I would like to start out this column by admitting I was not a high flyer in my career. I did, however, dunk on enough guys in high school, college and the pros that I feel qualified enough to write an article on the topic.
A good “dunk on” (that’s the technical term) is one of the most exciting parts of a basketball game. Blake Griffin is both one of the most lethal dunkers and best passing big men in the NBA. I have not checked, but I feel it’s safe to assume that “Blake Griffin Dunks on” has been searched on YouTube quite a bit more than “Blake Griffin Passes to...”
A dunk is exciting by itself, but when it’s at the expense of some over-matched and foolish defender, it becomes breathtaking. In a game that is played 5-on-5, two players meeting at the rim to impose their will is the ultimate 1-on-1 moment in sports; someone’s heart is getting ripped out and they will probably be on the wrong end of the other player’s highlight reel.
Every spectator then feels like Indiana Jones watching Mola Ram. The excitement cool-down time from the demoralization stretches long enough that the next several plays are hardly watched by anybody. But what is it like for the players on the court?
I’ve been on both sides.
What constitutes being dunked on?
For me, there are two ways people get dunked on. In a “showdown,” a defender sees an opponent with a head of steam coming towards the rim, they accept the challenge and meet them there. That’s the fun one. The second is the blind dunk-on: getting dunked on without being ready. It can happen by not boxing out and having a tip dunk occur on your head, by realizing too late that you got ball, by someone getting to the rim before you expected, being out numbered on the fast break, etc.
The blind dunk-on is usually an error by the defense. The defender got dunked on because he was late or out of position. The showdown happens when the defender sees the dunker coming and accepts the challenge.
How does it feel to be blind dunked on?
I have been blind dunked on a few times. Every player has. For example, my teammate gets beat, so as a help defender I split the difference away from my guy under the basket. The pass gets through to my guy and I turn around with my arm raised and the player is dunking it. The crowd goes nuts.
Yes, I was under the basket when he dunked it—I got dunked on. But my ego isn’t touched and my heart is still in my possession. The examples I gave were pretty incredible highlights, but when a player is late or there is a miscommunication that leads to a dunk on, the error is a bigger deal than the highlight. It doesn’t cut as deep because the defense was at a disadvantage.
Afterward, as play resumes, the game occupies the player’s mind and the dunk is forgotten almost immediately...unless there’s a foul. The “And-1” makes it much worse.
What effect does a big time showcase dunk have on the defender?
A massive dunk is two points, maybe three if there’s a foul, too. However, not all baskets are equal. A soul-crushing dunk can be absolutely demoralizing if you let it. It offers a feeling of superiority that becomes a mental advantage. But there are ways to come back from it.
I had a teammate—a shooting guard—who made a point of demanding a quick in-bounds as soon as a demoralizing dunk took down one of our defenders, and he would dribble down the court and shoot a 3-pointer with no hesitation, no indecisiveness, and no maybes. The quicker he could get the ball and shoot it, the better.
He saw it as an opportunity. To him, the feeling of being high after your team embarrassed an opposing defender followed by the realization that the sequence was actually bad, was difficult to overcome—especially without ample time to ever celebrate the dunk. It seemed crazy, but he did it every time.
The natural reaction is to slow the ball down and regroup. He literally did the opposite. And when he made it, it worked. His made three ended up more life-sucking than the dunk itself.
I just made sure to never act like my teammate who got destroyed actually got destroyed. A person who just got horribly dunked on is often searching for an affirmation that it was not as bad as it felt. The teammates’ job is to make sure to hide it as much as they can. I usually would talk to my victim teammates about an earlier offensive play to get their mind off it.
Have I ever been really dunked on?
Only once in my professional career have I really had a showdown dunk that went really bad for me as a defender. I am about 6’9” and normally played the four, but I often played minutes as a small five, as well. Only getting majorly dunked on once in an eight-year career as an undersized, not-super-athletic five isn’t bad.
