You’ve either seen this a hundred times already or you’re living under a rock. Or you don’t care about basketball, in which case, why are you even here? But no matter which one of those categories you belong to, you should really watch Blake Griffin’s comprehensive audit of Kendrick Perkins’ tax returns from FY 1984–2012.
Zach Harper already (of course) wrote a great paean to the dunk in discussing this particular dunk. He pointed out that time didn’t stop after a great dunk like this, “it just simply didn’t matter anymore.” To me, the fact that time doesn’t stop for a dunk is in fact the key to what makes a dunk so viscerally satisfying, and the reason why dunk contests so seldom live up to their hype, and (incidentally) the reason why dunks are so much better than home runs and kick returns.
Let’s start with that last point and work back. Dunks, first of all, rarely end games in the NBA. Aside from the exceedingly rare alley-oop with virtually no time left, most game-winning shots are jumpers, or maybe tip-ins. And a buzzer beating three is really only great because it wins the game. Kevin Love’s game-winner against the Clippers last week, had it taken place on a sideline out-of-bounds play in the middle of the second quarter, would have been a risky shot that lucked its way into the hoop. No way it makes SportsCenter’s Top Ten. By that same token, home runs in baseball are almost entirely contextual. One might be higher or go farther than another, but unless something truly wacky or historic happens, a home run’s significance only matters insofar as it shifts the balance of the game itself.
A kick return for a touchdown, on the other hand, can always be dramatic, even in a losing cause. But a kick return is also something that happens under very specific circumstances (special teams plays), and there are only two general outcomes for a kickoff or punt that is returned (as opposed to fair caught): the return man is brought down somewhere on the field of play or he scores. As we watch, we sit in anticipation of one of these two outcomes and are rewarded or not depending on our rooting interest.
But dunks explode spectacularly from within the framework of the game, still bearing the scorch marks of violent invention they have worn since coming into the league. I mean, imagine the audacity of foregoing the customary route of launching the ball from a spot on the floor in a perfect arc and instead simply rising up and putting it directly through that distant goal, hanging suspended up in the air. A dunk is worth no more or less than any two-point jumper, but instead of diminishing it, this fact is what allows it to mean so much more to us precisely because it is unbounded by the cold mathematics of the game.
When we observe a dunk like Griffin’s on Perkins, we enter the realm of the sublime. Ray Allen’s jumper is beautiful, at least according to Immanuel Kant’s definition, whereby the beautiful “is connected with the form of the object” and has “boundaries.” It is a model of efficiency and timing, and we know that a three-point jumper by Allen is better than a two-point jumper because it creates more points. Even in a buzzer beating situation, where the difference between two and three points might be moot, his jumper is bound by the clock and our enjoyment of it is predicated on it being accomplished before the end of the game.
By contrast, take Jeremy Evans’ dunk over Gerald Wallace. That it was called an offensive foul diminishes it within the framework of the game, but it in no way diminishes the simple physical act of what Evans did. Although there are graceful dunks, dunks like Evans’ and Griffin’s and Shawn Kemp’s are violent things that highlight our own physical shortcomings. Griffin is, in short, a force of nature, and nature is just what Edmund Burke had in mind when he associated the sublime with vastness, with infinity. Rather than being tied down to the measurable quantities of points, of wins and losses, a dunk is simply an eruption of pure athleticism from inside an orderly procession of possessions. Its unexpectedness is key to its impact.
Based on this, it’s easy to see why dunk contests mostly fail. Like your funny friends who would make terrible comedians in front of an audience fervently expecting jokes, dunk contest participants are beholden to our expectations of them. They’ve now been reduced to tricks and pageantry, costumes and props, and it all just feels a little hokey and canned, a little controlled. In-game dunks are patently out-of-control at their best and more than showing us what achievements athletes are capable of, they weirdly show us our limitations. Michael Jordan may have given us the dream of flight, but a dunk like Griffin’s gives us nightmares.