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James White vs. a Jumping Myth

1/8/2008

We have heard it a million times. So and so can "make change" off the top of the backboard. But have you ever seen it done? Is it really even possible? I remember back in last year's dunk contest, much was made of the fact that Dwight Howard slapped a sticker 12-and-a-half feet up in the air while dunking. He's enormous, long, and jumps about as high as anyone.

And if it's a big deal to him that he was able to reach a distance well short of the top of the backboard, I wonder if anyone ever really has.

Todd Gallagher wrote the highly entertaining book "Andy Roddick Beat Me With a Frying Pan" that endeavors to answer the questions that burn in the souls of fans, like: Are dart professionals great beer pong players, do athletes really play high, and could Andy Roddick beat an average tennis player playing with a frying pan?

Gallagher and his publishers at Three Rivers Press have nicely agreed to let TrueHoop reproduce a whole chapter of that book that is hell-bent on addressing the question "can basketball players really 'make change' off the top of the backboard?" Super-dunker James White was enlisted to help answer the question.

Gallagher writes:

Earl "The Goat" Manigault is widely regarded as one of the greatest playground basketball players of all time. Although he never played in the NBA and only briefly played in college, the legend of Manigault has spread far and wide and led to his play being glorified in magazines, books, and even a movie starring Don Cheadle called Rebound: The Legend of Earl "The Goat" Manigault. There are a number of tales regarding Manigault's prowess, but the central story that propelled his legend was that he had such extraordinary leaping ability he could pull dollar bills off the top of the backboard and leave change. What made this even more amazing was that Manigault was, depending on who you talk to, somewhere between 5-11 and 6-1. Considering that the top of the backboard is at thirteen feet and the average six-foot-tall man can only touch about eight feet high standing flat-footed, Manigault would have had to jump at least sixty inches to even come close. That would mean the Goat's "making change" was a feat on par with Michael Jordan's game-winning dunk from half court in the film Space Jam. In other words, pure fiction.

The legend of touching the top of the backboard has gone on for years, and it has been excitedly attributed to so many different players that it's commonly assumed any number of guys in the NBA can do it. But in a sport where any individual achievement is promoted ad nauseam, we've never seen any proof of it actually being done.

I went to the epicenter of basketball talent (no, not Greece) to talk to the U.S. national team. Certainly, if it could be done, one of America's basketball stars would be able to do it.

While Coach Mike Krzyzewski had the players practicing cheers to boost team spirit instead of learning how to beat a zone defense or defend a pick and roll, I asked then-general manager of the Denver Nuggets Kiki Vandeweghe, a former all-star, whether he'd ever seen anyone reach the mountaintop.

"No, I've never seen it. That's a long way up there. I don't think it can be done."

What about Kiki's former teammate David Thompson? Presumably the 6-4 guard with what people claimed was a 44-inch vertical could grab a quarter off the top of the backboard.

Kiki shook his head solemnly.

"You hear a lot of stories." He looked up at the top of the backboard. "No, I don't think he could do that."

When Coach K was finally done passing out Amex applications, I talked to Amare Stoudamire, who is 6-10 and was one of the best leapers in the NBA before a major knee injury.

"I've never touched the top of the backboard and I've never seen it done," he said. "Myself, I came close, maybe three or four inches from the top. If you're lookin' for a guy who can do it, talk to LeBron James."

So off to LeBron I went. When asked, he shook his head no as well.

"Everyone says I can, but I can't do it. I've tried. I can get up for sure but that's a long way. Dwight's the only man in the world who could do something like that, you gotta talk to him."

"Dwight" was Dwight Howard, the first pick in the 2004 draft, who stands 6-11 and is an absolute physical freak. Do a search online and you'll see extensive video of Dwight's leaping exploits. His team, the Orlando Magic, has documented some of his more amazing stunts, most famously him literally kissing the rim. In the 2007 Slam Dunk contest, he dunked a ball while slapping a sticker shockingly high on the backboard.

Hornets point guard Chris Paul told me, "I think Dwight can. I asked him before practice today and he said he can but I've never seen him do it."

I asked Chris if he could get Dwight to try.

"I don't know. Depends on how he feels. I want to see it, too."

Have you ever seen anyone do it?

"Uh uh."

So that's total crap when people say Earl Manigault could do it, since he was like 6 feet tall?

"I believe it, though. You ain't never seen the movie Rebound?"

You mean the one with Don Cheadle?

"Yeah."

You know that's not a documentary, right?

When Chris and I approached Dwight and asked him, he beamed ear to ear.

"I can. I've never heard of anyone else that can do it but I can get up there. I did it in high school when I was seventeen for the first time. Now, I can't grab stuff off of it but I can get up there."

When we asked to see it, Dwight politely begged off but said he'd do it for me later. He told me to set it up with the Magic. So, a week later, I called the team and they said my trip would be unnecessary; they had all kinds of great video with Howard leaping, including Dwight touching the top of the backboard. For the first time in the history of basketball we were going to have documentation.

Well, the footage ended up being bunk. On the video Dwight ended up touching somewhere just north of the square on the backboard a couple of times. Because Howard seemed like a nice guy and I wanted to take him at his word, I asked the Magic's VP of communications, Joel Glass, when we could coordinate the jump per the original plans Dwight and I discussed. Joel stated that no matter what Dwight told me, he would not be allowed to jump, citing injury concerns.

I pointed out that jumping in the air one time would be less dangerous than most of the things Dwight did in a typical NBA game and I added that I had never heard of anyone, ever, in the history of basketball getting hurt this way. So Joel started giving a variety of other reasons, all bordering on the insane.

