Narrative Essay about Basketball

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When Dr. James Naismith invented basketball in 1891, the game had a built-in deterrent to dunking: the peach baskets used as goals had bottomed, and if the ball fell out of the basket, the field goal was nullified. Now, the slam dunk is a critical part of gameplay. Chris Broussard, an NBA analyst, aims to figure out just how the game got to the point of being played vastly above the rim. In speaking on the slam dunk’s impact on the evolution of basketball, Broussard describes the play as “symbolism to the evolution of the sport” (2). Since I have only been following basketball for about a decade, I was curious to investigate what he meant by this. I’ve only known one type of basketball, and that was always the flashy, high-intensity, and individualistic approach to the game.

When I was a kid and a hopeful NBA superstar, I was always drawn to the players who’d be on YouTube highlight films and SportsCenter’s Top 10 every night. These are the guys my 10-year-old self would emulate on my bedroom mini-hoop, much to the annoyance of my parents. With my brother throwing me the ragged foam ball, we’d imitate the NBA’s most prolific dunkers. This would be followed by tests of our vertical leap, and the hounding of my father with repetitive questions like “How many more inches do I have to grow to be able to dunk on the real hoop?”. Instead of worrying about my jump shot or dribbling with my off-hand, I was focused on an unreasonable skill at a young age. How did basketball get to that point? Why was the I, the youth of the game, so focused on being able to jump, rather than more essential skills, like defense? Or how to be a great teammate? Why did shoes that sold the dream of being able to “fly” takeover basketball culture, and seem like an absolute necessity for me to succeed? As a former youth basketball player with naive NBA dreams, I now aim to gather the reason for Broussard’s statement: “Pro basketball: A game played above the rim, above all else” (1). What lead to the dynamic shift of what the game valued?

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When Joe Fortenberry, a farm boy from Happy, Texas violently threw a basketball down the hoop at the West Side YMCA in New York City on March 9, 1936, he may not have been the first man to dunk a basketball. However, he was the first to do it in an aesthetically stirring way and in front of the right people. Michael McKnight, author of the journal “Just Dunk” studies the effect of this new version of the layup shot. McKnight describes how Fortenberry’s play “left observers simply flabbergasted…The 6-foot 8-inch center left the floor, reached up, and pitched the ball down into the hoop, much like a cafeteria customer dunking a roll in coffee.' (2). This event marked the birth of the slam dunk.

The slam dunk did not immediately take off in popularity after Fortenberry’s play. It wasn’t until the emergence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the all-time NBA points leader, that the play started to become a trend. The act attributed to much of Jabbar’s success on the court, which would lead to the dunk being temporarily banned from basketball in 1967. Ted Keith, a former reporter for the Philadelphia 76ers, closely examined the dunking ban in his journal entitled “Thunderous”. “The no-dunking rule, or Lew Alcindor rule (Jabbar’s real name), had serious implications on the game, both practically and socially” (4). Many attributed the ban to having racial motivations, as at the time, most of the prominent dunkers in basketball were African American. The ban was eventually lifted, as the basketball organizers were quick to realize that the play was the largest crowd-pleaser. The dunk is now seen being extracted from the game and showcased notably during the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, and also across millions of driveways amongst aspiring players. The play seemed to reach its peak with the emergence of Michael “Air” Jordan, combined with Nike selling the dream to the youth of being able to jump higher. With everyone wanting to “be like Mike”, inspired players had no choice but to do everything in their power to dunk a basketball.

As a kid, I was thrown into the sporting scene immediately. However, it wasn’t until 3rd grade that I picked up a basketball and started playing competitively. Since I was already a football and baseball player at the time, I had a pretty good grasp on the concept of working together and playing as a team. That skill transitioned easily into my basketball career and was one of the main talents I carried over from sport to sport. Scott Miller, my third and fourth-grade basketball coach, drilled the importance of selflessness into every one of his players. Perhaps I took this too seriously, as I would sometimes be ridiculed for being too unselfish. I would pass up open shots and was simply not aggressive enough. As a point guard, I took this criticism with a grain of salt, and thought deep down this was how you were supposed to play. This led to a harsh reality check as I progressed through my basketball career.

As I got older, I had first-hand experience with the evolution of basketball. Once I started high school, the entire sport as I knew it was suddenly completely different. Gone were the days of running set plays and practicing “shell” defense (a defensive drill done in practice involving all five guys on the floor). Instead, the typical practice would involve one-on-one practice, shooting competitions, and vigorous dribbling drills. When comparing the typical basketball practice I had ten years ago to the ones I had in high school, there was a clear shift in what was deemed important and what was not important. Defense set plays, and passing took a backseat, with one-on-one ability and shooting becoming the new focal point. As a player who prided himself on passing and getting others involved, my game was not up to speed with the times. I was not the most skilled when it came to one-on-one play, so I could not succeed at the high school level. All that mattered was how everyone performed individually. When examining basketball and the individualistic mentality as a whole, it is not complicated to identify key factors that led to this shift.

