This is a true story.
I’ve changed the names of everyone involved, partly because, even all these years later, I’m still a little bit worried that a middle-aged “Johnny Kaminski” might read it, recognise himself, hop on a plane from upstate New York, cross the Atlantic, go through customs, struggle with the Heathrow Express ticketing system, eventually figure out that it’s easier with a credit card, take the train to London Paddington, switch to the tube, find my address on Google maps, come to my building, take the stairs all the way up to our flat on the fourth floor (the lift is out of service) – all just to punch me in the penis. That was kind of his thing.
So I don’t want that to happen, but I also don’t want to embarrass or shame anyone in the telling of this tale. My goal in sharing this is nothing more than self-reflection. I have no scores to settle, except perhaps with myself.
All of this was prompted by an unexpected reference I heard while I was at work a few days ago. I was in the conference room for a meeting when someone referred to a project we were working on as a potential “slam dunk.” It’s a common enough saying, but it struck me as an odd thing to say here in the UK, where basketball is a virtually unknown sport.
Hearing that phrase so entirely divorced from its context triggered some strong memories and I spent the rest of the meeting lost in thought.
For me, a slam dunk was something more than just a metaphor to be casually dropped in conversation around the office. For me, it wasn’t just another way of saying “a big, quick win.” It represented something more real and substantial. A crossroads. A transformative moment.
I sat there in my swivel chair, thinking about how a slam dunk literally involves taking an enormous leap. When I was young, I discovered the hard way, that enormous leaps often lead to very hard landings.
Especially when it’s a dork doing the leaping.
He coughed my mom’s name as he passed me in the hall.
“Your mother. Josie.”
He was building up steam. “Jooosie!”
This kind of thing was a common power move in my high school back in the 1980s. Someone would find out your mom’s name and use it against you. They didn’t have to call your mother fat or stupid or a whore. It was all implied. They would turn your mom’s very name into an insult, which made it the biggest burn of all.
There were only two acceptable responses when someone did this to you. The first was to throw down.
But I wasn’t about to fight Johnny Kaminiski. He was was a solid six foot seven. A senior. A basketball star. He once scored more than 50 points in one game, an unheard-of feat for high school hoops back in the days before the 3-point line, when averaging 18 points a night was enough to make you a local hero. He was the best basketball player our school had ever produced. He was going to lead us to a state championship. He was a legend in our town. He was untouchable.
Me, I was just a gangly 14-year-old who wouldn’t even know how to throw a punch – not that I had the confidence to even try. I was a walking, talking avatar of 1980s nerdiness. A master of no physical activity at all, apart from Atari games. I was tall but impossibly skinny, with acne on my forehead – carefully covered up by long hair up front – and braces on my teeth. I was that kid who always had his hand up in class. The one that made people roll their eyes, ‘him again,’ when the teacher called on me for the umpteenth time. I read comic books, collected Star Wars action figures, watched science fiction movies and played Dungeons and Dragons.
In short, I was a geek and a loser and not remotely a physical threat at to someone like Johnny – and he knew it. For him, insulting me was just some casual muscle-flexing. For me to take him on would be like a halfling without a sling attacking an ax-wielding storm giant clad in battle armor. An impossible and hopeless nerd quest.
The only other face-saving response potentially open to me was to call out his mother’s name in reply. His mom was Edith. (Everyone knew everyone’s mother’s name at my school. You couldn’t help but overhear the upperclassmen as they sat around barking anachronistic old ladies’ names at each other like seals on a pier: Louise! Beulah! Dorothy! Ruth! Peggy! Bernice!)
So, in theory, I could have shouted out something about good old Edith, and while this was the kind of thing his buddies might try, I really didn’t have the standing to take part in the game. I would have been risking something even worse than having my mom’s name dragged through the mud – because another of Johnny and his peers’ go-to ‘jokes’ was to bash you in the testicles with the back of their hand when they were annoyed with you. It wasn’t really a proper punch, as trial and error had revealed to them that a short, sharp whack was surprisingly much more painful to the recipient than a conventional closed-fist swing.
