Art by Nate James

The Plot to Kill the Slam Dunk

For decades, one of basketball's most beloved techniques has been under assault by ardent old-schoolers who want the dunk dead and buried.

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Feb 12 2015, 1:30pm

Art by Nate James

The first thing you need to know is that the inventor of basketball never intended for the rim to be set at 10 feet. It just so happened that the running track above the floor where James Naismith hung his peach baskets in 1891 was 10 feet tall. If it were two feet higher, the baskets would have hung there. And Nike's Jumpman logo might look a bit different.

This point is made by every advocate for raising the hoop. Naismith's choice was completely arbitrary, and as such, deserves no more reverence than his rule disallowing dribbling. Besides, the earliest advocate for raising the rims probably had a good read on Naismith's intentions. Forrest "Phog" Allen learned the game from Naismith himself at the University of Kansas. Not long after, he overcame Naismith's objections that a basketball team didn't need a coach to become the first one in the country at nearby Baker University.

A decade after returning to coach Kansas in 1919, Allen began stumping for higher baskets. To show their value, he staged a couple of experimental games with 12-foot rims against Kansas State in 1934. Allen reported that Naismith observed and approved the results.

Allen wasn't out to convince just one man, however, but the entire country. And so he appeared in Country Gentleman magazine in 1935 with an article entitled, "Dunking Isn't Basketball."

In the piece, Allen describes being disappointed by the quality of play at an Amateur Athletic Union tournament—sound familiar?—he'd recently attended. "Those tall fellows were leaping at the ten-foot baskets and were literally 'dunking' the ball into the hoop, just as a doughnut is inelegantly dipped into the morning coffee," he wrote. "And I say that is not basketball. My conception of the game is that goals should be shot and not dunked."

Believe it or not, Allen isn't alone. On the eve of another National Basketball Association All-Star weekend dunk contest, the only real concern is whether any of the competitors will be able to pull off something fresh. The dunk is beloved; people just want to see its limits pushed. But for a long time, people wanted to see it pushed out of reach entirely. From as early as 1930 until the late 1980s, not a year went by without talk of raising the rim—and with it, killing the dunk—in order to cure the game's ills.

You can see why Allen would think this way. Doughnut-dipping made a mockery of the game he was taught; a scrappy, below-the-rim affair in which baskets were hard to come by. Allen's defensive slogan was "Hold 'em in the 'teens." When an all-time basketball greats list was assembled in 1940, the average height of the players was 5'10". Only gradually did people realize what an advantage size could be. Soon, teams began to acquire what were commonly called "freaks" or "glandular goons," plodding big guys who stood near the rim and gobbled up rebounds, or worse, shots.

Salt Lake Tribune, Dec. 19, 1957

By the late 1930s, these goons had another name, "goal tenders." In a 1943 Oklahoma A&M game, one of them blocked 13 shots. Every paper in the country was debating how to solve the problem. The modern goaltending rule was proposed, but Allen and others figured it would be too difficult to officiate. How could referees tell just when the ball was really descending? Instead, they considered elevating the hoop, and in March 1940 the University of Washington played an experimental game with 12-foot rims. A vote followed, and rule-makers decided to maintain the status quo, letting the goons reign until finally enacting the goaltending rule in 1944.

Two years later, there was another college game with 12-foot rims; seven-footer Elmore Morgenthaler still scored 41 points, and the experiment was deemed a failure. In 1954, the NBA staged an experimental regular season game with a 12-foot rim between the Minneapolis Lakers and Milwaukee Hawks. Hawks forward Vern Mikkelsen loved it. He led his team in scoring, and rebounds came easy, the unusual angle leading balls to carom straight down under the basket. Meanwhile, legendary center George Mikan went 2 for 14, so maybe there was something there.

Attempting to combat what they considered to be a worsening height problem—Jay Bilas and his celebrations of wingspan had yet to be born—rule-makers made other tweaks. In 1952, the NBA widened the key from six feet to 12 feet to counter Mikan's interior prowess. Three years later, the NCAA followed suit to slow down Bill Russell. Only the problem kept getting worse. In earlier years, the glandular goons had little talent, just size. Now, players were coming along with both.