Sports are expected to serve many functions in our society; they provide entertainment for spectators, physical activity for participants, and an arena of competition for everyone involved. The most important role that sports are intended to serve has to do with the development of character and values. Playing sports at a young age can provide children with set goals, plus provide opportunities to work toward achieving those desired goals. However, sports today have instead revealed the negative characteristics that develop in most athletes, and that is the concept of individualism. Psychologists John Kingsbury and John Tauer conducted a study examining the role of individualism in sports today, with a specific concentration on how the slam dunk is impacting athletes. In the study, three hundred sixty-five participants watched highlights featuring either black or white players performing an easy skill or a difficult skill. In the experiment, the easy skill was demonstrated by passing a basketball, and the hard skill was represented by a slam dunk. The results of Kingsbury and Tauer’s study concluded that “those who viewed a same-race model performing passing felt more optimistic about playing both college and professional basketball, whereas those who viewed the dunk highlights of their same race felt discouraged and little optimism for their personal advancement to the next level” (32). The results of this study provide clear evidence of what the root of the issue is for upcoming athletes. Most only care about themselves and feel discouraged when someone is better than them. Since athletes are in a digital age where every flashy play, diving catch, and “posterizing” dunk is quickly broadcasted across hundreds of channels, athletes are constantly trying to go viral. Athletes know that if they want to make it to the next level, it almost requires a “dog-eat-dog” approach. An approach where individual performance takes precedence over the team’s success or another teammate’s success. Aspiring players feel the need to put together content for their highlight films, as they know there is no way SportsCenter is going to display the “top ten passes” or “best displays of teamwork”. While the slam dunk in itself is just an example of one of these plays that have led to individualistic approaches by athletes, it has undoubtedly been the main catalyst to the change in what is valued in a basketball player. Since sports play such a pivotal role in the development of the youth, the presence of individualism in basketball can adopt bad life habits amongst younger generations.

To get a more holistic view of the slam dunk’s impact on basketball, I wanted to go deeper than just studying how the gameplay changed. There have been a lot of things that have changed in the evolution of basketball, going further than the simple mindset of the players. In an interview with Bob Batchelor, author of the book “Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan’s Game and Beyond”, former basketball star John Isaacs gave his viewpoint on how the sport has progressed. Isaacs, who was 88 years old at the time of the interview, was a player for the New York Rens during the 1930s. He had this to say when asked about the impact of the slam dunk:

Only a couple of the players on my team could jump high enough, me being one of them. But I never envisioned doing anything like dunking the ball. All I wanted was the basket. I didn’t see the value in throwing the ball down, with any hard force or flash like today’s players. Nor was there a real disadvantage to those who did not have the ability. (105)

Many of today’s athletes would disagree with Isaacs and say there is value to throwing the ball down flashy. Even though Isaac was not one to dunk, he does not consider just how fun the act of dunking is. There is a reason why almost all the basketball hoop driveways can be lowered. As a kid, when my dad installed a new, adjustable hoop in the driveway, it was the talk of all my friends. After school, my friends would walk to my house, completely out of the way from their own homes, just to dunk on my hoop for an hour. Nothing beats the feeling of throwing the ball down while hanging and swinging on the rim. Dunking was simply the most fun activity to do, undoubtedly superior to playing catch with a football or hitting a baseball. If I had the height and athleticism to dunk, there is no doubt that I would with every chance I had. Who wouldn’t? This is why it is so difficult to ridicule athletes for dunking.

Those who do not have the ability or athleticism to dunk are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to playing basketball, particularly at the professional level. The slam dunk has caused basketball to become a game that requires a combination of extreme athleticism, height, and strength. Those that combine these three traits dominate. The same traits that are needed to be a successful basketball player are also the traits needed to be able to dunk.

The original design of the basketball hoop did not anticipate the emergence of the slam dunk. However, once the play was introduced to players and fans, it did not take long for the dunk to become an essential element in the game. It also played a critical role in the evolution of the sport and its athletes. With basketball going further and further into individualism, it is hard to imagine how the game will be played in twenty, or thirty years. Will the hoop be raised? Will there be fewer people on the court, to allow more players to get involved? Will teamwork start to diminish in other popular sports? These are all worthy questions to contemplate. Since sports play such a pivotal role in teaching the younger generation important life lessons, it is essential to analyze what consumers truly value in the game of basketball. We as viewers of the game are in such a difficult spot. Even though this play is extremely fun to perform and captivating to watch, it comes at a cost. It will always be an individual play, and will always drive individualism not only into sport but into society. As a society, it seems that we have grown to accept this tradeoff.

Works Cited

  1. Batchelor, Bob. Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond. Haworth, 2005.
  2. Broussard, Chris. “A Game Played Above the Rim, Above All Else.” Oberlin College, OBIS, 15 Feb. 2013,
  3. Keith, Ted. “Thunderous.” NASSM, Journal of Sport Management, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, 1-13
  4. Kingsbury, John H, and John M Tauer. “The ESPN Effect: How Slam Dunks Affect Individualism and Optimism for Athletic Success.” International journal of sport communication, vol. 2, no. 1, 2009, 21-33.
  5. McKnight, Michael. “Just Dunk.” The Sport Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, 2-24.
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