Readers who mistook my determining that LeBron James is achieving other-worldly heights as a basketball player for knocking all the generations who came before him have to understand that I remember seeing my first slam dunk on television.

That’s how old I am. I remember never having seen anyone dunk a basketball. The time when a dunk, let alone anything the least bit acrobatic was a novelty, is very clear to me.

I was sitting on the sofa in our living room when I was 8 or 9 years old and the only NBA games that I ever saw back then aired on Sunday’s in the late winter and spring on ABC. Chris Schenkel was the play-by-play guy, with former Cincinnati Royals’ great Jack Twyman doing color. (Really. I saw all those history-making NBA players like Wilt, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Rick Barry. Well, mostly I saw the Celtics, 76ers and Knicks play each other over and over. ABC wasn’t big on rotating teams through the 11 a.m. PST tip off.)

The Celtics trailed, either the Sixers or Knicks, by one point with so little time left on the clock that I knew there was simply know way they could throw an inbound pass, catch and shoot. After a timeout, Celtics guard Sam Jones (voted one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history) set up near mid-court to throw the ball in for a shot I couldn’t imagine even the great Celtics having time to take in the smoke-filled Boston Garden. (I told you I remember way back in day. Like, way back when people could smoke cigarettes and cigars in a public sports arena.)

When the official handed Jones the ball, he lofted what looked a lot like a two-hand set shot (I remember when they shot those in the NBA) toward the rim. Bill Russell leaped, grabbed the ball and slammed it home. Celtics win. Celtics win! Celtics win?

I’d imagine I’d seen other dunks, although NBA players didn’t dunk as routinely then as now. The layup was a safer shot, so the dunk wasn’t all that routine. Russell’s dunk off an inbound lob pass from Sam Jones was definitely the first awe-inspiring dunk I ever saw — the first dunk that left me jumping around the living room explaining to family members who couldn’t care less what I’d just seen.

So, I’m enjoying the back-and-forth between readers who insist the greats of the 1960s and 1970s were superior to LeBron, Kobe, Jordan, Magic, Tim Duncan, et., al. Really enjoying it … even though I can’t imagine any circumstance where my boyhood heroes (save Rick Barry who I think could play in today’s game at a very, very high level) do anything but get trounced playing the modern-day greats who are bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled.

Imagine a 9-year-old kid getting excited by a lob dunk today? The fact that it was a big deal in, oh, 1966 indicates something about the athleticism that I’d rather not consider for long given that it indicts my boyhood heroes as lessers among all-time greats.

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  1. Jacques levy

    John Wooden would argue the dunk killed the game.. Ruined skill development, devalued shooting and created bulls in a china shop on offense. It was during a period when dunks were not allowed that Jabbar developed the sky hook.
    If you can not imagine a squad of Chamberlain,Russell, Jabbar, Robertson, West, Baylor, Barry, Pettit, Lucas, Stokes, Monroe and Frazier beating today’s players then Maturity has robbed the imagination of youth

    February 16th, 2013 11:43 am

  2. Owen

    Ever see ” the hawk” dunk?

    February 16th, 2013 11:50 am

  3. overtime

    Owen…Thanks for reading. And, yeah…I saw Connie Hawkins with those massive hands dunk…when he was finally allowed in the NBA with the Suns. (I didn’t see him with the Pittsburgh Pipers, etc.) Ted

    February 16th, 2013 9:01 pm

  4. overtime

    Jacques…I enjoy our conversation. To be clear … your opinion means as much, maybe more, than mine does!

    Wooden wasn’t happy that the dunk was outlawed because Alcindor/Abdul Jabbar dominated the game with it…then the guy dominated without the dunk by developing the sky hook. I haven’t read that Wooden thought it killed the game, although I’m sure he thought it hurt the game in some way. And, I’d disagree that the dunk devalued shooting because it was countered by the 3-point shot that requires extreme perimeter accuracy from distances that weren’t necessarily required in my youth.

    I actually thought more about an all-star team from my youth versus an all-star team from today and realized the game is different and that, yes, if today’s stars played in a game where Wilt, Russell, Pettit…even Tom Heinsohn and guys like that…just would not yield an easy layup or dunk…it’d change things. I heard a basketball guy say something like, “Jordan got challenged at the rim all the time. Nobody challenges LeBron because they don’t want to take him on physically. He’s too powerful.” Good point. It’s my belief that those guys from the 1960s and 1970s would’ve challenged LeBron and probably made him make free throws…they’d beat him up but I don’t know that they’d stop him from doing damage in the lane.