The victim of this attack would keel over gasping for air while everyone else laughed, thankful that it hadn’t been them this time. “Oh man! Johnny got him good!” I’d seen it happen to kids higher on the social pecking order than me and I wasn’t keen to take my chances.
So I did nothing. I listened as he turned my mother’s name into a chant of mockery and I just kept walking, pretending it wasn’t that big a deal. Inside, I seethed. But what could I do? This was the natural order of things. Scrawny, dorky kids getting picked on by big, popular athletic kids was the way the world worked. It had always been that way and it always would be.
The ball that changed it all
Just a few weeks later, I turned 15.
One day, after gym class had ended, I picked up a stray tennis ball that was lying on the side of the basketball court. On a whim, I ran towards the basket, jumped and threw the ball in, grabbing the rim for a split second before letting go and dropping back down to the ground. I was with my friend Mark, who was less nerdy than me, but still far from being one of the cool kids. He had seen what I had done and laughed – as if he had witnessed some kind of oddball trick, like a squirrel finding out it could water ski reasonably well. ‘Dunking a tennis ball – good one!’
Encouraged, I went over to the rack and grabbed a red dodgeball – only slightly smaller than a basketball, but its rough, divoted surface made it easy to grip with just one hand. Harder to dunk than a tennis ball, but easier than a basketball. Again I ran at the hoop and threw it down fairly easily. Mark stopped laughing. This was no longer a water-skiing squirrel kind of situation. This was something else. “If you can dunk a dodgeball….”
Silently and solemnly, Mark walked over carrying another ball from the rack. This time it was the real thing: a 29.5 inch, 21-ounce, regulation Wilson basketball.
I took it from him and turned to face the basket. I dribbled a couple of times and looked up and over at the red rim hovering exactly 10 feet above the ground. I ran recklessly in its general direction, clutching the ball in my hand as I leaped.
I threw the ball in violently and grabbed the rim on the way down, my body swaying as I held on. I had done it. I had dunked a basketball.
With one leap, I had broken the natural order.
I thought to myself: everything was going to be different from now on.
A time-out to discuss the significance of the slam…
I understand that not everybody in the world knows a lot about basketball, especially in the UK (where I live today) so I feel this is a good point at which to pause this story and give some history and context. This will be obvious to you if you know anything about basketball, so feel free to skip ahead.
But if not, it’s kind of hard to overstate how unheard-of it was for a six-foot-two, barely 15-year-old small-town nerd with virtually no athletic experience or ability to be able to dunk a basketball. This was back in the early 1980s: the days when players still wore tiny shorts, Chuck Connors sneakers and white socks pulled up high. It was not a high-flying era filled with athletic leapers playing high above the rim – especially not in a small village in upstate New York.
It helps to think of a dunk not as a basketball shot, but as a display of dominance in a sport that is filled with trash-talking and intimidation. Dunking a ball was like legal cheating. You didn’t have to know how to shoot the ball properly – you just threw it down into the rim. I guess that’s the reason the phrase “a slam dunk” has entered into general usage – the act of dunking represents an impressive, almost unstoppable expression of dominance. It was a back-breaker for a team to get “dunked on,” especially at the high school or amateur level of basketball. Getting dunked on crushes a team’s morale and fires up the opposition crowd.
In fact, the dunk was such a powerful and unusual maneuver, that for many years it was banned from college hoops and the NBA. It only became a legal part of the sport in 1968. An article I found online on the history of the dunk refers to it as: “the most thrilling, in-your-face, insulting, elevating, momentum-shifting, exhilarating, gravity-shunning play in basketball.”
The game resumes…
There was nothing “thrilling, in-your-face” or “exhilarating” about 15-year-old me – nothing at all. Except for this brand-new discovery that I could – rather easily – do something on a court that most amateur basketball players spent their entire lives dreaming about – especially in my town.
