Bring Back the Breakaway Dunk

The fast break used to be a time for players to pull out their craziest stuff. What happened?
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I had this poster when I was a kid. Mine wasn’t signed, and if it had been I would’ve just gotten Spud Webb’s autograph and cut out all the other pictures and burned them. (Though maybe not James Worthy; I wasn’t just short, I wore goggles too...)

If you can’t make them out, the rest of the Sultans are: Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Gerald Wilkins, Larry Nance and Dominique Wilkins. A slighted Tom Chambers notwithstanding, this was a pretty comprehensive catalogue of the league’s rim-rockers back in ’86, with some, like the 5’7” Webb and Larry Nance, better known for their Contest heroics, and others (Worthy’s “Statue of Liberty,” Barkley’s “Flying Fatman”) for their in-game dunks.

The mid-1980s were a period of athletic discovery and one-upmanship, one that feels now like the NBA’s creative adolescence: suddenly the game was being played above the rim, and not just by bigs, but a new generation of high-flying guards and small forwards. In 1984, after an eight-year, post-merger hiatus, the NBA rekindled the ABA’s Slam Dunk Contest; in retrospect, this official acknowledgment of the new showmanship might mark the NBA brand’s shift from sport to entertainment. (The demolition derby enjoyed a similar genesis in the late-1940s, when motorsports guru Don Basile realized that spectators were only attending car races to see pile-ups and crashes.)

These days, when it comes to the dunk’s potential to excite and enthrall, posterization has superseded the Contest and its attendant slide into gameshow theatrics. Bafflingly, some folks seem sentimental about this, even a little grumpy. I’m not one to lament the current state of the game—I think basketball is as good as it’s ever been right now—and I don’t really care about All-Star Weekend, unless a team of hologrammed dead players (Len Bias! Drazen!) becomes a thing, but I do feel nostalgic for an element—maybe the only one—of NBA gameplay that seems to have lost some of the tension and artistry it enjoyed during the Sultans era: the breakaway dunk.

Back then, the breakaway, set apart from the game, was the primary showcase for individual style—the spotlit sax solo of pro hoops. It also revealed the potential for the dunk as an artistic form: what else is the Contest but a series of extended, anarchic breakaways? Though unlike that format, in which spectacle was sanctioned—even required—a 360 in the open floor was mostly a brash, gratuitous display of ego: like a peacock’s display of tailfeathers, it humbled opponents purely on style, more sly and subtle than the violence and violation of a Blake Griffin “Mozgov” or “Perk.”

This was a time when “tomahawk” was a verb, when fans seemed to be discovering alongside players the sport’s capabilities for physical expression. There was a sense of anticipation as Clyde Drexler or Darryl Dawkins chased down a lead-pass or picked a pocket at midcourt, and the floor opened up before him like a stage.

Everything was new: a windmill got you up off the couch and hollering; Michael Jordan “rocking the cradle,” chain swinging and tongue wagging, was the paragon of swagger and style. A palpable, ongoing rivalry began to evolve between the sport’s elite dunkers, which, at times, usurped the dominant narrative of wins and losses; in Marv Albert’s words from Dazzling Dunks & Basketball Bloopers: “A game of Can You Top This had begun.”

I struggle to think of a time in the breakaway’s golden age when, if a high-flyer made a runout, the other nine players on-court didn’t just stand and watch in something like professional appreciation, or curiosity. As exciting and incredible as a 90-foot chasedown might be, these days there’s less reverence for the breakaway because it seems there’s nothing new to be done with it. Even if we look outside the NBA, the Air Up There’s 720° was incredible, but five years later it exists as an echoless blip on the breakaway radar, and hasn’t inspired followers, let alone competitors, in the sport’s premier league.

The one active player who might have the requisite power, speed and athleticism to rekindle the breakaway’s spectacle, of course, is LeBron James. But even LeBron seems to perform his open court dunks perfunctorily. Guarded in the half-court, he’s as exceptional and innovative a player as we’ve ever seen; often, he seems to be reinventing the sport as he’s playing it. But there’s no consistency with the larger-than-life LeBron that climbs John Lucas to finish an alleyoop and the LeBron that, at half speed, flushes the same double-clutch reverse the Human Highlight Film pioneered twenty-five years ago.

Some fans seem to think Lebron would revitalize the Contest, but, really, what could he do? Hang from the top of the backboard, maybe, and slam the ball with his feet. Or dunk the ball, catch it as it passes through the net, and dunk it again. Analogies abound for the dunk’s correlation to other trends of individual showmanship in the late-1980s, from rap to skateboarding; subsequent connections could be drawn between our overwhelmingly visual culture, and its attendant saturation of images, and the breakaway’s fall from spectacle to rote performance—maybe by this point we’ve just seen too much?

There might be another broader correlation with the dunk’s new need for a victim, that hapless dupe onto whom we can meme FAIL; notably, dunks are no longer named in terms of style or performer, but whomever gets dunked on. But, however you read it, the dunk seems to have entered a new era. I’m even starting to hear something anachronistic in the term “slam dunk,” like when my dad orders a “hamburger sandwich” at Wendy’s. (Never mind “jam,” which feels more than a little New Jack Swing.)

Undeniably, those old days of open-court creativity are behind us. I’d avoid saying we’re “post-dunk,” but something’s going on, especially when you consider LeBron’s ironic, cheeky maneuver of swiftly tucking the ball into the net without touching the rim—what my friend Neil calls a “Hoosier dunk”—which feels somewhere between thumbing his nose and winking at the fans. We might have seen the limits of what Sultans, past and present, can do without a defender to stop them. Luckily, a new type of dunk is emerging, one that harnesses all the creativity and power and grace of today’s high-flyers: all they need is for someone to get in their way.

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