Let’s face it. We live in a world of basketball dunks. Slam it, ram it. Take it up and jam it. Only I’ve never even come close to doing one. And, most likely, neither have you. We are the dunkless. Not a slam to our names. Most of us can recall that fateful day, somewhere in high school, when we gazed at the metal rim, wondering what life must be like up there, and sadly realized we were never going to find out.
Man was not meant to feel so . . . earthbound. But that is his fate, especially if he is under 5-feet-10, as I am, and is a lousy leaper. As I am.
Real basketball players, of course, have no such problems. A 10-foot-high rim is nothing to them. They could dust up there. They lift off, do a triple reverse spin, eat a sandwich, call the accountant, then ram the ball down the basket’s throat. The rest of us suffer quietly.
Most adults get over this trauma. They go on to more important things, such as IRAs. I am not so strong. I still sneak out under a rim some nights and pray. Something like, “Please, Lord, let me have Julius Erving’s legs while he’s sleeping.”
I can’t help it. A baseball in the palm of your hand says “Throw me!” A football arriving in a delicious spiral screams “Catch me!”
And a basketball, if you are driving to the hoop and you lift off and you go up, up . . . well, that basketball screams “Dunk me!” Really. I’ve heard it often. It sounds a little like Teddy Pendergrass.
Alas, like most of us, I inevitably come up, well, short. I reach the net and gravity sets in.
Low is me.
Until last week I was resigned to my fate. A life of simple, boring lay-ups off the backboard.
And then I met Alvin (Bo) Dukes.
I have been born again.
Alvin (Bo) Dukes, 24, is a guard for the Detroit Spirits, the local Continental Basketball Association franchise. He is flashy. A crowd-pleaser. He is also a legend around Inkster, where he lighted up the courts as a teenager. “The guy can play,” people whisper, and in basketball that’s akin to winning the Nobel Prize for peace. Inkster even had a “Bo Dukes Day” last summer, and he has yet to play an NBA minute.
That’s something. But then, so is Bo Dukes.
He is only 5-6.
And he can dunk.
Now I know about Spud Webb — the diminutive 5-7 dunk champion. But I figured he’s one-in-a-lifetime. And besides, he’s in the NBA. They put something in the Gatorade up there, I bet.
But Dukes? He’s around here. He works for his money. And he’s an inch smaller than Spud.
Smaller than Spud?
So I had this idea. I have a few inches on Dukes. That makes me a few inches closer to basket, right? Well, dang it. If he can, I can. I called his team. “Is Alvin Dukes in town?” I asked. . . .
I was going to take a lesson. I was going to learn the secret. I was going to grow wings, breathe fire, make myself invisible, cure hunger, heal the sick, raise the dead. Impossible? Never heard of the word.
I was going to learn how to dunk.
On Friday afternoon, Alvin (Bo) Dukes showed up at Calihan Hall, as promised. His hair was short, his build slight, and he was smaller than most of the kids walking around the gym. And they were high schoolers.
We shook hands. I told him what I wanted. His secret. Alvin thought about it. He warned me that he doesn’t do 360-degree dunks, or Chocolate Thunders, or anything like that.
“Ball handling is my real specialty,” he said, smiling. But yes, he admitted, the dunk was there in his repertoire, like frozen vegetables, should it be necessary some night to defrost it.
I was looking him in the eye. Maybe even in the forehead. What a feeling.
We found a ball. “I need to get loose, warm up a bit,” Bo said. Good point. Got to be loose to fly. I bent over to touch my toes. Alvin looked at me as if I had just eaten a small rodent.
“That’s not how you warm up,” he said. He dribbled a few times, then tossed in a 20-footer. I found out that Alvin (Bo) Dukes likes to warm up with a special exercise, called Slaughtering The Sports Writer.
He put the ball between his legs no fewer than eight times before throwing in another 20-footer. Two-zip. Same thing. Swish. Four-zip. Again. Swish. Six-zip. Swish. Eight-zip.
“You getting nice and loose, Bo?” I yelled, chasing down the ball.