There were only two people in my whole basketball-obsessed school who could dunk. One was, of course, Johnny Kaminksi, who, if you gave him some room, could fairly handily throw one down without much flash. The other was his teammate and fellow star, Robby Novak, the second-best basketball player our town had ever produced – who was six foot nine inches tall.
And now there was me.
Standing there in the gym on the day of this discovery, I felt like the young King Arthur, having pulled a sword out of a stone. Mark had now started laughing again. “Holy shit,” he said. “This is big, you can dunk! We’ve got to tell everybody.” He suggested we go around, finding anyone who happened to be hanging around after gym class so we could put on a demonstration right then and there.
But I stopped him. This was too big to reveal quickly or casually. I had already started to form a plan.
Right away, I had recognised that my ability to dunk a basketball was a game-changer and potentially, my ticket out of dork-dom. I wasn’t a happy kid. I didn’t have many friends and I was tired of being seen as a nerd, of being picked on and worst of all, being overlooked by everybody at my school. Incidents like the one with Johnny had only served to highlight how huge the gap was between someone like him and someone like me. He could be cruel to me because I didn’t matter. I was a nobody.
I was tired of being Peter Parker and it was time to reveal myself as Spider-Man.
And I knew just where and when to stage this big unveiling. But first I had to get myself a spot on the basketball team.
It turns out my six-foot-two-inch tall body was actually pretty ideally suited to dunking a basketball. I had a reasonably good vertical leap, but I was so light that I didn’t need to generate that much power to lift my skinny frame quite high off the ground. I was also helped by the fact that my arms are quite long, which meant I could reach above the rim easier than someone else of the same height or leaping ability. It all added up to make dunking surprisingly easy for me.
But I was no basketball player. Not really. I could play a little – everyone I knew played at least a little, as basketball was hugely popular in my town. I couldn’t really dribble well or shoot – but I could rebound and make open layups, and of course, now I could dunk.
I figured this all meant that I was good enough to earn a spot on the junior varsity team – and soon enough, I was proven right. It wasn’t considered a huge accomplishment to make JV. It was the second-string team. The warm-up act. The home for scrubs, misfits and almost-but-not-quite players.
But I didn’t mind any of that. I really only tried out so that I could take part in the centerpiece of my plan: the pep rally. That was where – in front of the whole school – I was going to introduce the new me. The bad-ass, high-flying, slam-dunking me.
Perishing at the pep rally
I don’t know if schools still hold pep rallies today, but even back in the 1980s, they were cheesy affairs that felt like relics of another era. The whole school would shuffle into the gymnasium stands, where they would be greeted by a squad of shouting cheerleaders and blaring music. The basketball team would emerge by breaking through a paper banner and then, to wild and supportive cheers would go into a layup drill. This involved each member of the team running at the basket and laying the ball in off the backboard, while a teammate from the other side of the court retrieved the ball and passed it to the next player in line. A layup drill should work like a well-oiled set of gears, with everyone on a team moving in a coordinated display of basketball unity and uniformity.
The JV team was scheduled to do a few minutes of this and then make way for the Varsity boys – who were the real main event. But I was going to steal the limelight. I was going to dunk my way into immortality.
It probably won’t surprise you to find out that it didn’t work out that way.
I remember it in staccato flashes. The crowd screamed and the cheerleaders chanted.
We’re heading for a basket
We’re moving down the floor
We are the mighty Knights
And we know we’re gonna score.
We burst through our paper banner to the strains of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines
We lined up for our drill and the first few of my teammates went forward and made their layups.
Watch out, step back,
The Knights are on the attack!
Then it was my turn. The moment I was waiting for. I ran at the hoop with the ball, not even bothering to dribble. I leaped as high as I could and slammed the ball through the net with as much strength as I could manage. It was a monster dunk.
Sprung from cages out on highway nine,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line
The crowd roared in equal parts excitement and surprise.
