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Who Invented the Slam Dunk? History behind the First Dunk

Slam Dunks are one of the, if not THE, most exciting plays in basketball.

Dunks are routinely shown on Sportscenter highlights – often serve as an exclamation point for a dominant performance by a team or single player.

The “slam dunk” has even entered the lexicon as a popular expression inferring a favorable outcome, but who invented the slam dunk? Who was the first player ever to dunk?

Bob Kurland and his “Dunk Shot”

Within the history of the game, dunking is a recent innovation. Olympic gold medalist Robert Albert “Bob” Kurland emerged as a de facto inventor of the dunk  shot– or the jam as it is also called. Though many players could dunk shot during that era, many chose not to, as the shot was viewed as unnecessary showboating.  Kurland obviously didn’t feel this way – he became the first player to regularly do dunk shots in games.

The 7-foot Hall of Fame center used the shot routinely while playing on NCAA championship winning teams for Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) in 1945 and 1946.

(Incidentally, since Kurland was such a dominant force above the rim, the N.C.A.A. banned goaltending in 1945 because Kurland regularly grabbed opponents’  shots out from above the rim)

Future NBA stars and Hall of Famers, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell . were other big men who used their size advantage upon entering the NBA in the late 1950s to regularly score off dunk shots.

In the 1960’s, basketball officials began to worry about the dunk shot ruining the game because it allowed taller players to  dominant the game. When a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar . then known as Lew Alcindor, began playing for U.C.L.A. in 1967, the NCAA instituted a rule that same year, soon known as the “Lew Alcindor Rule” that forbid any player from dunking the basketball in a game.

‘(Alcindor) didn’t cause the change,” U.C.L.A. coach John Wooden said. “The NCAA Rules Committee outlawed the dunk because of hanging on the rim, rims bending back, boards breaking and glass down.’

Nevertheless, this rule shaped how N.C.A.A. basketball was played for  over a decade

before it was finally repealed in 1976.

From Dunk Shot to “Slaaaaaaaam Dunk!”

In addition to coining other popular basketball slang terms such as “airball,” “dribble drive,” “triple-double,” and “finger roll,” legendary play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn was also the first to coin the phrase “slam dunk.” Hearn first used the slang term while announcing an Los Angeles Lakers game in 1972. Hearn would further make a play on the slam dunk with his signature “Slaaaaaaaaam Dunk!” call. Prior to Hearn’s “Chickism” of the dunk, “slam dunks” were simply called ‘dunk shots.”

Slam Dunk Competitions: ABA and NBA

The N.C.A.A. ban on dunking did not stop slam dunks from spreading and becoming a popular play among fans and players alike. Julius Erving helped to popularize dunking when he began regularly scoring on one jam after another upon starting his ABA career in 1971. Erving created a wide array of moves that other basketball players after him decided to mimic. Other ABA and NBA stars soon followed suit in developing a repertoire of dunks. Darryl Dawkins gained notoriety in 1979 for shattering two different backboards on dunks and forcing the NBA to install breakaway rims.

The ABA brought slam dunks further into the spotlight as the inventor of the first All-star slam dunk competition in 1976 and the NBA adopted a similar contest into its all-star weekend years later.

Future NBA superstars wowed fans early in their careers by using an array of windmill slam dunks and creative jams to win Slam Dunk titles.  Some notable winners:

  • Julius Erving (1976, ABA) – Dr. J popularized the free-throw line slam dunk in his showdown with the David Thompson in the ABA slam dunk contest.
  • Dominique Wilkins (1985, 1990) – The Human Highlight film windmilled his way to two slam dunk titles.
  • Spud Webb (1986) – The 5-foot-7 guard made history when he became the shortest player to ever win the all-star event in 1986.
  • Michael Jordan (1987, 1988) – Air Jordan was the first player ever to repeat as slam dunk champion, defeating another slam dunk legend Dominique Wilkins

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