Houston's state-of-the-art dunk shots herald wave of future
Albuquerque, N.M. — What does the future hold for college basketball? Dunks, dunks, and more dunks if the play in this year's NCAA tournament showdown here is any indication.
Houston's semifinal victory over Louisville was one of the most explosive exhibitions of high-above-the-rim basketball ever seen on a college court. And this was just the climax of a dunk-filled season in which the Cougars were ranked No. 1 in the nation and finished 31-3 overall despite an upset loss to North Carolina State in the final.
During the regular season, in fact, one out of seven Houston field goals came on dunks. A Texas writer was so duly impressed that he labeled this airborne brotherhood Phi Slama Jama, and the name stuck.
And regardless of that 54-52 loss to N.C. State (via a last-second dunk, ironically enough), some who witnessed the Cougars' act suspect that their high-flying style may be the game's wave of the future - if not the offense of the 1980s, at least that of the '90s and beyond.
This isn't to say players haven't been stuffing the hoop for years. Pete Newell, once an outstanding coach at California, remembers seeing baseball great Jackie Robinson dunk when he played basketball at UCLA in the early 1940s. Wilt Chamberlain was doing it regularly as a Philadelphia schoolboy in the early and mid-'50s. More recently, a Louisville squad billed as ''The Doctors of Dunk'' won the 1980 NCAA title. And of course every pro fan is familiar with what Julius Erving and Darryl (Chocolate Thunder) Dawkins have done to glamorize the stuff shot in recent years.
Until now, however, no college team has really matched Houston's rim-shaking fraternity in terms of national awareness. Nor has any group of undergraduates sought so consistently to dunk or elevated dunking to such an art form.
One person who should know is Rodney McCray, a member of both Louisville's 1980 team and the squad that got bounced in this year's semifinal. Asked what he thought of the Cougars' 14-dunk performance, he said, ''We've put on a show like that for our fans during preseason. But I've never seen anything like that in a real game.''
And that's the point: the Cougars are encouraged by their coach, Guy Lewis, to avail themselves of every possible dunking opportunity. Lewis even got mad at Benny Anders for squandering a chance trying to avoid a charging foul against Louisville.
''Coach told me to take it to the rack and stick it on him (Cardinal center Charles Jones),'' the sophomore forward explained. ''So the second time, I took it to the rack and stuck it on him.''
Lewis is enamored of the dunk for one simple reason: it is a high percentage shot. But he also is aware of its crowd-pleasing qualities, and laughs at the notion of making long-range shots worth more while devaluing the dunk. ''I think the dunk is a more exciting shot; it ought to be rewarded with another point,'' he says facetiously.
Based on fan reaction, many might agree. Rim-reverberating tomahawk stuffs, alley-oop pass-and-dunk combos, and soaring, fast-break slams jolt the applause meter.
And to think, the shot was legislated out of the college game for 10 years, beginning in 1967. This was done partly for safety considerations, though some question the validity of this concern. ''Most of the trouble,'' Washington State coach George Raveling told Sports Illustrated, ''comes from those little pygmies trying to impress their girlfriends.''
In the public's mind, the dunking ban was really aimed at UCLA center Lew Alcindor, which is why some still refer to it as the Alcindor rule. If allowed to dunk, the theory went, Alcindor (now Los Angeles Laker star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) would be unstoppable and UCLA a cinch to dominate the sport. It did anyhow, with Alcindor developing the ''sky hook'' that has remained his bread and butter in the pros.
Dunking returned by popular demand. ''We put it back in because it is an appealing way to score. The fans liked it and the players liked it,'' says Ed Steitz, editor and a 30-year member of the NCAA Rules Committee. ''We've kept it out of pre-game warmups only to protect the equipment.''
Supporters contend that dunking is a lot more difficult than it looks. Lewis , who lobbied as hard as anybody to bring back the dunk, says it isn't an easy shot at all. ''A lot of guys are afraid to take it, especially at full speed and with the defender coming up from behind,'' he points out.
Also, of course, good defenses can still deny big men the ball inside and shut off breakway layups, which is how N.C. State was able to stop Houston's run and dunk show in the final. This is why even outstanding dunkers generally have developed a good shooting touch.
Furthermore, far from spawning a boring succession of point blank shots, the reinstitution of dunking has made for exciting, entertaining basketball. Tall players seldom just drop the ball through the basket anymore. Challenged to find ways to go over and around players as big, if not bigger, they have concocted a Baskin Robbins menu of dunks.
So many of them were on display in Houston's win over Louisville that Steitz called it ''the most electrifying game I've ever seen. If we banned the dunk now , fans would hang all the members of the rule committee.''
Given the current public mood, in fact, the fans would probably prefer the tongue-in-cheek proposal once made by ex-Texas coach Abe Lemons. Rather than neutralize big men, he suggested, why not drill a hole in the floor so little men could drop it through too?
Convinced that the dunk is here to stay, rulemakers have sought to rid it of certain dangers. Collapsible rims have become standard equipment, shatterproof backboards are on the way, and there's even talk of slicing a foot off the bottom of the board so ever-taller, higher-leaping players won't bump their heads going to the basket.
Years from now, however, one wonders what the game will be like if every campus has a Phi Slama Jama chapter. Is this what Dr. James Naismith had in mind when he invented the game?
Not according to Steitz, who has long advocated raising the rim from 10 to 12 feet. He claims the height should be changed so players shoot up at the basket as they once did. He doesn't consider the present rim height sacrosanct, since it was arrived at arbitrarily when Naismith mounted the first peach basket to an elevated running track.
The rules committee would love to see some conference experiment with a higher basket just as various leagues have done with shot clocks and three-point shots. Nobody's interested though. The Big Ten was close to trying a 12-foot basket a decade or so ago, but got cold feet when coaches realized it would jeopardize their teams' tournament chances.
Raising the basket may seem terribly revolutionary, but there is a precedent for radical change. Jump balls that followed every basket were eliminated in 1937, and the game has been better without them.
For now, of course, given the public's obvious and vocal enjoyment of the shot, anything that would take dunks out of basketball seems an anathema. Therefore, the jam session will continue unabated.