As the summer wears on, with training camps and preseason play still off in (what feels like) the distant future, we turn our attention to the past. Join us as we while away a few late-summer moments recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. This is Dunk History.
Today, Jay Busbee takes us back to a day when a short man broke through basketball's height-prejudiced ceiling ... and kept on rising.
Here's a story that ought to be a fairy tale, or maybe a children's book: The Little Dunker That Could. Or, from another perspective, The Sure Thing That Wasn't.
Growing up in Atlanta in the mid-1980s, you didn't exactly have a banquet of exquisite sports options. There were the Braves, still years away from the start of their everything-but-rings dynasty. The Falcons featured the planet's most eligible bachelor in quarterback Steve Bartkowski ... and little else. The Hawks, though -- the Hawks had some promise. Though, as always seems to be the case with Atlanta, the Hawks' finest moments came when someone else was just a little bit better.
Dominique Wilkins embodied and personified the 1980s Hawks. He would have been the most electrifying player in the league, were it not for Michael Jordan. He led a Hawks team that legitimately could have won at least one ring, were it not for the Boston Celtics.
But 'Nique's not the whole story here. No, to get a sense of the frustrated potential of 'Nique, you only need look to his teammate, who at five-foot-seven literally played in his shadow.
If Spud Webb didn't exist, high school coaches looking for a way to motivate their teams would have had to create him. Told all along that he was too short to play basketball, Webb just flat-out jumped over his critics and his doubters. He landed in Atlanta in 1985, more than a mascot, less than a credible threat. So it was no surprise that his decision to enter the 1986 Slam Dunk Contest was met with the kind of amused acceptance usually reserved for kids who say they want to be Batman when they grow up.
Check out the crop of contestants at that year's showdown:
Terence Stansbury, Paul Pressey, Terry Tyler, Jerome Kersey, Spud Webb, Dominique Wilkins, Roy Hinson, and Gerald Wilkins. That's roughly 50 feet of humanity and five linear inches of shorts. And no disrespect intended to any of the gentlemen in this photo, but seeing that lineup, you'd bet your mortgage that Nique, the defending champ, would own this one, right?
Not so. Let's go to the grainy videotape:
You can almost forgive Dominique for not taking Webb seriously as a competitor. After all, he'd seen Webb for months in practice, and Webb had apparently never displayed this kind of aerial mastery. (Other possibilities: Wilkins hadn't been paying attention, or he assumed he'd be able to cruise on sheer athletic grace.)
"Spud kind of duped him," then-head coach Mike Fratello said afterward. "He told Wilkins he never had anything prepared, didn't practice for it. So, Wilkins maybe thought his normal assortment would be good enough to get through."
Webb earned a degree-of-difficulty points bump just by making the dunks, yes. But the final lob-reverse was more than enough to get him a legitimate title, one that he's happily ridden for nearly three decades since.
Dominique, on the other hand, had come so close only to fall just short. He'd feel that again in the future, against the Celtics in the classic 1988 seven-game playoff matchup, and against Michael Jordan in the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest. It's become something of a recurring theme in Atlanta. But at least in 1986, the city could claim one champion.
More from BDL's Dunk History series:
• Shaq literally takes down the Nets
• Gerald Green turns off the lights
•John Starks, the Chicago Bulls and 'The Dunk'
• Tom Chambers rising like a Phoenix and taking orbit as a Sun
• Taj Gibson starts the break, then breaks Dwyane Wade
• Joakim Noah makes Paul Pierce a memory
• Baron Davis unloads on Andrei Kirilenko, moves beyond belief
• Michael Jordan embarrasses, like, all of the Knicks