My name is Larry and I'm a dunkaholic. I've been clean for 38 years, though, and have no intention of going back.
It all started in high school. It wasn't an issue in the early years. Heck, I only stood about 5-9 or so when I was a sophomore. That was the only year I played basketball in school and, believe me, dunking was the last thing on my mind. Just making the travel squad (which I did exactly once) was a big deal for me.
By the time I was a senior, I had shot up to a nice basketball size, nearly 6-4. I no longer was on my high school team, but I turned out to be a pretty good pickup player. Still, I was as amazed as anyone when my hand first grazed the rim. That was just a sip. I soon became thirsty.
I soon was playing ball in the school gym over the lunch hour. For some crazy reason, a few of us tried dunking tennis shoes. A shoe was much more easily gripped than a basketball, but I learned early on that dunking anything was never going to be easy for me. I had a vertical leap of about eight inches, and that's being generous.
Shoe-dunking had its drawbacks. Like the time my hand slammed against the rim, causing the rest of my body to swing out of control and crash to the floor on my tailbone. I couldn't feel my legs for a few moments, but I eventually managed to limp away. On another occasion, I snagged my class ring on the rim, creating a nasty jagged gash on my finger that took a long time to heal. It was obvious I had to find another way to feed my dunking habit.
My Dad had attached a backboard to our garage a few years earlier and my brothers Ron and Dave and I played a lot of ball in our driveway. My Dad, a meticulous guy, made certain that the rim was precisely 10 feet above the ground, regulation to be sure, and safely beyond the reach of someone with the vertical leap of a tortoise. For a while, though, I managed to find a way to dunk at home - by planting my takeoff foot a foot or so up the garage door, making me effectively a foot taller. Man, that was great ... until he noticed the damage I was doing to the door and put a halt to the tactic.
Undeterred, I found a veritable dunking Nirvana just a few blocks away, at my old elementary school, Franklin.
There was a plat of concrete on the southeast corner of the building that had four basketball hoops. Two of them were impossibly high, around 10-6 or so. But the other two were absolutely perfect. One was maybe 3-4 inches below regulation; the second was probably around 9-6.
I spent hours slamming balls through those hoops. I would come home with red welts from my wrist midway up my forearm from smacking the rim. I wore out countless pairs of $3 deck shoes by dragging the tip of my right foot across the concrete before lifting off. Often I'd go home with bloody socks from where the toenail on my big toe had been ground off. Sometimes, I'd even dream about dunking. Yeah, I was hooked.
Fortunately, over time, the desire faded. I made it through five years of college intramural basketball without succumbing although I was envious when teammate Gene Springer calmly jammed one through during warmups as a signal to our opponents that we were a power to be reckoned with. (They weren't impressed, as it turned out).
I did have a bit of a relapse, though, when I was in the Air Force in the spring of 1969. I had been in training of one kind or another for 7-8 months at that point and was in the best shape of my life. There was a tradition in officers' training school that the trainees played two basketball games against the instructors. At that time, the instructors were led by a Captain who allegedly had been some kind of star at Ohio State. It must have been quite a few years earlier since his go-to shot was a wildly erratic set shot from 25 feet.
We were kind of a cocky bunch, taking on these old guys. I was dunking with ease in warmups and was looking forward to jamming one against our teachers. That dream was dashed when I picked up four quick fouls in the first half. I barely played in the second half before fouling out. I stayed out of foul trouble in the rematch and scored quite a few points, but never had the chance to dunk.
Two good things came out of the experience. The best thing was the compliment from one of my classmates who told me that it looked like the ball was an extension of my hand when I handled it. The second "good" thing was the severe blisters I developed that kept me out of marching for a week or so.
The OTS games were really my last good chance to dunk in a game. While working at the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil in the 1970s, I played on the paper's rec league team. We once destroyed a rim while trying to dunk at practice at the old girls' gym at Thomas Jefferson High School. The rim struck back, though, and I was left with yet another dunk injury, a split finger tip.
I still managed to occasionally pinch through a dunk in warmups for the rec league, but I gave up the practice for good in 1977. That was the year I was humiliated by a former neighbor kid who jumped over me for a spectacular dunk in a rec league game. Years later, I briefly harbored the notion that maybe I could dunk one on my 50th birthday while playing pickup ball with friends at the Des Moines Register.
Once again, I worked myself into shape, even lost a little weight. But as the witching hour approached, fate intervened. It wasn't a sudden attack of common sense but a ruptured disc and the breakup of the pickup games that sealed the deal.
For the past 25 years or so, we've had a basketball hoop on the side of our driveway. It was put up for our kids, but no one in the family used it more than me. I even lowered the height of the rim a couple of times so I could wow the neighbors. But the kids are now gone and so are my knees. As of this spring, the basketball hoop is gone, too. Thus ends the dream.
Larry Lehmer is a retired newspaper reporter and editor who thinks that change is only good when it makes things better. His current endeavor is to finish a book he's been working on about the Philadelphia years of American Bandstand. If you have anything to share, shoot Larry an e-mail here. If you want to comment about this post, do so in the comments section. If you're curious about Larry's other blogs (there are four in all), check out the links in the header of this blog.