In 1956, Wilt Chamberlain arrived at Kansas.

A skilled, agile, and overpowering center, Chamberlain was an evolutionary leap, a basketball player from the distant future. In him, Kansas had the sport's ultimate weapon—and someone whose sheer physical dominance could act as the coup de grace for Allen's longtime siege of the regulation rim. Raise the hoop. Put the brakes on Wilt. That was the hope. Problem was, Allen turned 70 shortly after Chamberlain enrolled, and university rules demanded that the coach retire. "The only reason I wanted to stick around another year," he said, "was to stuff the 10-foot basket down the rules committee's throat."

(A year later, engrossed by Chamberlain's performances, Allen would playfully tell Time: "Twelve-foot baskets? What are you talking about? I've developed amnesia.")

The NCAA changed four other rules: no passes over the backboard, no offensive goaltending, no spot under the basket for the offense on free throws, and no running starts on free throws. And there was nearly another one, a failed vote to prohibit dunking. For 20 years, there had been little worry about the shot. Suddenly, people were discussing a ban.

Art by Nate James

Even though Chamberlain turned pro after his junior year, basketball's ongoing height crisis was nearing its apex. The sport was too easy, too dull. To many, it just felt wrong. "Point Orgies May Hurt Hoop Sport," declared the Salt Lake Tribune in 1957. "A basket has become so cheap nowadays that the fans have nothing left to cheer about," Bill Sharman of the Boston Celtics said in 1960. Height had made such a mockery of the game that some coaches were resorting to counter-mockery. Nobody listened to his suggestion to raise the hoop to 14 feet—no, really—so for one game in 1955, Los Angeles State coach Sax Elliott had his team wear lifts, adding as much as six inches of height. The opposing coach, Utah's Jack Gardner, agreed the sport had gotten "boring." "Basketball fans get more enjoyment from watching a five-man game," rather than just a relentless effort to feed the big man, he told the New York Times the following year. Yet the game's popularity grew alongside its players. That same year, NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff said, "I doubt that any other sport could stand this type of criticism of its basic foundations. Basketball, however, flourishes."

Nevertheless, the rim wasn't the only fix people had in mind. Some other common suggestions: no backboard, a convex backboard, a 20-inch distance between backboard and rim, a smaller basket, a bigger ball, a smaller ball, a two dribble limit, a height limit, a 1-point zone near the basket, a no-scoring zone near the basket, and a foot cap that, like a salary cap, would allow a team to divide 30 feet among the five players on the floor (believe it or not, this idea actually came up often).

None of these came to fruition, but the NCAA rules committee didn't exactly shy from drastic measures. In 1967, after a year of watching UCLA's Lew Alcindor dominate, they banned the dunk. They'd failed to contain Russell and Wilt, but the next great center wouldn't have it so easy. Alcindor didn't mince words about the prohibition, which he saw as driven less by competitive concerns than cultural ones. America was changing in the 1960s, and desegregation and the Civil Rights movement meant that the racial makeup of college basketball was changing as well.

"The dunk is one of basketball's great crowd pleasers," he said, "and there is no good reason to give it up except that this and other niggers were running away with the sport."

Hunter College coach Robert Bownes shared Alcindor's sentiment, stating that the dunk prohibition wasn't just about big men but rather "was put in to stop the six-foot-two brothers who could dazzle the crowd and embarrass much bigger white kids by dunking ... everyone knows that dunking is a trademark of great playground black athletes. So they took it away." The previous year had also seen the first team with an all-African-American starting lineup, Texas Western, win the NCAA championship, besting an all-white Kentucky team coached by Adolph Rupp (who had played under Allen and was in the minority of coaches supporting the dunk ban). The dunk debate had developed a subtext.

The NCAA voted against raising the rim that year as well, and some thought they'd missed the mark. "This rule" said Pete Newell, who coached Cal to a championship in 1959, "is an outright admission that the baskets are too low. They should be raised to 12 feet—but only after some experimentation first." Others felt the same. Allen reemerged at 81 to again ride his hobbyhorse, and new voices joined in. Sports Illustrated published a 1967 cover story, "The Case for the 12-Foot Basket." The magazine even staged an experimental game like Newell wanted, one of many during this era.

