The Catapulting Thwamp

In the final game of my high school basketball career, I saw the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream: to dunk.

Basketball dunk.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by VINCENT LAFORET/AFP/Getty Images.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.

To survey the torn-and-taped decorations of my bedroom in 1989 was to understand the one fantastical pursuit that held sway over all other interests within the blinkered limits of my adolescent imagination: dunking. Sure, an Elle MacPherson ripped from a swimsuit issue served as a virile heteronormative counterpoint to the hardworking dignity of my Dead Poets Society poster, but the rest was basketball. The centerpiece, the image my eyes sought at first light and the glowing montage I took with me into sleep, was the 1986 NBA poster, SULTANS OF SLAM.

With a background of victorious yellow-gold, eight frames of mid-dunk glory memorialized eight superstars in their varied and distinct styles at the culminating, exclamatory moment (clockwise: Spud Webb, Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Gerald Wilkins, Larry Nance, Dominique Wilkins, and James Worthy). I studied these portraits, feeling my way into each of them, approximating the force and timing required to, say, jam the ball through with two hands, reversed and half blind at the top of your (i.e. Dominique’s) leap. I projected and anticipated the pride that would greet you upon landing after having forced the ball through the rim at the conclusion of a wildly reared-back, one-handed thump (à la Clyde Drexler). I communed with these wall heroes, hoping to absorb just enough of the spring and panache required to realize this waking dream—not just in a driveway, but in front of an attentive crowd.

I memorized, worried over, and fixated on the nuances of hand-to-rim positioning in these differing dunks, dedicated myself to appreciating and grasping the varieties of aesthetic transcendence represented by the canon of slams. And each time I walked past my bedroom’s Nerf hoop, I compulsively, dreamily rehearsed my imaginary encounters with such a future moment—when it would be my outstretched hands depressing the rim and punching the ball through, with practiced style, at a vital moment in a critical game. From the day I snuck an underinflated volleyball over the lip of our middle school’s rims with enough force to “count,” this possibility took up permanent, salacious residence in my tiny store of life goals and lyrical aspirations. One day, I thought, I would have the chance to dunk in a game.

This is the story of that day.

I was 6 feet 1 inch that eighth-grade year, the year I made the unpopular decision to forsake football (and quarterbacking) to devote myself to basketball. By my senior year I had vaulted up to 6 feet 1 inch—and a half. I was a steady but unremarkable four-year starter, but I had never dunked in a game. My longtime coach was an unrepentant, frothing disciplinarian who’d made it clear, repeatedly, that regardless of our selfish aspirations, dunking was not to be attempted in our games. Ever. Even the few who could periodically manage to get high enough to consider the move demurred.

I averaged just under 20 points a game that final year and earned invitations to a few postseason all-star games. My precociously creaky knees were slightly rejuvenated by the time these games were played, well after the state championship final we hadn’t come close to making. Practice time for the 1992 News-Herald All-Star Classic consisted of one hasty gathering in which the all-stars were divided into unequally matched squads. My West team featured a few Division II– and III–bound players. The East team was sending a cluster to notable Division I programs, and the results of the game would bear this inequality out in the expected ways.

All-star games are, thanks to the NBA model, largely anti-competitive affairs. There’s not enough time or investment to care much about the final score, so the hope is that individual players get to do something memorable and flamboyant, moves that a tense in-season game would likely prohibit. Randomly dropped into this fleeting alliance of teens for 32 minutes of thrill-seeking, we were generally encouraged to have an unselfconsciously good time.

Our host arena, the auditorium of Lakeland Community College just outside Cleveland, was—at least by the meager standards of my small-school experience—vast and crackling with expectancy. A handful of my most supportive friends situated themselves within my sightline during the pregame layup lines, where we warmed up, coming at the basket, one at a time, in waves of gradually mounting ambition. The first few approaches were, by unspoken consensus, gaudily casual. Starting from the right side, most players veritably shuffled to the rim, dribbling in slow, exaggerated arcs, and made a show of staying earthbound, spinning the ball up toward the rim with a show of unconcerned, underhand, I’m-not-ready-yet disdain.

