The gym was in a frenzy. |
Some fans were running back and forth down the rows, not heading toward or away from anything in particular, just running because they couldn't contain themselves after what they had just seen.
Students who had been only half-interested in the game were up yelling and exchanging spontaneous descriptions of what had just happened, not even taking the time to turn off their MP3 players.
From the front row, a few spectators were drifting precariously close to being inbounds, even as play was still going on. A security guard walked from his post on the baseline wall toward them, but he wasn't going to reprimand anyone. This was a special moment, and all he wanted was a high-five.
This was all Chris Johnson's doing. On Jan. 29, with his Brookhaven High School boys basketball team trailing by one point in the third quarter against a Mifflin team it was expected to beat, Johnson took an outlet pass and headed toward the free-throw line. Mifflin center Nathan Budd was standing deep in the lane, looking to take a charge or force Johnson to make an off-balance layup.
Instead, Johnson ignored everything but the rim, jumping off one foot from two steps inside the foul line and cleanly, brutally throwing down a one-handed dunk right over top of Budd.
On the stat sheet, it was just another basket, but no layup, jump shot or 3-pointer could have caused such a ruckus.
Changing the flow
A dunk is a special play at any level of basketball -- five minutes of NBA highlights on ESPN's SportsCenter makes it blatantly obvious that fans love the dunk . But at the high-school level, where a small percentage of players ever will dunk in a game, the impact is particularly significant.
"A dunk is still only two points, but I know that at least at the high-school level, when someone goes up and dunks, the whole team stands up and yells," Columbus Academy senior Jake Beatley said. "Everyone on the court gets pumped. It's two points, and then a huge momentum swing."
Among players and coaches around the area, there is a consensus that the dunk can affect the course of a game like few other plays can.
"For the team, it's momentum," Linden-McKinley coach Jimmy Jones said. "For the crowd, it makes them the sixth man off the bench. I think those are the two biggest impacts. And then third, it boosts the player's self-esteem and confidence."
In some coaches' minds, however, it's not a given that a dunk will have a positive effect on the team. Big Walnut coach Steve Comstock said it's easy for players to lose their concentration when a teammate throws one down.
"It can go either way," Comstock said. "If your kids play off it and get excited about it, it can get you on a little roll. I've also seen kids stand around and they don't get back on defense, and then they lose their focus. So I've kind of seen it go both ways."
For most coaches, their instructions to the players regarding the dunk are as cliche and old-school as can be expected. Especially for high-school athletes, the dunk is generally a lower-percentage shot than a layup, so coaches like Jones and long-time Thomas Worthington coach Bob Miller say they prefer their players to use the backboard. Westerville Central coach Todd Minney said the best piece of dunk -related advice he can give to his players -- at least those who value their playing time -- is that "you better make it."
Others believe that players who are capable of dunking have a responsibility to the team to do it when the opportunity arises. Comstock said when Eagles high-rising guard Eugene Cannaday gets a clear path to the basket, "We give him a dirty look if he doesn't dunk it."
"If the crowd is just sitting there bored, like, 'Oh, man, this game's taking forever,' I try to do something to get the crowd into it," Cannaday said.
Not all dunks are created equal. Few can have the chaos-inducing effect of Johnson's dunk against Mifflin, but even a garden-variety dunk can be significant under the right circumstances.
Even for the elite dunkers, there was a time when all they wanted was to be able to get that first slam home -- hopefully in front of a few friends who could vouch for them later. Most players could recall exactly where they were, and who was watching, when they first elevated high enough to get that dunk. "My friend used to always tell me that I couldn't jump as high as him," Beatley said. "One day (last year) we were in the gym, and he told me to go up and try to dunk two-handed. I went up off one foot because I just wanted to show him that I could jump, and I went up with two hands and just threw it down."
For some of the area's best athletes, their age at the time of that first dunk is absurd enough to elicit a bit of embarrassment in those not fortunate enough to have any dunks on record.
"My first dunk was in my seventh-grade year during recess," Linden guard Eric Dukes said. "When I was younger, I thought that was something everybody could do. I thought that I was kind of late on dunking. Then someone saw me dunking and was like, 'Wow, you can really dunk ?' I wasn't really even interested in basketball back then."
Whereas some high-school teams have the right athletes and the right style to dunk with regularity -- Brookhaven had five in that 78-72 win over Mifflin on Jan. 29 -- dunks are few and far between at many area schools. For Westerville Central, which opened in 2002, dunk hasn't even become plural yet. There's just the dunk.