Jack McCloskey, coach at the University of Pennsylvania, took part in an 11½-foot rim game with his team in 1962 at the request of the NCAA experimental committee. "As we started," he told me over the phone from his home in Georgia last week, "I can remember guys saying, 'What the hell are we doing here?' ... but finally we played pretty good after that." It was basketball maybe a bit more like he grew up with in the 30s and 40s. "We didn't dunk!" he said.

McCloskey made the case for raised rims to Sports Illustrated by reimagining Naismith's original game with modern players: "I nail a hoop somewhere on the wall and we start playing. The big fellows are tapping in shots and stuffing the ball into the basket, and it looks too easy. What do I do? I raise the baskets!" By 1986, McCloskey was GM of the Detroit Pistons, and reportedly still advocating for the change, although he must not have pushed hard because he doesn't recall doing so. His commitment hasn't wavered, though. "They're escalating," he says of today's players. "So should the rim."

Amid the experiments, everybody in the sport was asked what they thought of such a change. Chamberlain said that he wouldn't mind it, because "it would only add to the prowess of the big man." (Worth noting: Wilt could dunk on the 12-foot rims Allen kept around at Kansas). Russell and Alcindor didn't think it would hurt them, either. John Wooden, Alcindor's coach at UCLA, was opposed to both higher rims and the dunk ban, although he did propose a rule that mandated a pass after a rebound to eliminate the tip-in. (By 1997, Wooden would change his mind, calling for 11-foot rims and a dunk ban.)

Iowa coach Ralph Miller took up Allen's role as the most vocal agitator for higher rims. He had played under Allen at Kansas and occasionally used a 12-foot basket in practice. Calling the dunk an "idiot's delight," he staged experimental games to show how much better the sport would be without it. I spoke with his assistant at the time, Dick Schultz, about the effect such baskets had.

"It made a lot of changes," he said, "even the layup was a completely different shot. It didn't make a lot of difference on free throws and perimeter shots, but it made a big difference on close-in shots." Miller stumped passionately for it, and Schultz even backed him up. But, he says, "When we put it up, and I saw the difference that it made, I just wasn't in favor of it at all."

Photo by Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone agreed raising the rim—and effectively killing the dunk—created fewer blocked shots, but other accounts were wildly uneven. Did it create more or fewer layups? Were there longer or shorter rebounds? Was it better or worse for big men?

Stan Morrison stepped in to provide some better data. He had played on Newell's championship team and took part in his elevated rim experiments. He remembers being struck by seeing leaping ability improve when they switched back to the regulation rims, and this memory pushed him as a master's student to take a serious look at the switch in 1963.

He assembled six games with some local players, three on 10-foot rims, three on 12-foot rims, and kept statistics. He has since lost that old thesis, but he remembers his experiment vividly and speaks about it and the sport with intense enthusiasm. His study found that small players could shoot inside without much fear of a block because they required such great arc anyway. Most importantly, the tip-in, loathed just as much as the dunk by refusenik-cum-reformers, was eliminated. "No one was making a basket as the result of a hyperactive pituitary gland," Morrison said. "You had to develop skills." He confirmed, however, that rebounds rarely went long, "so there was more congestion under the basket." Yet he also found that "smaller people got more rebounds."

In short, it made some notable differences, but it was hard to say whether they achieved precisely the desired ends. Morrison didn't push for the change at the time and only thinks it's something worth looking at to fix a game he is "very dissatisfied with" today. He speaks with an urgency found more often decades ago. Here's sportswriter Frank Deford, in 1971:

The whole sport is turning on the axis of the big man. Without a good giant, a team has no chance. Every playoff series this year was won by the club with the better big man. The whole pro sport is seriously threatened, in danger of ceasing to be a team sport. Perhaps it is time at last to raise the basket to 12 feet; in any event, something drastic must be done, and quickly.

