Dunks provide thrills and concerns
After Kwame Alexander brought the basket down, he recalled the running joke he had with an assistant coach at Cal State San Bernardino, his Division II school. The assistant had joked that Alexander should leave the building if he ever destroyed a backboard.
Well, he didn't destroy it, but he pulled it down with a monster alley-oop dunk, a feat more than 22,000 viewers have witnessed on YouTube. So he began to sprint after his dunk in that February game. "I almost ran out of the gym," Alexander said. "I was just so amped."
It's not an uncommon reaction. For decades, the dunk has created chaos in arenas throughout the country.
La Salle guard Ramon Galloway, whose acrobatics in his team's NIT loss to Minnesota in March have registered thousands of YouTube hits, was so pumped that he couldn't even focus after one post-dunk celebration.
"I got so excited that I got light-headed and missed the free throw because it was an and-1," Galloway said. "I'm chest-pumping, I'm turning around and my teammates [are] hitting my chest. I got so hype and so amped that I missed a free throw."
The dunk is just as exhilarating today as it was when the NCAA reinstated it in the late 1970s after a 10-year ban. Today's players continue to add their own twists, as some college basketball coaches express concerns about overuse and potential drawbacks, such as technical fouls and injuries. They must balance those worries with the aerial urges of the talented athletes on their rosters and their ability to shift the momentum.
South Florida's Victor Rudd Jr., a 6-foot-7 forward who's recognized as one of the Big East's top athletes, can windmill from both sides of the rim. But it's not just for show. To Rudd -- and his acrobatic colleagues -- dunking is essential. "In traffic, if I have that space to gather and go up strong like I can, then I'm gonna dunk it," Rudd said.
The concept is fascinating to the general population because most people can't dunk. The elite slam artists take the craft to a different level. They also experience a unique rush. "You feel more manly. You feel empowered. It's just really cool being able to affect the game just by being able to jump high," said Florida forward Patric Young.
Added Baylor's Deuce Bello, who completed a behind-the-back 360 during an ESPN special last season: "I think it's just a gift."
Dunking hasn't always been as acceptable as it is today.
The NCAA banned dunking in 1967, citing concerns about injuries. Many within the game, however, thought the NCAA initiated the ban to limit the impact of former UCLA star Lew Alcindor (who would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
The NCAA reversed the ban, however, prior to the 1976-77 season. That move released some of the greatest dunkers in college basketball history -- from Michael Jordan to Blake Griffin -- to ply their trade.
Players from each era have added new wrinkles while inspiring imitators who have fueled the evolution of the dunk.
"Back in the day, it seemed like more gliding stuff," Galloway said. "But now it's just freaky athletic. You can see a kid just walk in the gym, no stretching, just put it between his legs, 360 or something."
Added Washington coach Lorenzo Romar: "I think more do it and more are capable of doing it. Now, very few on the floor aren't able to dunk."
And that's not necessarily a good thing.
Coach Mick Cronin's image is featured on a newspaper ad in Cincinnati's locker room. The picture shows Cronin, who's 5-7, dunking a basketball in a promo for a local prep tournament (Cronin was a standout on the Cincinnati prep scene). "I got a little help on the way up," he joked.
But Cronin and other college coaches are serious with their concerns about players possibly injuring themselves while dunking.
Cronin said he teaches his players to jump off two feet instead of one so that they're more stable once they leave the floor. "Whenever there's a guy coming at you, you cannot go off on one foot and be surprised when he takes you out of the air," he said. "When you go off on one foot you have no balance."
That's not the only challenge associated with dunking.
Oklahoma State's Markel Brown was ejected after he picked up his second technical foul following a dunk against Missouri last season. Brown stared at a defender after the play.
Officials have cracked down on taunting. So players are cautious. "I try not to do too much [after a dunk] because these refs nowadays, they're looking to T you up on the littlest things. You have to be careful," Young said.
Coaches are equally prudent with the aerial freedom they permit.
Minnesota coach Tubby Smith has one of the best dunkers in the country on his roster. Rodney Williams is a 6-7 forward who can dunk from the free throw line. He can twirl 360 degrees in midair with ease. But Smith said he wants Williams and the rest of his squad to use that skill only if it's going to help the team.
"I'm more concerned with what are you doing after it," Smith said. "Sometimes I look at it selfishly: 'I'm doing this, look at me.' So as a coach you want to see them play as a team and not try to bring so much recognition on themselves."
It's a dilemma that faces coaches every night. They want players to score. And sometimes, a dunk is the best option. But they also want their athletes to avoid unnecessary razzle-dazzle that leads to misses and turnovers.
"I think it's situational," said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton. "Sometimes, if you suspect that maybe someone is going to come at you real hard and you've got to go forceful, sometimes the dunk is the best play."
La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini occasionally yells from the sidelines as Galloway runs up the floor on a fast break: "Regular dunk! Regular dunk!" "He freaks out when I do fancy dunks; he loses it," Galloway said. "He always turns to the assistant coaches, and the assistant coaches always tell me he's like, 'Why can't you just tell Ramon to do a regular dunk? It's only two points.'"
But regular dunks don't necessarily boost ratings.
Galloway and the other talented athletes in college basketball attract attention to the sport with their high-flying acts. Every season, college basketball fights for a slice of the national sports conscience as the NBA and NFL seasons persist. Dunking, Cronin said, is vital in that battle. "The excitement is good for our game," Cronin said.
Added Romar: "Unfortunately, when you watch the news, you watch 'SportsCenter,' you watch highlights, you rarely see footage of really good passing. But you see a lot of footage of dunks. It's a big part of the game."
So, according to some coaches and players, college basketball needs the dunk and the creativity that's helped it evolve.
In February, Kwame Alexander's team just needed a rim.
A few men managed to resuscitate the backboard he assaulted so that the game could continue.
But the school ultimately chose to replace the goal he collapsed. Today, it's used only in practice.
Alexander not only brought a backboard to the ground. He essentially retired it via one of the most memorable dunks from the 2011-12 season. "It's an exhilarating feeling," Alexander said. "It's like you just amazed the world."
Or at the very least, 22,000-plus on YouTube.