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NBA Dunk of the Week: Isaiah Thomas and the Dunk in Dank Obscurity

We explore the wonders hidden under the surface. We attempt to penetrate the unknowable abyss, the fourth dimension, the grimy practice sessions captured on camera like a Bigfoot or Yeti.

Corbin Smith

Screen capture via Twitter/@BenAxelrod

This Monday, the Cavaliers suffered an ignoble defeat to the Steph-Less Warriors, their once and future finals rival, behind a triple-double from Draymond Green and a dodgy no-call on Kevin Durant. It illustrated, as most Cleveland-Golden State matchups have since the Cavs stunned the Warriors in the 2016 Finals, that there is an ever so small, subtle gap between the squad with the best player in the world and the unstoppable hive-mind that has whooped on every team in sight for the last three years.

But: hope lurks for the Cavs in shadows, captured on obscure Snapchat feeds. Five-foot-eight hopes, heaving their tiny bodies at rims, throwing down silent dunks in darkened gyms in some place called the "Olympic Club.”

Even in a week where Karl Anthony Towns slammed on a guy at a 45 degree angle and then yelled BARBEQUE CHICKEN at a courtside Shaq, there is still no dunk that captures the imagination of the world as much as this dank obscurity. The tiny man Isaiah Thomas, serving the tail end of his rehab stint, bounce-passing to himself, flinging his slight body into the sky, and tapping a dunk down. It manages to cover pretty much every kind of weird feeling that a solo dunk video can capture. I will now endeavor to break those feelings down, here, in a series of short essays.

The Wonder of Man, and Man's Body

Isaiah is a short man, for a basketball player, 5'9" by most official measurements. Night after night, he still manages to get on the court and produce, with the help of an immaculate three point shot and a knowledge of executing at unknown angles that warps the mind of pretty much everyone who watches him. But what people rarely note is that he is a truly spectacular athlete. Certainly you might remark on his speed off the dribble, but the fact of his vertical leap, his off ball speed, these are things that simply get washed away in the inherent disadvantage of being smaller than everyone else on the court. It is an extraordinary quality you don’t even get the chance to think about.

Until, of course, you get to see the man himself, launching his small self into the air, catching a ball, and throwing it down. I am nearly six inches taller than Isaiah, and I can’t do anything close to this. Him dunking, in and of itself, is a stupendous feat, mankind scaling the mountain of limits, exceeding and exploding the human body itself. It is an act of poorly-lit, awe-inspiring wonder, an inspiration to anyone with a body.

The Anticipation of the End of Rehab

On the internet, there is no truer and grander sports tradition than the shred of contextless information. A half-baked trade rumor, a story about a scuffle, a scrap of trash talk, all of it leads the imagination on a leash, takes the mind to a place where you can romp around in truths, half truths, and fictions of the game—a palace of wondering what did, what will, or what could happen somewhere.

And so, we see Isaiah, whose career seemed profoundly at risk not a few months ago, dunking in a darkened gym...somewhere. A morsel of information, the smallest possible thing, and the mind, always seeking narrative and order, tries to slot it into a world we can imagine. Isaiah is ready to contribute, we think. He’s looking good, we tell ourselves. He’s flashing some ups out there, we hope against hope. In this bloodbattle, this never-ending showdown between the Warriors and the rest of the league, the mind seeks any form of liberation from Golden State hegemony. The Cavs are playing well, and if Isaiah is looking like this, then maybe they will blah blah blah blah. It’s all nonsense, of course, but nonsense has a poetry and a meaning in and of itself.

Sports jabber is crazy, but not contentless. It is the very flopping around of the brain, on display for us and anyone who listens, the machinery of the mind exposed for the whole of rationality to gawk at. And these scraps of poorly lit dunks, devoid of context…they are the perfect fuel.

The Understanding That Sports Are Always Happening Somewhere

Wilco’s sentimental jangle “The Late Greats”—the last track on the otherwise cold and sterile 2005 release “A Ghost is Born”—speculates wildly about the greatest band of all time, suggesting that, in fact, they didn’t even play a single show, that the greatest band of all time just rocked out in a garage and called it quits. This is singer-songwriter hokum, of course—quality is an intersection of inspiration and craft, not some lightning bug that lives and dies in five seconds, but it’s a nice thought—regardless.

If the garage is the place of legend for rock music, the dark, obscure gym is the land of dreams and visions in basketball. There are so many of them, and they hold so many athletes, doing so many athletic things that we will never see. Think about the mystique behind the legendary Dream Team scrimmage, a game that has taken on legendary proportions in the darkness of unknowability, another in the constant stream of maniacal Michael Jordan practice stories. It is nothing but a distant echo in the dimensions of unknowable sports HAPPENING deep in those gyms.

IT’s dunk in a dark, obscure gym I’m not even sure I totally understand, captured by some Snapchat person, is the scrap of noise from the barn. If he’s unleashing this on no one, then what has he unleashed on sad scrubs in Kings practices? What are the deepest dimensions of horrors he has served up? Such unimaginable dunks and steals that would break the very mind of whomever or, in this dark place, whatever saw them? There is so much wonderful basketball for my eyes, but the world underneath—the one we are getting just the slightest, smallest peak at here—it taunts me with its myriad delights and power. Open your world to me, practice sessions! I crave the beauty and insight you can GIVE!