Year after year, proposals for raised rims failed votes in the NCAA rules committee. The majority of coaches were likewise against higher rims, voting 559-53 against on an AP ballot in 1968. And yet, in 1972 there was nearly a breakthrough. Edward Steitz, longtime chairman of the rules committee and a Hall of Famer, revealed the story in 1980. "About eight years ago we almost had the Big 10 set to play with an 11 ½-foot-high basket," he told the Christian Science Monitor. "The conference voted in favor of trying it in the spring, but changed its mind right before the season began." Differences among conferences were routine. Later, for instance, some adopted the 3-point shot before others. But this would be a pretty big difference. Steitz said the conference backed off the idea when they realized that Big 10 players would be at a huge disadvantage when the NCAA tournament arrived.

Still, it's amazing that raised rims got that close to happening. I called Wayne Duke, who was commissioner of the Big 10 at the time, to ask what went down. Now 85, Duke was one of the original two people running the NCAA and one of the main forces in developing the modern Tournament. Little happened in college basketball that he didn't have a hand in, much less in his own conference.

"My memory factor's not that good," he told me from his home outside of Chicago, "but nonetheless I don't remember anything of that nature, nothing of it, and I'm sure I'm not that bad off. I would've remembered that." No, reiterates the man who would have overseen raising those rims, "I never ever heard anything of that nature."

I double-checked with Schultz, head coach of Iowa in 1972. He said he had no recollection of this happening either. "I don't think there was ever a lot of momentum for it," he said.

Where did Steitz get that idea? There were several experimental games that year, including a junior college tourney played with 11½ foot rims. And it's also true that his rules committee voted on that same height that year, but voted it down. Steitz, I suspect, was engaging in a bit of gamesmanship. If he made it sound like the heightened rims got official approval in the past, then it would seem more likely they could happen in the future. He wanted to get his pet cause into the realm of possibility, and hoped he could sneak it in through the backdoor.

Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

As the 1980s began, Steitz really did have good reason to believe a shakeup was in the offing. Four years prior, the NCAA had rescinded its dunk ban, the NBA and ABA had merged, and complaints about the game kept coming, especially the pro game. People kept asking whether it was "too black." The ABA, the league that invented the dunk contest that same year and featured the game's first great dunker, Dr. J, long had been perceived as a "black" league, and now its players and high-flying were being injected into the NBA. When NBC opted to run college games opposite pro games on CBS that year, one TV executive said that the NBA was just "too black to suit some fans." A drug scare and resentment of higher player salaries hurt the league's reputation as well. Larry Bird, it was hoped in 1979, would dispel some of these feelings, while the NBA also began its first efforts to improve its image through community outreach.

Amid all this, some argued for raised rims in ways that are—at best—incredibly tone deaf, and at worst make Alcindor's cultural critique look prophetic. A 1981 syndicated column complained, "Slam-dunking is how gorillas would play basketball if let out of the zoo." A 1981 LA Times column demonstrated that basketball players' heights have gotten out of hand by referring to old "suits of armor and the length of bunks in old slave ships." The racial politics of the dunk, and the sport, still had a ways to go.

A new league arose that sought to solve the supposed problems of height and relatability. "Who does the average-sized person identify with?" Dennis Murphy, co-founder of the World Basketball League asked in 1987. "Another average-sized person, of course." The league intended to cap players' heights at 6'4". But Murphy and co-founder Bob Cousy were perhaps short-sighted about the potential of those average- and below-average-sized players. Cousy predicted the WBL would be a home for college favorites who wouldn't have a chance in the pros, declaring 5'3" guard Muggsy Bogues "perfect for our league." In fact, the Wake Forest grad played 14 years in the NBA.

The league lasted four seasons. It arrived just as people were losing interest in even debating a higher hoop. That the sport was dominated by big men had grown to seem natural. As Indiana's Bob Knight told a reporter asking about raised rims in 1983, "Let the little guys play golf, wrestle, and play baseball. You never see a 6-9 guy winning the US Open. Let the big guys play basketball."

