An entire industry exists under the basketball umbrella for athletes known as “professional dunkers.”
Tracing its roots in above-the-rim showmanship back to NBA superstars like Julius “Doctor J” Erving, Michael Jordan and Vince Carter, professional dunking is the confluence of the glitz and glamour of the NBA’s All-Star dunk contest, the globalization of streetball spearheaded by sneaker company AND 1, and the barnstorming tradition of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Today, traveling acts like Team Flight Brothers and social media sensations like Jordan Kilganon are among those carrying the torch for professional dunking. They are not so much basketball players, but acrobatic athletes who specialize in what has long been basketball’s most mainstream popular play.
But what happens when the dunk is no longer basketball’s main attraction?
Thanks mostly to the meteoric rise of Stephen Curry — the 27-year-old point guard of the Golden State Warriors who is all but guaranteed to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the second year in a row — the three-point shot is starting to replace the dunk as the preferred play of the day.
Curry stands 6-foot-3 and is listed at 190 pounds. By NBA standards, he’s a waif. Or as New York Times writer Scott Cacciola recently described him, “a butterfly with a jump shot.” Curry is not the first player, the first point guard, or even the first (relatively) “little guy” to average 30 points per game and set the league on fire. He is the first to set the league on fire like this, though, with his particular repertoire of threes, crossovers and step-backs and spins to set up deep threes, and buzzer-beaters and game-winners on even deeper threes.
There have been overreactions, as expected. ESPN recently ranked Curry as the fourth-best point guard in NBA history, despite the reality that he has only played at this elite level for a couple of seasons. And after Saturday night’s epic performance — in which Curry scored 46 points, tied an NBA record with 12 threes in one game, and hit the game-winner against the Oklahoma City Thunder on a shot from just inside halfcourt — social media was littered with fans bringing Curry into conversations alongside Jordan and wondering aloud if Curry is now the greatest basketball player of all time.
If there is one thing Curry has in common with Jordan, it is his ability to draw in casual sports fans and even non-fans to watch him work, then quickly win them over. Curry is as easy to like as he is hard to guard. According to Wall Street Journal writer Jason Gay: “(Curry’s) season has reached the point where it’s no longer a basketball story but a bona fide cultural happening, beguiling both the serious fan as well as the newcomer who has to be told which direction the players run.”
Greatness is, to some, defined by an athlete’s ability to change their sport.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a Muslim convert who is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and a six-time MVP, is credited with forcing the NCAA to change its rules in 1967 and ban dunking in college basketball because he was so dominant while playing for UCLA. (The NCAA made dunking legal again in 1976.)
Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, by deciding to spurn the NFL and sign a big-money contract with the AFL’s New York Jets, and later leading the Jets to a victory over the favored Baltimore Colts in the AFL-vs.-NFL championship game, is credited with legitimizing the financial football juggernaut we’ve come to know as the Super Bowl.
Muhammad Ali, another Muslim convert, popularized the concept of the pro boxer as self-promoter on his way to winning three world heavyweight championships.
Curry could very well change the game of basketball with his long-range shooting.
Some people have suggested that the NBA push the three-point line back so that threes are not so easy for Curry. Some say the league should add a four-point shot to reward Curry for his extra-long-range proficiency. And Curry’s Warriors already seem to be perfecting a style of basketball that has been trending in the NBA in recent years, with smaller and faster lineups that thrive on threes and rapid ball movement.
Curry’s influence could extend beyond the NBA as well.
Earlier this season, ABC/ESPN announcer Mark Jackson (who used to coach Curry and the Warriors) said that Curry was “ruining” basketball in the sense that his influence was causing young players to focus so much on shooting threes that they weren’t working on other parts of their game.
While Jackson was widely criticized for his view, he wasn’t entirely wrong. Kids emulate their sports heroes. A generation’s worth of kids were fascinated with trying to emulate Jordan’s dunking and acrobatic layups, neglecting the boring and basic parts of the game like free-throw shooting and footwork.
This generation will continue to copy Curry if he keeps playing at this level.
And then there is this: The possibility that in Curry, we are witnessing the godfather of a movement toward professional long-range shooting.
Basketball fans, both casual and serious, have always been intrigued by players making shots from unthinkable distances and challenging angles. It’s why we play H-O-R-S-E. It’s why those McDonald’s commercials featuring Jordan trading impossible shots with Larry Bird were so popular. It’s why the crew of trick-shot magicians known as Dude Perfect have thousands of Twitter followers and millions of YouTube views.
The Globetrotters have added a four-point shot to their act in recent years, employing players — alongside their usual token 7-foot giants, ball-handling wizards, professional dunkers and comedic showmen — whose special skill appears to be hitting those deep shots. The ‘Trotters were draining four-pointers before Curry exploded onto the mainstream scene, but I’d only imagine that long-range shooting will become a bigger part of their show in years to come if Curry remains this good.
The evolution of the dunk brought us to a place where fans today will pay to see professional dunkers put on exhibitions around the world with no actual basketball game needed as part of the show.
The evolution of the three-point shot, from its introduction to pro basketball in the 1970s, may not be far behind. I can see a future in which a sold-out arena watches a squad of professional shooters (Team Splash Brothers?) put on a circus-like showcase of shots from 30 and 50 and 70 feet from the basket.
I can see a future in which Stephen Curry shoots a new industry into existence.