    The “enforcer” of the 1970s…a Maurice Lucas…was still just 6-7, 215 and didn’t jump like guys do today. (I won’t mention LeBron being a 6-8, 260 point forward today…well, I did. Sorry.) I would guess that Lucas and those guys would defend well but … put him and Baylor in the game and you have the 6-7, 215 power forward with a 6-5 small forward who’s smaller than most every shooting guard today. Size isn’t the only thing, but sheer physical presence does matter, I think. Frazier and West and Monroe were 6-4′ish type guards so…that leads to thinking about a zone defense and a really physical style for that oldtimers team, right? What, then, stops the new guys from just shooting 3′s from distances few of those those older guys shot from? Barry would be a great shooter from 3 now … West probably would be good. But, now I’m looking at your list…and imagining how the game would be played and … it gets more complicated. TED

    February 16th, 2013 11:40 pm

  5. Jacques Levy

    The zone defense was a mistake. It removed the unique Mano Audi Mano nature of the game
    You argue that muscle mass achieved in a gym is superior to the natural strength developed from hard work.Believing James stronger then Elgin or Pettit is a mistake. I learned that many years ago reading Edgar Rice Burroughs. Bunched muscles tear, elongated muscles stretch
    As for long range shooters Barry was not alone. Other players who would have thrived as three point marksman include Dolph Schayes, B ill Sharman, Jerry West, Bill Bradley,Larry Costello, and George Gervin.
    The chief complaint I have with today’s player is selfish play, poor fundamentals, low basketball IQ, no mid range jump shot and lack of ball movement. Today Pops Spurs represent all that I remember as beautiful in the game. Even as his core ages the youth supplementing their time play as part of a team, w/I a system, designed to maximize the unit over individual statistics. The Thunder aspire to the same goal but fall short when Westbrook takes off on his flights of fancy. The Heat rely to much on individual star power, which on many nights is luminous, but which emphasizes the individual over the unit. As a sport basketball celebrates the individual far too much to achieve the true beauty of a team game which when played in sync is akin to a choreographed dance

    February 17th, 2013 10:17 am

  6. overtime

    Jacques…It’s beginning to sound a bit like you’re under the impression that today’s bigger, stronger athletes got that way lifting barbells as they did decades ago. LeBron’s not some tightly,muscled, inflexible muscle-head. He got elongotated muscles that just happen … through modern training techniques and his genetic predisiposition … to be bigger than what Baylor, Pettit, etc. had. If you don’t follow the high-tech training that’s producing these modern athletes…or the quality of coaching they get … I see why we tend to disagree.

    Dolph Schayes was a set-shooter. Larry Costello shot the 2-hand set shot (I remember because he was in his final years when I was learning to shoot myself.) There’s simply no way those set-shooters would be effective today. With no threat of the dribble drive or a jump shot … how would they get a shot off over taller, faster opponents? I think there’s a dividing line between the Costello-Schayes-West-Robertson era and the era that included Gervin, David Thompson, etc. I don’t think an all-star team of today’s players would consistently defeat an all star team made up of players from Russell to Jordan. I do think the 1950s and 1960s stars would’ve had trouble because of things like the set shot and the quickness needed to rotate on defense, pass over a double team, etc.

    We miss the way the game was played in our youth, but I can’t say it’s not play differently and more effectively today. No style points for HOW you get the ball in the basket … I enjoy the conversaton. TED

    February 17th, 2013 2:49 pm

  7. Jacques Levy

    Clearlyyoubelieve the athletic ability of the present defeats the more nuanced past. Whereas my position is to the contrary. We’re it not for the modern games inability to counter the big three, CHamberlain, Russell and JAbbar I would agree with you. However having seen those three and comparing them with what passes for modern centers I believe there presence tips the balance in favor of the pre 1970 players.