Next I contacted Dwight's agency, Goodwin Sports, to let them know that I would be willing to spend my own time and money having someone come to Orlando to document the leap. They said that it sounded good and that they'd check with Dwight and get back to me. The official response came from Mary Ford, Howard's publicist at Goodwin, who said he could do it but it was too time consuming. When I explained that it would literally be one jump after practice, the total time of which would be somewhere in the neighborhood of ten seconds, the agency took two weeks to say no. And this time she hedged. "Well, he can do it but he can't always do it."

You can look at this a couple of different ways:

1. Dwight can't touch the top of the backboard and the Magic and his agency were covering for him. Alarm bells go off since they have footage of different kinds of leaping stunts but not the most-talked-about one in basketball history. Twice in the 2007 season Dwight tried to impress with his leaping ability, once at the Slam Dunk contest and again when his teamma
tes doubted he could still reach a piece of tape high on the backboard that he had touched when he was a rookie. However, both the sticker and the piece of tape were 12-6 high, which left him a full six inches short of our milestone. Combine this with him not trying to touch the top when the players of the U.S. national team asked, all the different excuses his organization and agency gave, and the historically murky nature of the claims, and there are certainly doubts.
2. Dwight really can touch the top of the backboard but the people surrounding him are awful.

It's a tough call. Dwight is astounding athletically and by all accounts is a nice and honest guy, but pro athletes, even ones with the best intentions, are notoriously bad about overestimating their own abilities. It's very easy for someone to think they're touching the top when really they're 4 or 5 inches below. After years of bulls---, I needed proof.

My next lead was Shawn Marion, who was rumored to be able to pull it off. A call to the Suns led to some internal research followed by them telling me he "used" to be able to do it. The team could produce no documentation, though, and no one who could even vouch for the claim.

But but but ... there was hope! And the hope was in the person of James "Flight" White, aJames White 6-7 string bean rookie for the San Antonio Spurs. (TrueHoop note: now White's playing for Fenerbache in Turkey.)

Dunking, in a way, is an art (in the same way that Boone's Farm is a wine, but I digress), and in that respect it's often a matter of taste and preference as to who the "best" is. But while at the University of Cincinnati, White performed a variety of dunks so improbable that they had never been attempted in competition, let alone completed, before he flushed them down. To give an idea of White's leaping ability, it was mind-blowing when Dr. J took off from the foul line and dunked in 1976; it was jaw dropping the way Michael Jordan took off from the foul line and dunked in 1987; but in 2001 James White took off from the foul line and dunked while putting the ball between his legs!

There is no one -- and I stress, no one -- in the history of professional basketball who can even come close to doing this. Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Dr. J, Kenny "Sky" Walker, Dee Brown, Spud Webb, Terence Stansbury, Dominique Wilkins, the entire cast of Slamball -- none of these guys could pull off this dunk. Isaiah Rider won a dunk contest in 1994 just by virtue of the fact that he could go between his legs and dunk at all, and as mentioned, Jordan and Dr. J won dunk contests by being able to dunk from the foul line. It's questionable whether David Thompson or Earl Manigault could do either. James White combined the two.

So when I came across an interview from the Indianapolis Star with White that read:

Q: Can you touch the top of the backboard?
A: Yeah.

I immediately called his agent, Bill McCandless, to set up something.

Bill had his concerns, but was intrigued.

"That's really the biggest old wives' tale out there. If you're around basketball, you grow up hearing all the time about guys being able to do that and it's always nonsense.

"I'll tell you this, though, James does not bulls--- about this kind of stuff. I don't know if you're aware of this but he had thought about becoming a decathlete. The guy has Olympic leaping ability. Jumping off of one leg, he's like no other."

McCandless said that even without training White qualified for the Olympic trials in the high jump by leaping 7-4 and the long jump with a distance of 25-7.

This sounded promising. He called James and quickly got back to me.

"James said he's for sure done it. Now, he might only be able to do it one out of one hundred times, but he said he'd give it a shot if you want to send a camera crew."

White arrived at the court at the University of Cincinnati ready to fly, but first he wanted to clarify something about his top-of-the-backboard exploits.

"I've never actually done it, per se. But doing the vertical test at the University of Cincinnati, I've touched as high as the top of the backboard."

How fitting for this topic. Thinking back to his "Yeah" response to the Indianapolis Star interviewer, I started to wonder whether NBA players saying they've touched the top of the backboard was like kids in junior high saying they've "gone all the way."

But James wanted to show his stuff. Since he jumps off of one foot, we put a yardstick off of the side of the top of the backboard. Not exactly the same thing as touching the top of the backboard, but one step at a time. If he couldn't get the yardstick, then there'd be no reason to go further.

There was no reason to go further.

James was close. Damn close. But his best jump left him more than 2 inches from the yardstick.

Okay, maybe I was being pessimistic when I said there was no reason to go further. There had been rumors of a "busted nut" (is that part of the knee or something?) that took place an hour before the jump, slowing James down, so a month later we tried again, this time after practice with the Spurs in San Antonio.

Again, close but not quite.

As to whether White can do it or not, you can draw your own conclusions. My money says that he can. He was only a few inches off, and I don't think James would have taken the time to jump for us twice, or offered to try again before we ran into a book deadline, if it was something he couldn't do.

But whether James White can or can't reach the top is secondary in this discussion. The point is, if a 6-7 Olympic-caliber high jumper who can do dunks that Vince Carter and Michael Jordan dare not attempt is struggling to reach a yardstick off of the side of the hoop, there is no player in history who has ever touched the top of the backboard. And certainly no one who has ever "made change."

And no, Don Cheadle jumping off of a trampoline doesn't count.

(Photo: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)