I avoided it not because I didn’t challenge; I was a very aware defensive player and could block driving lanes and cover space quickly, which made dunking on me difficult. I also had quick hands and attacked the ball before the offense had time to get any elevation. This resulted in either a deflection or a foul that kept the offense from easy baskets.
As effective as I was at this, someone still got me...and you probably know the name of the person who did it, too: a 7’1” long, skinny and athletic frenchman named Jonathon Jeanne.
I still remember the play well. (The video was on YouTube but it’s in french and I am sure that none of you will ever find it). Jeanne set a ball screen on the wing and I blitzed the ball handler. Jeanne rolled to the hoop. The trap we had was bothering the ball, so I stayed with it.
My other big man on the floor took Jeanne rolling to the hoop, so his man flashed to the top of the key. As the ball came out of the trap and went to the flasher, I saw my teammate leave Jeanne under the basket to guard the ball. I saw what was going to happen and tried to sprint back.
The pass was already on its way to him.
Jeanne was waiting, shoulders parallel with the baseline and facing center court. The ball was in mid-air to him. I knew he was planning to catch it and dunk it. I assumed since he was a foot or two away outside the key that he’d take a control dribble before he went up. I thought that dribble would buy me just enough time to sprint back, get in the air before he did and make a play on the ball.
I was a lot stronger than him so I knew if I could swipe at it, either the ball was popping out or I was going to foul him and keep him from scoring. I made my commitment and I went. I was timing my jump when Jeanne caught the ball, turned, and went up for the dunk.
He jumped and I was a hair late but headed right for him. As I swung over the top of his head for the ball, he cocked back and slammed it through. It was ugly. I fouled him too, but luckily they didn’t call it. My teammates looked at me in shock, I looked at them back in shock, the gym—it was an away game—went crazy. It was No. 3 on the plays of the week. It actually took me a moment to regroup and go inbound the ball when it happened.
What does a situation like that do to a defender?
Fortunately for me, we were winning by 20 or so at the time, and ended up winning by 30. Jeanne had no room to boast, and he didn’t. I had a good stat line so it ended up as just a small footnote to a good game. That said, I clearly still remember it. I was never teased about it, but I was asked about what happened a few times and I never forgot it.
The interesting moment for me—less for everyone else, probably—came a few plays later. Coach took me out, likely to see if I had recovered, and a new big man was in. Jeanne caught the ball a few feet away from the basket again and his defender wanted no part of it. He faked like he was going to challenge and got out of the way. Jeanne destroyed the rim.
As I sat on the bench, every one of my teammates and coaches had something to say about my teammate hiding instead of holding his ground. There was a collective groan of disappointment. I got dunked on much harder. Mine was one of the top plays of the week. The crowd went bananas over it. But the reaction from my team? They were more disappointed in their teammate who high-tailed it out of the frame. Maybe I’m still just trying to make myself feel better here, but I think most players would prefer the teammate who put their heart on the line.
I remember when this happened in 2012. Immediately following, multiple Thunder players came out and said the same thing about Perkins. (Side note: pause that video at 0:17 to see the look a guy gives when he gets dunked on. I think mine was the exact same). If Perkins wouldn't have challenged Griffin, he would have lost all of his credibility as a defender. You could even argue he enhanced his image as a tough guy, showing his lack of fear.
History will see this dunk as one of the ugliest demoralizations of a defender in a 1-on-1 scenario that we may ever see. But Perkins’ teammates wont see it like that.
Lots of factors like opponent, score, time remaining and players involved go in to how brutal a dunk is. I’ve seen a victim on the receiving end of a monster dunk be ruined for the game, even at the professional level. A posterization can drain confidence and focus in a second from a defender or an entire defensive unit, and it may not come back that game. It’s something that can take players time to process.
No team sport has a showdown like the confrontation at the rim basketball offers. For fans, it has the entertainment value that can launch someone out of their seat. The excitement of the dunk can eclipse a game’s outcome for a fan, but for a player, it’s just a glimpse into what they’re made of.