Late in a 61-51 win over visiting New Albany, senior guard Tyler Devoll took an outlet pass and considered, briefly, pulling up and letting the clock run out. But Devoll, a 6-0 guard who had missed two dunks earlier in the year, knew what the home fans wanted to see.
"Everybody in the whole gym was just yelling, ' Dunk it,'" Devoll said. "So I was like, 'All right.' I just took two dribbles from the 3-point line and just jumped up and threw it down. Everybody was just going crazy."
Like Devoll's dunk , the vast majority of high-school dunks occur on the break with a wide-open lane to the basket. Even though the level of difficulty isn't particularly high, the breakaway dunk can be plenty memorable.
"The one I really remember was at Worthington Christian, the second one (that game)," Beatley said. "I had gotten one a couple plays before, and this was kind of a fast break, but there were two guys right behind me. I wasn't sure if I was going to go up or not, and I took off from the red line (between the free-throw line and baseline) and I went up, and my coach said it was like I was flying. He said that was the highest he's ever seen me get."
On the receiving end
Still, the most ferocious, awe-inspiring and momentum-altering dunks only can occur with a little resistance along the way. Johnson recalled a dunk of his in a 79-62 win over Centennial on Dec. 4 that kindled images of a certain Cleveland-based NBA player.
"It was like LeBron James dunking on (Detroit's) Rasheed Wallace in the playoffs," Johnson said, not bragging, but simply describing the moment as accurately as possible.
Few defenders dare challenge 7-1 Ohio State-bound center B.J. Mullens of Canal Winchester, and when they do, the impact can be lasting on the victim.
"He's obviously got some size, but he's a good athlete, too," Hartley coach Randy Kortokrax said. "He really threw some down."
"He threw one down on one of our sophomores, and our sophomore is probably still crapping his pants."
Plenty of athletes will say that they have, at one time or another, "posterized" an opposing player, but hardly any have the poster-worthy image to prove it. When Dukes dunked on Mifflin's Drew Foster in Linden's 108-92 win on Jan. 11, he had no idea that it would make him a minor celebrity for the next few days.
"I had my dunk in (The Columbus Dispatch) and I was just surprised because everyone called me being like, 'Oh, man, your dunk is in the newspaper. You're dunking on somebody,'" Dukes said. "I didn't think it was that serious, but I looked in the newspaper, and I was just shocked and excited."
Of course, the player on the receiving end of that sort of highlight-reel moment likely will recall the event less fondly. Westerville Central senior post Marr Mansfield, a two-year starter, had the misfortune of being the low man as 2007 DeSales graduate Alex Kellogg rose up to finish an alley-oop in a scrimmage in the summer of 2006. Mansfield took some good-natured grief from teammates for quite a while, but he said the incident wasn't as traumatizing as some might think.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't really care," Mansfield said. "I just kept playing. Things don't really get to my head in games."
Being dunked on puts Mansfield in the same company as plenty of great players, including the most imposing defender in the area, if not the state.
"Oh, yeah, (I've been dunked on) several times," Mullens said. "I've been dunked on by (former Ohio State 7-footer) Greg Oden. In the ESPN All-Star Game last year, I was dunked on by (Cincinnati Withrow's) Yancy Gates ... but that was payback. He was getting me back for when I dunked on him between my sophomore and junior years."
Just as the best dunkers are fearless about challenging any defender, the 6-3 Mansfield said as a big man, just getting out of the way is not an option. On the occasion that he puts hand on ball and denies a potential dunk , Mansfield relishes the feeling of being able to "take away all his glory."
From a coaching perspective, Jones said he doesn't care if his defender makes a clean block, alters the shot or even picks up a foul. Just don't get dunked on.
"If a kid comes up on you and he's trying to dunk the basketball, I tell them don't let it happen," Jones said. "Foul that guy, whether he's going for the dunk or not. It's an embarrassing moment for you personally (to get dunked on). It's part of the game, but if you foul that guy, next time he'll know not to come up in there and try to dunk on you."
Did you see that?
The Brookhaven gym eventually calmed after the eruption caused by Johnson's dunk . The final 12 minutes proved to be as entertaining and closely contested as any game in the area that day.
But as the spectators filed out into the cold, a few talked about the 18-4 third-quarter run that led to the Bearcats' six-point win. Some mentioned Johnson's 32 points.
But mostly, what everyone wanted to know was, "Did you see that dunk ?"