The first time Dwight Howard did it, it was a rejection of the dunk. He did it in costume, as if to say he was the sole earthly descendent of a race that had advanced beyond the dunk. It was the statement, when married to the act of throwing the ball downward into the hoop, that made Howard’s nondunk so mesmerizing. I remember him, hips above the rim (they weren’t) and cape billowing (it wasn’t), frozen in a pose that said that the old notion of the dunk was literally beneath him.
Howard’s dunk, sadly, has another legacy: the first of the prop dunks. We’re coming up on its six-year anniversary, and in the time since, we’ve seen a teddy bear grabbed off the rim by Serge Ibaka’s teeth, various former players jumped over, and a farce of corporate synergy when Blake Griffin vaulted a Kia to invigorate an otherwise nondescript dunk. Last year, Jeremy Evans brought the dunk contest to its hilarious Inception-meets-Surrealism moment when he dunked over a portrait of himself dunking over a portrait of himself dunking. The dunk—the performed dunk, at least, in the contest—had been ushered into the world in which the rest of us live and have grown weary. It had been made inseparable from the associations that were crowding its expressive purity.
It seems to me most fans now favor the in-game posterization as the pinnacle of dunking. After the wizardry of Vince Carter and Jason Richardson, it became perhaps too daunting to keep finding ways reinvigorate the physics, though Andre Iguodala’s slam from behind the backboard is a latter-day masterpiece of the form. But dunking on a defender during live action retains the old visceral thrill, removed from the excess of the ceremony. It’s the difference between a priest giving Sunday mass and a lay preacher laying on hands.
There are a few possible explanations for why dunk authority has migrated from the dunk contest to in-game throw-downs. It is possible that most fans, like me, have grown tired of the forced enthusiasm, relentless branding, and repetitive imitation. But it is also true that dunks are among the most .gif-able moments in sports, and any fan with a twitter account has access, in effect, to a dunk contest every night. That LeBron never jumped over a car means far less than his annihilation of Jason Terry.
So if every night is now a dunk contest, we have for consideration whatever it is that Blake Griffin does. It seems to me that most fans have moved beyond arguing whether Griffin’s thunderbolts are dunks; clearly, they are not, but most of the discussion I see is no longer concerned with arguing their merits. It seems that fans have reached, blessedly, something of a consensus: not a dunk, but at least as good as a dunk.
Other players, in the past few years, have converted dunk attempts where they’ve been too far away from the rim to make contact, but Griffin does so with a frequency that suggests he is consciously attempting the notdunk. (The move sorely needs a name. Let’s call it the Throwdunk.)
It’s well known among defenders that Griffin likes to take off from what he refers to as his “launch point,” and as a consequence, defenders sprint out to beat him to that spot, as Humphries tries to do. So Griffin finds himself in the air, feet away from the hoop, and in possession of unusually short arms. Thus, even if he’s not rising up with the intent of throwing the ball through the rim, it’s clear that he’s developed the move as a tactic in response to sound defense. It’s this consideration at least as much as the actual made basket that impresses me most about the undunk—the notion that Griffin is so aware of his own explosiveness that the defense has already lost by the time he has elevated.
I don’t know whether Griffin was consciously inspired by Howard’s Superman dunk, or whether the increasing league-wide prevalence of the throw-dunk attempt can be traced to that moment. But Griffin’s usage of the move translates Howard’s message into real-time action; whereas most players covet the rim as the court’s most valuable space, Griffin is above the play anytime he’s got a foot in the paint. The player whose ultra-sponsored Kia dunk represented the nadir of the dunk contest has mined one of the more potent contest dunks and incorporated it into his signature play. He’s combining Howard’s knowing rejection of the dunk with the posterizer’s declaration that his will to score overcomes the efforts of the defense; he doesn’t need to dunk, because he can dunk from anywhere. It’s a statement powerful enough that regardless of what happens in February, Blake Griffin has won this year’s dunk contest.