The Art of the Dunk
When I was in 7th or 8th grade in my early years of playing basketball, I would call my teammates and say, “Do you want to play some basketball at Morningside Elementary?” This was my first experience in sales. I would try to convince the guy I was calling to join us because “so and so is coming if you’re coming.” The goal was to have at least eight guys to go 4 on 4. Many times, just like sales, I would have to call back and confirm to say, “Yes, Joe is coming if Rick and Paul are coming” and so forth. One of the reasons we liked to play at Morningside was that the hoops were only 8 ½ to 9 feet tall. We liked those or at least I did because I could dunk the ball on a fast-break or maybe even in traffic. (Again, we were only 7th & 8th graders.) This is where I first developed the Art of the Dunk. I believe this early training enabled me to be a much more prolific dunker because I mastered it on a low hoop. When I was able to do it on a 10 foot hoop, I already had the skills and timing to really throw it down. It was in 8th grade PE that I first started touching the net with my head while other kids were jumping and touching the net with their hand.
During this same time, a number of us would go early to school to play in some pickup games at O’Leary Jr. High School where we attended. One particular morning, I was feeling pretty springy after playing pickup games of basketball in the gym. I went up to touch the rim and ended up grabbing the rim and hanging by one hand. Man, did that feel good to this skinny 6’ 1 ½” kid. I hung there for awhile as I recall, partly in amazement and partly wanted to show off. I still remember some kids I knew saying, “Wow, look at “Vilen” (referring to me by my last name as kids often do when you are at school). Eighth grade was a very good year for us and myself athletically. We were undefeated in football; in fact, only one team scored on us. And in basketball we only had one loss. But we faced that same team in the playoffs and beat them with me leading in scoring with 17 points. This win led us to the championship game, in which we won by 3 points.
In 9th grade, I could only successfully dunk a volleyball on a 10 foot hoop. Occasionally in 10th grade I could get a basketball in. I could jump high enough with one hand to drop it in, but didn’t have large enough hands to control it. By 11th and 12th grade at a new school, I was able to dunk two handed, but had to get the timing just right. When I was first in college, it was much the same thing, until transferring over to a new college my 3rd year. It was there that along with my running and stretching, I realized that running hills and doing light squats (from 225 lbs to warm up to 385 and occasionally around 400 lbs), my power to get up off the ground started to soar. I could not only dunk the ball, but started getting some real height up there. After working at a Salvation Army camp in Calabasas near Malibu for the 2nd summer in a row, I realized I was becoming a pretty good ball player. It was much like the original movie Meatballs starring Bill Murray. We were the poorer kid’s camp playing the wealthier rich kids that attended UCLA and USC for the most part. They challenged us to a basketball game and we were pretty much outmatched for the most part, but we did have a few good players. I say humbly, I was the best player out of both teams and we managed to beat the rich kid’s camp on our court which was great. Later that summer, some folks from the English Basketball Association contacted me to play with their team near Manchester England. Many people have asked me, how did they know if you were good enough to compete? I didn’t, but I saw several players being sent home after 2 weeks in the country because they couldn’t compete. Fortunately for me, our team was involved in a tournament the 2nd weekend I was there. And I played pretty well and even jumped up high enough under the backboard to block a couple of shots off of the board.
When I played basketball in high school and some college, you were not allowed to dunk in the warmups, because everyone was trying to dunk which resulted in broken backboards from guys hanging on the rims. (Not everyone had spring-loaded rims yet) What was nice and very fun for me was this: You were allowed to dunk in warmups in the English Basketball Association. I usually warmed up with some layups and then went onto 2- handed dunks, my patented double pump reverse dunk and then the crowd pleaser. What I call the crowd pleaser is a very common dunk today, but in the early 80’s not everyone had the skill or the timing for this unless they were in the NBA or a big time college player with some hops. I would dribble in usually coming down the lane slightly on the left side and bounce the ball hard off the floor in a forward motion in the middle of the key. When the ball was getting towards the height of its bounce, I would meet the ball in the air with 2 hands over my head and thrust it downward into the hoop. This felt good, because at 6’3” plus, not as many guys my height were able to get up there like me to execute a dunk like that.
My most memorable dunk came at the Salvation Army Youth Center in Pasadena warming up before a game. I believe I was probably 26 or 27 and played in an all - black league except for me and one other guy. One of my teammates played for the International Globe Trotters team that traveled and played in other countries and not the USA. This was a very competitive league and probably the best one I ever played in. Anyway, while warming up early with jump shots before many of the players got there, I started doing a few slam dunks since my legs were feeling pretty springy that evening. Once warmed up well, I used to take off from the right or left side going forward and would twist in the air and double pump the ball into a reverse slam dunk. One of my more showy dunks for back then. On this particular time I really got up and it seemed like my head was nearly at rim level. After reverse slamming the ball through the rim and net my momentum carried me backwards on the way down and I hit the back of my head on the pad on the bottom of the backboard with a slight jolt stopping my momentum backwards. Fortunately for me the backboard had a pad, otherwise I may have been knocked out or cut my head open. I was Ok, but I knew I had really gotten up for that dunk. Unfortunately back in the mid-80’s, no one had cellphones equipped with a camera. I wish I would have some pictures of me dunking the ball like that. Although many dunks of recent years are spectacular, I can live with the satisfaction that I can reminisce and others can recall some of my furious dunks and how I mastered this skill.