Moreover, the very idea of what constituted basketball was rapidly changing. As Morrison lamented, in the new ESPN era, the typical highlight package offered a couple dunks as a stand-in for nearly the entirety of a game's events. Today, dunking is basketball. Far from relatable, the dunk appeals, as Vince Carter said in 2004, "because a lot of people who love the game, play the game, watch it as a pastime, can't do those things."

The next most popular highlight is the three, which has the dunk to thank for its existence, and maybe vice versa. "The legalization of the dunk," Schultz suggested, "led to conversations about the three-point line." Although Steitz continued pushing for elevated baskets, he realized that he could also help achieve his goal of decreasing congestion down low by rewarding the outside shot. In 1986, seven years after the NBA adopted the three, he steered the NCAA rules committee toward adding it. Finally, he said before his death in 1990, "The dunk is no longer basketball's home run; the 3-point shot is."

With the three, it's easy to imagine that advocates of the dunk-killing raised rim have achieved everything they ever wanted. The little man has value again—in the advanced-metrics guided game today, perhaps the most value. Look at the list of NBA MVPs during the era when anti-big-man rhetoric was at its peak and you have to admit: the critics had a point. From the award's inception in 1956 to 1986, the winners' list is a who's who of centers; guards were named MVP just twice. Today, however, a true center hasn't won the award since Shaquille O'Neal in 2000. And while there still are calls to raise the rim, they're increasingly rare. Even in Terry Pluto's Falling From Grace, a book-length elegy over the loss of fundamentals in 1990s basketball, dunking is attacked without proffering the familiar solution. The 12-foot rim has become almost unthinkable. Who would dismiss Michael Jordan's signature skill, or put the hoop out of his reach?

Others, however, have stayed true to their convictions. In 2007, Tom Newell, a former NBA assistant coach and the son of longtime elevated hoop advocate Pete Newell, staged what was believed to be the first experimental raised rim game in decades. Like the one in 1940, it was played at the University of Washington and was an attempt to restore a game that, as Newell said, "has been distorted so players don't use skills other than jumping." Tom has no beef with height; his father invented the "Big Man Camp" that trained generations of great centers. That said, he's committed to the same set of fundamentals that mattered to Allen.

"This will happen again," Newell predicted at the time. He's hardly the first dunk apostate to hold out hope. In 1989, Steitz said, "It may not happen in my lifetime, but in 2020 the basket will have been moved up." In 1967, DePaul's coach Ray Meyer said, "The 12-foot change is inevitable." In 1949, Allen wrote "The 12-foot basket is coming as sure as death and taxes."

It's been a long time coming, but there is still a glimmer of hope, even if that glimmer is faint. Baseball lowered the mound because pitchers were too dominant. Football changed the shape of the ball and added the forward pass. Basketball added dribbling and the shot clock. Rule-makers respond to their games' needs all the time. "Basketball got to where it is by experimentation," the elder Newell said in 2007. Why shouldn't they do something truly effective to counter added height, the most dramatic alteration to gameplay in a century?

The three-point-shot hasn't solved all the complaints. Morrison thinks it has simply made a one-dimensional game two-dimensional as teams run an either/or pick-and-roll offense that leaves the area between the key and the line a dead zone. McCloskey feels "every team plays the same way." Modern analytics—and basic math—suggest that the most effective way to win is to shoot from behind the arc or above the rim. Raise the hoop, sacrifice the dunk, and maybe things would be different. More varied. More like the sport Morrison and McCloskey fell in love with, the sport they still love regardless.

"I watch more [basketball] than anyone you've ever spoken to or will ever speak to," Morrison, 75, told me, minutes before cutting off our call to go catch a game.

Akin to Morrison, the 90-year-old McCloskey says he watches basketball "all the time," routinely staying up till 1 a.m. to catch West Coast games. "I'm just grateful that I'm living far enough to last to see some games, any games," he says. Still, he maintains, raising the rim "would be just great, just great for the sport."

Like war and fashion, the Plot to Kill the Dunk cycles in and out of favor, but never really dies. If you find yourself underwhelmed by this weekend's All-Star dunks, take a moment to remember the efforts to squelch them entirely—and the basketball romantics who'd still like to finish the job, if only they had their way.