    February 17th, 2013 5:38 pm

  8. overtime

    Jacques…I could go on for hours considering how the guys who played pre-1980 would fare against the guys from the Magic-Bird and Jordan eras … as well as how they’d fare against today’s players. Basketball becomes a chess match. I’ve always guessed that a team of pre-1980 stars would actually need Kareem, Wilt, Russell and (although his pro career was injury plagued) Bill Walton to play with TWO of those guys on the court together to really match up with more modern players. And, frankly, don’t you figure a guy like Kareem or Walton could’ve played facing the basket if that’s how’d they’d learned the game? I’m expanding my view of what collection of pre-1980s players I’d throw together. You have gotten me to acknowledge what I’d not mentioned … that this generation is virtually without truly dominant, all-around post players. The 2012 U.S. Olympic team kept young Anthony Davis on the roster, such was the need for a 7-foot presence. If I pieced together a modern team to play your pre-1980 team … Tyson Chandler would have to be on my team even though he’s not one of the elite players we’d mention here. I would have to have him to defend those post players you’ve mentioned.

    … or, I would counter by spreading the court and making Wilt and Kareem or Russell and Walton defend somebody on the perimeter…make Pettit and Lucas and Maurice Stokes be quick enough to rotate defensively.

    This is the type conversation that brings out the sports dork in me. Thanks. TED

    February 17th, 2013 7:36 pm

  9. Jacques Levy

    I share the enjoyment of an enlightened conversation. Thank you for mentioning Walton. His tenure in Portland was extraordinary. The last truley great post defender.
    Maurice Stokes was another extraordinary talent. Saw him play Villanova at the Palestra and almost beat them himself. Had an all around game approaching Tom Gola, the first tall guard in the NBA.And Bradley at Princeton, taking a small team to third place in the tournament, while torching Witchita State for 63 points.
    West coast basketball only came of age when east coast players began making the trek out here. The UCLA dynasty begins with Walt Hazzard of Overbrook high School in Phila. And Walt did not handle the ball in high school. The point guard on his team was Wally Jones, the center was Wayne Hightower and a forward was Ralph Heyward. When Coach Wooden recruited Walt it opened the flow west.

    February 17th, 2013 10:45 pm

  10. Steve

    It occurred to me as I read this that, as a teenager in the seventies, when there were no regular live broadcasts of pro or college games and most of my exposure to basketball was through the pictures in Sports Illustrated, the first dunk I ever saw may have been the first dunk I ever performed, when I was about 16. Unfortunately, my other roundball skills, such as passing, dribbling, and outside shooting, didn’t develop until various injuries took from me the advantage that oversized hands and natural leaping ability had granted me.

    February 18th, 2013 11:12 am

  11. overtime

    Steve…Great story. Thanks for sharing it. There was a time when my basketball buddies and I all assumed it was just a matter of time before we’d grow from early 70′s middle school players to throwing down dunks. It didn’t work out for all of us. The dunk was novel and exotic enough to us that we’d go miles out of our way to play 3-on-3 on 8-foot hoops where dunks came easy to my taller pals and where … if everything was right … the rest of us had a chance to dunk, too. Figures the dunk was exotic to us in the 1970s given that the dunk was outlawed in NCAA basketball….Ted

    February 18th, 2013 11:24 am

  12. Rick Loomis

    I’m 55 years old, and I saw that game, against Philly and Wilt. That has stayed with me over the years. I grew up in Southern California and a huge Lakers fan, but Russell was better than Chamberlain because he was a killer like Jordan, Magic, Bird, and Kobe. He averaged 15 points a game, but could have easily averaged 25. Greatest team player, and greatest winner ever.

    February 23rd, 2013 7:23 pm

  13. overtime

    Rick…I’m your age. Thanks for reading and remembering with me. I’m certain I’d seen a dunk on TV, but they weren’t so flashy then, I guess. When I saw that inbound lob and Russell go get it … man! That’s the kind of thing that you never forget and makes us sports fans forever. I’ve always liked Russell and Wilt. I read Russell’s books and find him fascinating … a winner, for sure. I think Wilt got a bum rap for being on some good-not-great Philadelphia teams when the Celtics had a dominant organization year after year after. What fascinates me now is the friendship Russell and Wilt had throughout their career.

    If you haven’t seen “Mr. Russell’s House” on the NBA Network, I encourage you to check it out. Bill Simmons interviews Russell…they tour his home and he talks candidly about his career and more. (The whole show might be online at NBA.com. Not sure.) TED

    February 23rd, 2013 8:18 pm

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