But with each trip to the basket, the dribbles lowered and intensified, and this loosening ritual started to heat up, every player nodding, bouncing in sync with the vanilla hip-hop coming through the speakers at a respectful volume. The first, sudden Daaamns from the crowd were prompted, it became clear, from the unmistakable report of rims being rocked by our opponents’ pregame dunks. As we slapped the backboard through our layups with comparative inadequacy, I could feel all of us resisting the uncomfortable temptation to stop and admire the East side’s athletic displays. Even if they were bigger, more talented, and otherwise superior, they needed to be treated like the competition. We were sharing the court for a reason, and needed to strut accordingly.

But a clear signal traveled through the diminutive West side, strangers though we may have been to one another: If you got ’em, smoke ’em. If you were being coy with your previous layups and pullup jumpers, this was the point at which you upgraded to hurling yourself up and at the rim with meaning. And I was good for it in that night’s layup line, the sense of occasion—a college gym, accomplished teammates and opponents, the confidence-affirming “all-star” designation—providing enough extra lift to allow me one, then two, then three two-handed dunks, and an instantly elevated respect from my surprised new teammates.

The game was closer than expected in the first half, and we even led after the first quarter.

It was high-scoring, per all-star protocol, since defensive efforts were reduced as everyone blithely traded imaginatively orchestrated baskets. And in the course of this brisk action I was, as announcers like to declare, “a nonfactor.” Their big guys were meeting with limited resistance, while our bigger guys were keeping the game close with surprising success from outside. But I wasn’t having much luck from anywhere on the floor, taking uncharacteristically few shots and otherwise failing to find a way to get meaningfully involved.

As we approached halftime, the score still close, I was subbed in again to match up with the East’s shooting guard. Well-rested and revved up from self-directed frustration about my lost or overlooked opportunities up to that point, I overplayed the passing lane toward the top of the opponent’s 3-point line and stepped in to steal a pass. I was suddenly, climactically presented with a wide-open, direct path to self-actualization.

As I rushed down the court with the ball in my uncontested possession, two short steps ahead of my lone pursuer, time did not, I regret to report, slow into focus or calm. I knew my preferred angle of approach was from the left, so I consciously drifted to that side, allowing the scrambling defender to shorten our separation, his determined steps peripherally visible. It took me five, perhaps six dribbles to travel the 60 or 70 feet separating me and my target. I was overwhelmed by a swell of eye-widening anticipation at this opportunity to punch the ball through a yielding, waiting rim, the logical and just and dramatically fulfilling culmination of the basketball career I knew was nearing its end. I could feel my entire nervous system, in league with my flushed, overactivated sense of imminently realized destiny, standing at attention. Years of wistful projection were thrillingly, publicly resolved into a hurried, bounding, eager dribble down the near middle of the Lakeland Community College court on a springtime Friday night in my 18th year.

As I entered the left-ish side of the key, still too central for my liking, it was time to conclude the dribble to gather force for the jump, even as the defender started timing his own contradictory ascent. Maybe I smiled expectantly as I rose up. Maybe I intuitively steeled my gaze as I strained and stretched both arms, ball between fingers, toward the center-right edge of the rim. Whatever my expression, my mind’s eye narrowed skeptically in the flash of worry in which I microsuspected that I had taken off a beat too soon, or allowed myself to float two inches too far right, as I reared back my raised arms with perhaps excessive torque and mimicked flair. As my eyes rose closer to the rim I was among the Sultans, one of the pantheon of players who had ever or would ever dunk in a game.

And then the catapulting thwamp. My hands crashed down indignantly onto the rim. But instead of sending the ball down and through the opening, the bending of the rim stalled and rattled the ball briefly across that circular void, before my release of the rim launched the ball out. I looked up to see the ball flying back toward half-court in a soul-dissolving, time-arresting parabola I can still see today.

Circumstance had delivered to me the long-summoned opportunity: to complete my playing days with a very specific wish fulfilled. In that moment, I had an opening. So I jumped at it. I missed. “Well, hey, you tried, man,” said a teammate I can’t quite picture as we jogged off the court at halftime, a well-intended, shoulder-clapping attempt at consolation to take into intermission. Those quiet 15 minutes in the locker room proved to be the most philosophically eventful stretch of my brief, basketballing life, as the certainty that I would store this sensation in an especially secure part of my memory bank became painful and plain. That same teammate stopped by for one more kind word: “And there’s still the second half!”