouch—his hands and fingers posed special challenges. Said to have fingers so large that silver dollars could pass through his rings, André could never use a conventional rotary phone without sticking a pencil in the dial; learning to play the piano was also out of the question, since one finger would strike three keys at once.


Andre the Giant poses with several models
Business Wire/WWE

By most accounts, André was a jovial giant, content to play cards, socialize, and enjoy all the food and drink his success afforded him. During matches, he amused himself by stepping on an opponent’s long hair or wringing the sweat from his singlet into their face. In one bout, Jake “The Snake” Roberts recalled that André waited until Roberts was on the mat before he squatted down and unleashed his flatulence. “This went on for like 30 seconds,” Roberts said. "Giants fart for extremely long periods of time."


When he wasn’t traveling for his wrestling engagements, André largely kept to himself in his North Carolina ranch home, which featured a tree growing through the middle of each of its three stories. Because shopping could be a cumbersome experience, Andre grew fond of QVC, the home shopping channel that had launched in 1986. His friends recalled that André bought several steam cleaners and lots of porcelain butterflies from the channel.


Nothing pours fuel on an André story quite like alcohol, with the Giant allegedly consuming over 100 beers in a single sitting. But most of his colleagues report that alcohol had surprisingly little effect on him, with no hangovers or slurred speech affecting his wrestling duties. There were only a handful of exceptions. According to Cary Elwes, his co-star in the 1987 film The Princess Bride, André once drank enough to pass out in a hotel lobby. Since it was impossible to move him, hotel employees arranged a velvet rope around his slumbering frame so he wouldn’t be disturbed. 


Andre the Giant poses for a publicity photo in his singlet
Business Wire/WWE

As years of wrestling and his acromegaly condition conspired to affect his health, André underwent spinal surgery in late 1986. When he returned to wrestling, his signature black singlet helped hide a back brace that provided support for his ailing frame. His physical condition was reportedly so diminished at this point that André spent his remaining years in wrestling in pain and able to perform only basic maneuvers. According to his peers, some of Andre's most famous matches—like the bout with Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III in 1987—were nowhere near what he had been able to do earlier in his career.


For reasons known only to André, his genial demeanor didn’t apply to opponents in the ring who would use baby oil to make their muscles stand out more. André reportedly despised baby oil, and extended that enmity to “Macho Man” Randy Savage, who was disliked by the Giant simply because he used a lot of the stuff while wrestling. “André hated baby oil," Randy’s brother, Larry Poffo, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2017. “But Randy wouldn't stop wearing it. He stubbornly said 'André's gimmick is being a giant and mine is baby oil.' He never backed down from André and they never got along because of it."


Because wrestling is prone to exaggerating size, ability, and accomplishments, it didn’t take much for promoters to latch on to the idea of promoting André as the largest athlete on the planet. From his earliest matches in Montreal, he was billed as being 7 feet, 4 inches tall, enough to exceed the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by two inches. But when André’s height was measured at the age of 24 in 1970, he stood exactly 6 feet, 9 and ¾ inches.


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