As the crowd grew louder, I remember thinking to myself “Oh my God, I’ve done it! They loved the dunk. I’ve blown their minds! This changes everything. Say goodbye to the comic book-reading Dungeons and Dragons playing, overlooked geek. Meet the new, dunking superstar me.”
Clap your hands and stomp your feet!
The Emerald Knights just can’t be beat!
After my first turn, I ran back into the line-up and as the drill continued, I had a moment to scan the crowd. They actually looked impressed. For the first time in my life, people were staring at me and not just to laugh. I liked it. I felt validated. When the ball came round to me for the second time, my adrenaline surged and I slam dunked it again.
And when I got the ball a third time, I did it again.
With hindsight, I should have gone through the drill just like the rest of my teammates, laying the ball in simply and without any fuss and then, just before we were about to finish, I could have unexpectedly thrown down a killer dunk as a kind of grand finale – shocking the crowd and leaving them wanting more. That would have been the smart thing to do.
Instead, amped up by the crowd’s reaction to that first dunk, every time the ball came back to me in the drill – around every 13 seconds – I dunked the ball again. And then again. By the time the roughly 3-minute drill was over, I had dunked 15 times – literally every single time I had touched the ball.
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
It was like a tuba player standing up and launching into a freestyle solo in the middle of a symphony. I certainly stood out, but not in the way I had intended.
The effect it had on the crowd played out like this:
*Dunk 1* Wow – did he just dunk? That’s amazing! I didn’t know our JV team had someone who could dunk!
*Dunk 2* Hey that guy really can dunk!
*Dunk 3* Okay. Yeah. Good one.
*Dunk 4* There he goes again.
*Dunk 5* Why isn’t anyone else dunking?
*Dunk 6* Isn’t that the nerd guy who’s dunking?
*Dunk 7* Is that all that nerd can do?
*Dunk 8* There he goes again.
*Dunk 9* His clothes don’t really fit him right.
*Dunk 10* This is getting kind of boring.
*Dunk 11* That dork is coming across as a little desperate.
*Dunk 12* What a dork.
*Dunk 13* Somebody should punch that dork in the penis.
*Dunk 14* Dork! Dork! Dooorrkkk!
*Dunk 15* JOSSSIIEEEEE!!!!
I had dunked myself back to where I started.
Oh honey, tramps like us
Baby we were born to runnnnn!
That’s really where this story ends.
It’s abrupt, I know, but that’s how these things work out in real life.
There is no satisfying twist, where Johnny Kaminski and I face off against each other in the state finals and I wind up dunking on him just as time runs out, winning the game and becoming a local legend.
The natural order of things is apparently much more resistant to sudden change than I had anticipated. I remained a nerd and it was made very clear to me that my ability to dunk a basketball was not some glorious revelation that made everyone see me in a different light. It was an aberration. An anomaly. I was an anomaly. I was a magician with one trick, a good trick, but one performed over and over again until everyone could see right through it and right through me. I wasn’t a basketball star in the making. I was just a dork who could dunk.
Looking back now, I can see that I had it all wrong. I shouldn’t have ever formed some crazy plan to join the basketball team just to show off that I could dunk. I should have learned to become a better basketball player before I put myself on display. And I definitely should never have tried to stake my claim as the next Johnny Kaminski. That guy was an asshole. But my biggest regret of all is that I wish that I had just been more comfortable in my own skin. If I had, then I would never have even felt the need to try to dunk my way out of being a nerd to begin with.
I should have listened to the one person in my life who told me exactly the things that I needed to hear… the one who told me on a daily basis “just be yourself” and “don’t worry about what other people think about you.” Of course, when you’re 15 years old and desperate to be popular – or at least, less unpopular – you don’t listen to advice like that. Not even when it comes from the one person on the planet who always accepts you exactly the way you are and never makes you feel like a geek or an outcast: the one person a dork like me could always count on for support, but also the last person I would have accepted it from: my mom.