In 1967, I was a gangly 6’5” 15 year old riding the pine for Mike Blough’s JV Bulldogs. That same year, the NCAA announced it would be illegal to toss the basketball in through the imaginary cylinder extending up from the rim. In the organization’s words, the dunk “was not a skillful shot,” and the rules committee said the ban was also a result of injury concerns. In the report accompanying their announcement, they cited 1,500 events where a player was hurt around the backboard during the previous year. Of course, it had nothing to do with that magnificent 7’1 5/8” black guy from Harlem who’d come to play for John Wooden at UCLA and proceeded to dunk over everyone his first year. Coach Wooden assured Lew Alcindor that the dunk ban would only make him a better basketball player. It did. He developed his famous sky hook – useful even for little guys like Michigan’s Xavier Simpson to get the ball up over some big guy – and led his team to national championships in ’68 and ’69 before going on to a 20 year hall-of-fame career in the NBA, where from ’71 on he competed as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. See him here as UCLA’s star. Did you know he almost came to Michigan?
33 was my number on JVs.
But the anti-dunk rule would forever be known as the Alcindor rule. It lasted 10 years. Fans were deprived of one of the most exciting plays in basketball, even if purists say it is not a skillful move. Players were deprived, too, of a play that connotes such dominance over an opponent.
Why do I care? Sure, as a fan I missed seeing dunks. But as a player, it was much, much worse. It wasn’t just during games that you couldn’t put the ball through the cylinder, but practice and pre-games as well. I kept growing – 6’6” as a junior, 6’8”as senior -and got my way onto Tom Horn’s varsity team. Coach Horn had hopes that someday the light would go on for me. It never did, but midway through my junior season, I put some stick-um on my fingers, took a run at the basket, and slam! Wow, did I just do that? So I did that a few times every practice, just for fun, and all was well until Coach Horn saw me doing it. “You know that’s illegal and you could get the team in trouble if you’re caught doing it in a game or the warm-ups”. The “trouble” was a technical foul. Grumbling, I’d still take a shot at it now and then in practice. I never dunked in pre-game warmups until my senior year. Some of my teammates realized we had a show on our hands. Dan Cohrs, 6’6” starting center, Dan Walters, 6’2” starting forward, and I could all dunk. We decided we’d line up for layup drills with the two Dans then me coming down the lane to the hoop. It was an outstanding show, and the crowd always went crazy. Coach Horn couldn’t help but see it and got ever more pissed the more we did it, even if we never drew that technical foul. He couldn’t bench the Dans because they were too good and I was already on the bench. I think our show did kinda fade away, but it remains one of my best memories of high school basketball. I grew another inch and played intramurals at Michigan and Chicago, maybe a bit more skillfully, but I don’t think I ever dunked again. I saw my Bulldogs play last Friday night and one of those tall skinny white farm kids dunked in warmups. Good for him. His coach didn’t have to go ape as it’s all been legal since ’77, thank God.
Maybe my memories of the dunk show wouldn’t be so special if it hadn’t been illegal. But isn’t it that way with a lot of things? Still, whatever the barriers, ya gotta reach high.
So here’s the VHS ’68-9 team. I was a junior. The senior year team picture has us in our blazers, not as cool. To my right is my classmate Eric Durham, my best friend. He hadn’t mastered the dunk and chose not to go out his senior year. Next to Dan Cohrs on my left is senior Sam Rogers. He used his ample size for brutishness rather than finesse and couldn’t dunk. He became a very close friend much later and died 2 Januaries ago.