Can Slam Dunk Find Spot in Women's Game?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sylvia Crawley's recent leap of faith took women's basketball to newer heights. Above the rim.

The Portland Power forward says her blindfolded jam at the slam dunk contest during last month's American Basketball League All-Star Game in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., disproves a myth: that women can't do what men can. Dunk with spunk.

Crawley's jam preceded another encouraging upshot for women's basketball. At the NBA All-Star Game in New York City earlier this month, women outshot men in the first-ever two-ball contest. Although the objective of the two-ball wasn't a men vs. women competition, the feat underscored the essence of the women's game: consistency.

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These two events are footnotes in women's professional basketball and offer a preview of how the women's game will be played in the future: with a mixture of spunk and precision.

For her part, Crawley counted off 10 steps from the basket, strapped on a blindfold, sprinted up, launched into the air, and dunked. The video can be viewed on the Internet at www.abl.com.

Slam dunk contests have been marquee sideshows at All Star Games. Sports Illustrated called the inaugural 1976 men's competition "the best half-time innovation since the rest room."

From a half-time novelty, slam dunks have become a staple of the men's game. But in the women's professional league, dunks remain elusive. No woman has ever dunked in a regular professional game. Yet.

In the inaugural WNBA game last season, Lisa Leslie, who led the US to the Olympic gold in Atlanta, tried to give the dunk a flying start and missed. Like many others, she never tried it again.

A few women players have dunked in college games. Georgeann Wells of the University of West Virginia was the first to make the giant leap in 1983. The last collegian to accomplish the feat was Charlotte Smith of North Carolina in 1994.

Women do dunk in practice, yet they rarely attempt it during a game. The shot is not a tall order for women. About 20 players are 6 ft., 3 in. or taller in the 80-player WNBA rooster. The rival ABL league has giants too, the most promising among them: the New England Blizzard's Kara Wolters at 6 ft., 7 in.

One reason is that the women's game is based on a different philosophy. "Women's basketball is about basic fundamentals," says Crawley. "We are students of the game and try to be complete players.... It is pure basketball." In simple terms, the women's game is teamwork in action. It's about precision not power.

THAT precision was fully obvious in the two-ball contest. This year, the NBA replaced its All-Star Game's marquee event, the slam dunk contest, with the two-ball. The two-ball pairs one male player (NBA) and one female player (WNBA), both of whom play for the same city. This year there were eight pairs. The teams took shots at the basket from six locations on the floor during a 60-second time period. Points were awarded based on difficulty (values range from 2 points for layups and as many as 8 points for a 3-pointer. Cynthia Cooper and Clyde Drexler of Houston won.

Here's the twist: If you separate the genders into a men's team and women's team, and tally up all the points, the women outshot the men. The two-ball was a refreshing change.

After epic contests - like those between Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan in 1985 or Cedric Ceballos's blindfolded slam - there has been little creativity in NBA's slam-dunk events in recent years. Gimmicks continued, like jumping over chairs. That's why the NBA put it in storage.

"It doesn't mean the slam-dunk contest is gone forever, but we felt it was time to try something new," says NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik.

If the slam-dunk contest returns, NBA players might take the event to greater heights. Recently, Michael "Wild Thing" Wilson and Fred "Preacher" Smith of the Harlem Globetrotters set a world record for the highest vertical slam dunk: 11 feet 11 inches during a BBC television event. That's almost two feet higher than the regulation height of 10 feet.

Yet the Globetrotter achievement did not receive half as much attention as Crawley's. "Little girls, players, and even grown men were also crying," she says.

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