To dunk is to tempt fate. It is a combustible mixture of elements inclined toward destruction: a high rate of speed, a defiance of physical laws, the unrestrained ego. It is ephemeral—you go up, you come right back down—yet over that brief flight time, an eternity spawns in a second. Through this natural transcendence, dunks have a way of living forever.
The dunk has persevered since it came alive during the height of the civil-rights movement. There were dunks before then, of course, but the shifting social subtext of the ’60s loaned the act a political relevancy. In 1967, the UCLA Bruins’ starting center, a 19-year-old sophomore from New York City named Lew Alcindor, led them to a 30–0 record and a national championship. But the year before, the championship game had pitted Texas Western College (an all-black starting lineup) against the University of Kentucky (an all-white team). Early in the game, the Texas Western center Dave Lattin dunked over the Kentucky guard Pat Riley, an act that infuriated Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky head coach.
After Alcindor’s breakout year followed, Rupp successfully lobbied the NCAA to ban the dunk in time for the 1967–68 season. The dunk was unskilled, the traditionalists argued, and destroying the sanctity of the game. They put forth fantastically reductive arguments, devoid of critical thought or inquiry, but it stuck. The NCAA’s ban on dunking survived for nearly a decade, until 1976. The NCAA claimed the ban was instituted to protect the players, but the NCAA was only protecting white fragility. “The white establishment has an uncomfortable feeling that blacks are dominating too many areas of sports,” said Robert Bownes, an assistant coach at Hunter College, back in 1969. “Everyone knows that dunking is a trademark of great playground black athletes. And so they took it away. It’s as simple as that.”