Ever since February, a lot of people have wanted to talk to me about dunking.
It’s always, Who’s the best dunker of all time? Or, How old were you when you first started dunking? Or, Why didn’t you try a double-between-the-legs 360?
And, to be honest, I’ve held back a little during those conversations. Not because I don’t like talking about jams (just in case you’re wondering, my top five: Vinsanity, MJ, Nique, Dr. J, Zach LaVine), but because some of my own personal dunking stories are, well … a little embarrassing.
See, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with dunking.
You could ask me about any famous dunk and I could break it down for you in precise detail. Vince Carter’s arm-through-the-rim slam? I’m probably responsible for 10,000 YouTube views of that one. T-Mac’s dunk on Shawn Bradley? I can close my eyes and still hear Kevin Harlan’s call perfectly.
It was a different time back then. Now, it’s about the threes, right? Kids see Steph and Kyrie with a crazy handle and shooting threes, and they want to do that, too. But when I was in high school? Nah, man, it was all about the dunks.
Dunking was all I wanted to do. My freshman year of high school, I told myself I had to make it happen. So I tried every gimmick that claimed it could improve my vertical.
Every single one.
First, I got a pair of ankle weights that I wore every chance I got. I’d strap them on when I was going out with my friends, when I was just chillin’ on my couch watching basketball, even when I was asleep — because, you know, watching TV and sleeping with weights on your ankles will totally make your legs stronger, right?
Then I bought those crazy-lookin’ jump sole shoes. You know, the ones that have a disk underneath the ball of your foot to elevate your calf. Were they comfortable? No. Did they look cool? Hell, no. But I didn’t care … as long as they could help me get up high enough to dunk.
They didn’t. After a week in them, I could still barely just graze the rim. Same as ever.
I grew even more desperate after that. I begged and pleaded with my mom for a set of DVDs that claimed that it could teach you how to improve your vertical in just two weeks. She looked at me like I was crazy. But I told her I needed them (in that way a teenager neeeeeeds something). I wouldn’t let up. And I guess it worked, because a few days later I was studying those DVDs harder than anything I was studying for in school.
At the end of the two weeks, I went to my high school gym.
I stood at half-court with a ball in my hand. I dribbled once, twice, three times, and then took a deep breath. I sprinted toward the basket. When I crossed the free throw line, I took off. I extended my arm as far as I could, the ball palmed firmly in my hand.
I could see the rim, and I could see my hand … and then I could see my hand sailing right under the rim.
I wasn’t even close. It was like someone was playing a joke on me and had raised the rim an extra foot at the last second.
Those DVDs totally lied.
Aside from dunks, the other thing people always ask me about is my dad, and what it was like growing up as the son of an NBA player.
The truth is, my dad never forced me to play hoops, but how could I not fall in love with the game when I was around it all the time?
My parents separated when I was less than was one year old, shortly after the Bucks took my dad with the first pick in the 1994 draft. I lived in Indiana with my mom, while my dad lived in Milwaukee.
He was on the road a lot, but I’d visit him as often as I could. On game nights, he’d take me to the arena. You know how you see clips of Chris Paul’s kids running around the court during warmups? That was me at the Bradley Center. I’d rebound for Ray Allen, Sam Cassell Tim Thomas. I was in the Bucks’ locker room so much it felt like I was part of the team.
Then, when I was in grade school, my dad got traded to the Hawks. A year later, they traded him to the 76ers. Even though Philly was farther away from home than Milwaukee, I still visited him often enough to build a rapport with some of his teammates.
One day, when I was sitting on the last seat of the bench at the Wachovia Center, I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard someone ask, “Is this seat taken?”
I looked up and saw this floppy-haired dude smiling and pointing at the seat next to me. I knew he was a rookie, but I couldn’t remember his name.
I shrugged and said, “Nope.”
He sat down and started chatting with me about the upcoming game. After that, it became a pregame ritual. Before every home game I attended, he’d sit next to me on the bench and we’d talk about hoops, school, music, movies … anything really. Then he’d get up and go through his shooting routine. He shot from everywhere — the corners, the top of the arc, the wings, every angle you can imagine. Every time I watched him, he never seemed to miss.
I’ve never told Kyle Korver how much those talks meant to me. We say what’s up to each other whenever we’re on the court together, but I’m not sure if he remembers that scrawny kid at the end of the bench in Philly. Maybe I’ll ask him next time I see him.
It might sound odd that I didn’t really bat an eye when Kyle asked to sit next to me back in the day, but when you grow up around NBA players, you don’t really get starstruck. Even though I was hanging out with the very same players I watched — idolized, really — it felt more like meeting my dad’s coworkers. They were all just regular people.
All except for one.
It was near the beginning of my dad’s first season in Philly, and I had a pair of shoes in my hand. I walked into the Sixers locker room with my dad. There were silver nameplates for each player above every locker. I saw DALEMBERT, SNOW, SALMONS, THOMAS … but not the one I was looking for, until my eyes settled on the last locker in the far left corner.
