NBA Dunk of the Week: 'Fly Like an Eagle' Is the Quintessential Dunk Song
Dallas Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr.'s smooth and soulful dunk against the Knicks on Friday night struck a chord.
Screen capture via YouTube
Space Jam is a shitty movie that nevertheless contains a real moment of aesthetic convergence. It's the scene where Michael Jordan, having been taken from Earth and minor league baseball by the Looney Tunes so he can compete in a high-stakes basketball game against aliens blah, blah, blah you’ve seen this bullshit, does some practice dunking.
Bugs Bunny opens the door and says, “Look who’s finally ready to play.” Assembled cartoons are enraptured. A gentle drumbeat plays in the background. The camera is fixed on Jordan’s shoes, available at your local sporting goods store, and then pans up on the man himself. We linger on his face, a glowing halo resting on his head like a crown. The angelic voice of R&B superstar Seal can be heard through the clutter. “Do do do do.” And then the man speaks, his voice soaked in fake humility:
“Let’s see if I remember how to do this.”
Seal’s voice soars.
“I wanna fly like an eagle… to the sea…."
Jordan dribbles behind his back and rises up for a jump shot, bathed in the soft light. Seal sings. The song’s trademark keyboard arpeggios chime in the background. Turnarounds. Dunks. A soft skiffle. “Time keeps on slipping…” The net snaps. Jordan’s grey tank top is soaked in sweat, his reward for an afternoon or so, one presumes, of hard work.
Even if Space Jam is terrible—just terrible, a nightmare for anyone who watches and anyone involved—it does manage to key into one very true thing: “Fly Like an Eagle,” performed then by Seal but originated and immortalized by the mighty Steve Miller Band, really is just a perfect song to listen to while watching someone dunk. Those spacey tones stirred in me Friday night, as I watched Mavs guard Dennis Smith Jr. throw this one down:
A fabulous dunk on its own, for certain, Smith breaks ahead on a turnover, catches a drifty pass from Yogi Farrell, rises up and windmills it the fuck down for the benefit of a New York Knicks crowd that is always more than willing to let out a healthy “OH” for someone going above and beyond the call of duty, showmanship-wise.
Smooth, but powerful. Soulful, yet firm, like very good cake. The only song that can even approximate a soulful, cake-like dunk is the official smooth rock anthem of dunking in the open court.
It is, first off, literally a song about flying. Dunking involves jumping a terrific distance in the air, and while that is technically not flying, it is more or less as close to flying as a human being can get without owning a jetpack or a backpack with a helicopter in it. Michael Jordan was known far and wide as “Air Jordan” on account of his dunks appearing to be the product of flight itself.
Second, the effect of enhancing flight is present in the very instrumentation of the song, what with those wonderful synthesizer arpeggios, starting slow and low and casting up infinitely toward the sky, lifting the eyes and ears of the audience into the rafters every time it rises. There is no other way to say this: Those arpeggios are the sound of flying at the rim, the music Bach himself would have composed if he had the good fortune to live in an era with professional basketball.
Smooth, but powerful. Soulful, yet firm, like very good cake.
Third, “Fly Like an Eagle” is just extremely fucking smooth, like a smooth dribble, or a slick transition breakaway, or other cool basketball shit. This makes both the Seal AND Steve Miller versions also acceptable listening for a lot of other really great basketball plays, like, for instance, Steph Curry peeling off a screen and drilling a three-pointer:
Goes without saying the effect is even more profound if the footage is in slow-motion. It’s just the kind of power “Fly Like an Eagle” gives nearly all basketball footage. But, and this is important, its effect is best observed on dunks because, even though it’s a softer rock song, it is STILL A ROCK SONG with heft, deep drum slaps, a rollicking bass line, and a dude whispering, “TICK TOCK TICK.”
But, unfortunately, there is a kind of dunk “Fly Like an Eagle” was NOT MADE FOR:
Bah, the VIOLENCE! Hurking yourself in the air and dunking over another man might resemble the actions of a PREDATORY eagle, but it is certainly not in the spirit of “Fly Like an Eagle,” the beautiful song about flying like an eagle and also achieving smooth basketball excellence. To sync up that pure and perfect slow jam with this act of WAR against a NOBLE PLAYER like Jusuf Nurkic would, in short, be an INSULT to Steve Miller and Seal’s twin visions of hoops as a game of grace and skill. If you see someone trying to make it happen, please, circulate a petition to remove that trash from the public sphere. Smooth, loving dunks only, please!!!