In 1935, a 6-foot-2 center named Bernard “Barney” Dobbas added two more points to his 27-point game when he “dribbled down court for another ‘dunk’ shot to give his team a 33-32 lead.” This move by the star player of my hometown team, the University of California, Davis Aggies, is the earliest known recorded “dunk” in basketball history.
At the time, Dobbas was described as the sort of basketball star who could “cup the casaba from all the angles” — which should give you a sense of how sportswriting has changed in the decades since. So when the Woodland Daily Democrat describes Dobbas’ “dunk shot,” it’s hard to know if that was a slam dunk as we know it today, or more of a tip-in style shot.
The first official dunk that would be recognized by today’s basketball fans was slammed by 6-foot-8 phenom John Fortenberry. His dunk was recorded in print in the New York Times on March 10, 1936 — and it included a very 1930s donut metaphor:
By 1940, this style of play — wherein height appears to overcome the value of accuracy and crisp passing — became a mainstay of criticism for basketball purists. A columnist writing for the Helena Daily Independent in 1940 lamented, “Many people claim that there is no premium on accuracy. That instead of beautiful shooting — slap happy basketball has resulted with wild throwing from every possible angle calculated to get the ball into range of the backboards where the skyscraper boys bat it down for two points.”
This attitude and its harkening for a purer game of the past would intensify in the 1950s and 1960s when race became a prevailing aspect of the criticism as players like Bill Russell, then Wilt Chamberlain, and finally, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — then known as Lew Alcindor — came to dominate the game. In 1967, American cities sweltered through the summer of riots and race relations were reaching a feverish heat. Some of that tension was transferred into NCAA rules meant to penalize Alcindor, then a dominant Black player for the UCLA Bruins who led his team to a crushing victory in the NCAA Tournament — just two days after the tournament concluded, the NCAA made the dunk illegal.
All season, critics had complained about how Alcindor was changing the game they loved. In his very first game at UCLA in 1966 against cross-town rival USC, Alcindor broke the UCLA scoring record. “It was a very nauseating experience to watch big Lew shatter Gail Goodrich’s school record of 42 points,” local columnist Skip Reagar wrote at the time. “I remember the night Gail set it. He hustled, stole the ball on the full court press and shot well from all angles. His record was the result of many years of hard work and self-discipline. Yet Lew comes along and shatters the record in his first varsity game and all the skill he showed was 19 years of phenominal [sic] growth.”
Interestingly, Wilt Chamberlain’s dominance of the NBA was being simultaneously hamstrung in similar ways. For him, it was the widening of the lane, which pushed him further away from the basket so as to avoid a three-second violation, and the elimination of offensive goaltending, which prevented him from tipping in stray shots from a teammate. Alcindor later recalled what the NCAA’s rule changes meant for him as a player, referencing Chamberlain: “I was not pleased at having a rule changed just to keep me from playing my best. Part of my passion for basketball was to see how far I could go as an athlete. On the other hand, I was in good company, because two of my role models — Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain — had been so dominant, they caused rules changes for me.”
All of these issues had existed back in the 1940s and 1950s, when critics first complained about how basketball was changing and becoming a sport of skyscraper-sized big men. But it was only when the big men were Black that the rules would actually change. Of course, the NCAA would never say that outright. Instead, it was confirmed behind closed doors, whispered among coaches and couched in the language of the game. Like when Ed Bilik, a longtime NCAA rules committee member, recalled in 1998, “The feeling was that this was a game of skill and the dunk was not a skillful maneuver.”
When the NCAA announced its ban of the dunk in March 1967, reporters wanted to know what legendary UCLA coach John Wooden thought about a restriction seemingly aimed directly at Alcindor. Surprisingly, Wooden didn’t necessarily defend his star player. “Lewis felt that way, but I didn’t,” Wooden once said, before offering his reasoning. “Some on the committee told me that Lewis’ name did come up in the discussion [about the bad], but that he wasn’t the reason.”
Many basketball historians disagree. “I don’t think there’s any question that some of those rules were racially motivated,” argued Randy Roberts, a professor at Purdue University focused on the history of American sports. “They were like the anti-celebration rules in football. I think in part they were attempts to get back to the world in which these coaches grew up in — a white-bread world.”
In fairness, Wooden didn’t let the rule change affect his game plan. In fact, he saw it as a challenge that would propel Alcindor to even greater heights, and he told him as much himself. Later, as Abdul-Jabbar, Alcindor agreed with his legendary coach, at least about that last part. “The dunk ban didn’t really end up affecting my overall game much. I’d been perfecting my hook shot since grade school, so I was able to rely more on that,” he said. “The dunk was reinstated in college ball in 1976, but I was already dunking in the NBA.” (Alcindor won three NCAA championships during his three seasons at UCLA; in two of those seasons, the team didn’t attempt a single dunk.)
When the ban against the dunk was lifted in 1976, Chairman of the National Basketball Rules Committee John Carpenter told the New York Times that the rule change did, indeed, have something to do with Alcindor. “Yes, I’d say it is because everyone’s over the Alcindor syndrome in college basketball,” he said. The Times also contacted Wooden. “I hated to see them put the dunk out at the time,” he told the paper. “But shortly after it was done, I told Lew, ‘It’ll do nothing but make you a better basketball player. The things you will have to do will help you.’”
He was right, but it would be nice if Black people didn’t need to overcome acts of overt racism to prove their value. It’s also why seeing Alcindor’s skyhook is more than just a show of his athletic prowess; it’s a bittersweet reminder of what Black athletes and Black people are forced to outlast and overcome. Ad-hoc rule changes have always been used to deny us our moments of excellence. And as outstanding or exceptional as each of us as individuals may be, there’s no skyhook to overpower racism.