AI was sitting in front of his locker, bobbing his head to the music on his headphones. I walked up to him nervously. When I finally reached him, he looked up with a big smile on his face, got out of his chair and gave me a high five.
“What’s up, shorty?” he said.
For some reason, that kind of shook me out of my trance. .
Shorty? I thought. I’m in fourth grade, and I’m almost as tall as you!
I didn’t say it out loud, obviously. I really wanted to get those shoes autographed.
When some players get to the NBA, they can get a little overwhelmed when they’re going up against their heroes. But because I’d spent so much of my early life around NBA players, I skipped that phase. I was prepared.
My dad might have helped me get ready me for life in the NBA, but he didn’t actually teach me the game. I had a much, much tougher coach.
“Come on, keep your dribble tighter.”
“You’re not holding your follow-through. Shoot it again.”
“LeBron wouldn’t be tired right now, so why are you?”
My grandma never let up.
We’d study the moves of my favorite players. I loved Tracy McGrady’s smooth stroke, LeBron’s passing and AI’s fearless charges to the rim. After studying those moves, we’d try to replicate them out in the driveway. If it was snowing, I’d shovel the drive so I could get shots up . And if none of my friends could come over to play, I’d get my mom to shoot with me.
And, of course, we would watch film of the Big Dog. I’ve got clips of his going back to his high school days. He was much more of a bruiser than I am, and he did more of his damage in the post. But when I watched those tapes — now YouTube videos, I guess — I’d see him shoot a turnaround jumper or cross someone over and think, That’s me. Those are my moves! Genetics are crazy.
The other player whose tape I studied the most was LeBron. He has always been the best in-game dunker, so I couldn’t resist.
I wanted to dunk just like him, but even after the ankle weights and the weird jump shoes and those stupid DVDs during my freshman year, I couldn’t manage a simple slam.
I told my grandma about my struggles. True to form, she didn’t mince words.
“You need to stop trying to dunk and focus on shooting.”
Well, I thought, maybe she’s on to something.
So I turned all my attention to working on my shooting, to getting up at least 500 shots every day. Fast-forward to a year later, sophomore season of high school. I hadn’t thought about dunking in a while. Then one game I was running down the court on a fast break. As I went up for a layup, I noticed I had jumped a lot higher than usual.
Holy crap. I’m going to make it.
I didn’t just graze the rim with my fingertips, I flushed the ball right through the hoop.
Grandma always knows best, people. Remember that.
When you’re the child of a professional athlete and you have the same name, people are going to razz you. It’s inevitable. Starting in middle school, opposing fans would scream, “Daddy’s better!” at me every game. I still hear it in Milwaukee to this day.
It used to bother me, but not anymore. I’ve never wanted to be exactly like my dad. He’s given me great advice, but from early on it was clear that my path to the NBA would be very different from his.
He was the first pick in the draft and immediately signed a 10-year, $68 million deal. I was the 40th pick 20 years later, and got cut by two teams before landing with the Pacers. My dad didn’t have to sweat every time he was called into the general manager or the coach’s office
I wish I could say the same.
When Larry Bird and Coach Vogel asked to talk to me two years ago before the start of the season, I immediately thought the worst. Did I do something wrong? Are they making a trade? Am I going to need to pack my bags?
I walked into Coach Vogel’s office. He was sitting, and Larry was standing behind him. There was an empty chair in front of the desk. Both coach and Larry were even-keeled, and their faces were unreadable.
“First off, sit down,” Larry said, pointing to the empty chair. He did not sound happy.
“Listen, you know that multiyear contract you just signed with us?”
“Yeah,” I said. “What about it?”
“We’re going to have to rip it up.”
My heart felt like it was going to explode. I’d been playing really well in the preseason, and I felt like I had finally found a home with the Pacers. I looked at both Coach and Larry. Their faces were stern and unforgiving.
Then Larry broke into a huge smile and said, “We’re gonna rip it up and give you a better one!”
They were laughing so hard I was worried that they might not be able to breathe. I laughed, too. You know — after my heart stopped trying to kick its way out of my chest.
Since that little chat, I really feel like I’ve come into my own. I get to play in my home state. I share the court with one of the best two-way players in the NBA, in Paul George. And I’m a slam dunk champion! I don’t care if people say the dunk contest isn’t what it used to be. For someone who was so obsessed with dunking as a kid, that was the best moment of my career.
Well, the second best. The first was during my sophomore year of high school.
Tie game. Ball in my hands. My defender wasn’t giving me an inch of space. This guy had always given me problems in the past. He was bigger and stronger, and would just back me down in the post. I just couldn’t beat him
He had been talking a big game that day, but on this play his stance wasn’t as low as it should have been and his breathing was a touch too heavy. I knew I had him.
I faked right, then crossed over to my left, and even though the move only messed up his balance a little, it was enough. I rose up and fired off a jumper. Swish. Game.
When the ball sailed through the net, I screamed at the top of my lungs and ran right out of the gym.
After a lifetime of losing, I had finally beat the old man in one-on-one.
We haven’t played since. Gotta go out on top.