“Uh-huh,” he said.
“Good. Just checking.”
Bo drove to the hoop, then stopped. I had my arm up. He slipped the ball underneath it, as if to scoop. I turned for the rebound, but there was nothing there. I whirled around. He grinned. The ball was still in his hands. He had actually curled it under my arm and flipped it back past my ear without me even knowing it.
“What do you call that?” I asked. “The em-barr-ass-ment,” he said.
Good name, I thought.
Anyhow, Bo made me feel like Bella Abzug out there. And then, sufficiently loose, he went for it. He lifted off from the foul line, up, up, and slammed the ball into the rim. I watched as the ball caromed out. It wasn’t a successful dunk, but it was damn close. And I could wear this guy’s clothes.
“It’s possible,” I whispered.
Bo walked me through the dunking process. As far as I know, there has never been a book written about how to dunk. Or even a pamphlet. I should have taken notes.
“A few stutter steps out here,” he said, pointing near the foul line,
“then drive in and take off on your left foot.”
By this point, Bo had already performed a few dozen dunk attempts himself. He took some alone. I alley-ooped him some. He made a few, missed a few, but his hands were way above the rim. He could fly.
“Come in and I’ll toss it up, ” he said, positioning himself near the basket. “You just guide it in.”
OK. Here we go, I figured. A few stutter steps. Then bam. Just like Bo. Who is shorter, I reminded myself. I could hear the drum roll. From 25 feet away, I charged toward the hoop like something out of the Tet offensive. I lifted up about a foot. Bo threw the ball. It ricocheted off my chin.
I came down awkwardly — consistent with the way I went up — and fell.
“You all right?” Bo asked.
“It’s nothing,” I said. Nothing a good chiropractor couldn’t fix anyhow.
“Try again,” he said.
I should interrupt here for something. Before we started all this, Bo and I talked about the first time he dunked. His eyes followed his words to the past. For a few seconds he was there:
“It was in the back yard. My brothers were there. I was good and loose. Had a good sweat going. I thought I’d go up and try it. I had never done it before. But I knew I could jump. I just went up there and . . . I hammered it home. It felt good, man. Being up there. It felt great.”
Hammered it home. He was describing my daydreams. Here was another man who had shopped in the “Boys Large” section longer than he cared to admit. Who knew the feeling of always being the guard. Always. Who’d been at the mercy of the apparatus for too long.
I bring this all up in case you’re wondering — and you’ve never played basketball if you are — “Why does a shorter man want to dunk?”
Why? To have control. To put the rim in his pocket. To look down at it for once, and say, “Hey, yo. Rim. My man. I don’t need you or your buddy, Mr. Backboard, or nobody. Up here. Yeah. I’m up here. What about it? Take this, metal-head.”
We weren’t progressing much in the gym. I had mastered not falling, but I was still putting the ball through the net. From below.
“Lift off stronger,” Bo urged.
But that was the problem. My dials were already on maximum. My engine was overheating. I still could not lift up high enough. It wasn’t desire. I had that. It was physical.
How sad, I thought. Here I am with a master and my body cuts class.
Bo came over. He put his arm around my shoulder. “Listen,” he said. . . .
That was the turning point. What a teacher! A few minutes later I was inches away from the rim, ball in hand, on the lip of the most delectable taste a sneakered soul could ever imagine.
What can I say? You saw the photo.
It was ecstasy. My life has changed. I saw the rim. I saw it from the top of the world. It was great. Magnificent. Everything it should have been and then some. The ball pushing through the net, the slap of flesh against metal.
The dunk. I cannot tell you what you are missing. I cannot explain it. It was tingling, exhilarating. A moment of true holiness.
I have seen the promised land. Up where the air is rare. I can die happy.
And the best part is, my friends, and listen when I say this — you can too. Alvin (Bo) Dukes showed me the way. Just a few simple steps is all.
OK. First, get a ladder. . . . CUTLINE: Sports writer defies gravity: Albom dunks. Mitch Albom (left) and his dunkmaster, Alvin (Bo) Dukes.