Chronicle of the jam
Basketball’s dunk outlawed in the ‘60s but restored for good in the ‘70s
Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) of UCLA prepares to dunk over Dayton’s Dan Sadlier in the 1967 NCAA championship game. The dunk was banned from college basketball the following season, and it remained outlawed until the 1976-77 season. Photo by Rich Clarkson.
By Greg Johnson
The NCAA News
John Wooden was attending a game in Pauley Pavilion a few years ago when a UCLA player stole the ball and went in for an acrobatic behind-the-head dunk.
The crowd roared and stomped in approval. Someone sitting behind Wooden asked the legendary UCLA coach what he thought of the play.
“I would have had him out of there before his feet hit the floor,” said Wooden, who led UCLA to 10 NCAA championships between 1964 and 1975.
It’s no surprise that Wooden, who has openly opposed showboating in the game, applauded when the NCAA Basketball Rules Committee banned the dunk from the college game before the 1967-68 season — even though his team had the game’s most dominant post player at the time, Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Eventually, the rules committee reinstated the dunk before the 1976-77 season. Both decisions are defining moments in NCAA history.
When the rule outlawing the dunk was announced, many at the time thought it was banned because of how unstoppable Alcindor proved to be after his sophomore season when he led the Bruins to the first of seven consecutive national championships.
Gary Cunningham, a former UCLA player, assistant coach and head coach, recalled a particularly dominant performance when Alcindor scored 61 points against Washington State University.
“A lot of the baskets came when he would just turn and dunk,” said Cunningham, now the athletics director at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Abdul-Jabbar was one of the many who believed the shot was outlawed because of him.
“Lewis felt that way, but I didn’t,” Wooden said. “Some on the committee told me Lewis’ name did come up in the discussion, but he wasn’t the reason. Lewis felt he was the reason, though. I talked with him and said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference whether you are or not, (the rule) is going to make you a better basketball player.’ ”
Wooden proved to be right as Abdul-Jabbar developed better footwork when taking his sky hook, which became his signature shot en route to becoming the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.
The rule change also aided the development of Bill Walton, who was the other dominant big man Wooden coached during the era when the dunk was defunct.
Other influential coaches during that era shared Wooden’s sentiments.
Les Robinson, currently the athletics director at The Citadel, recalls having dinner with long-time Oregon State University coach Ralph Miller in the 1970s when the dunk came up in conversation.
“He said back when he was playing a guy 6-1 or 6-2, dunking the ball took some skill,” Robinson said. “He said for the guys 6-8 or 6-9, dunking became ‘an idiot’s delight.’ ”
In its report when the dunk was banned, the committee cited injury concerns as the primary concern. According to the rules committee, more than 1,500 injuries occurred around the backboard in 1967.
Damage to equipment was another factor. Backboards were being shattered and rims bent. In a few cases, games had to be canceled because there was no way to replace the basket in those times.
Prohibiting the dunk between 1968 and 1976 didn’t deter offensive play, however. The average number of field goals made in Division I men’s basketball games steadily increased in those years.
Wooden believes another influential factor in the dunk being banned occurred before his team played the University of Houston in a 1967 national semifinal game in Louisville, Kentucky.
In pregame warm-ups, the Cougars put on a display of dunking. Unfortunately, the basket couldn’t take the relentless onslaught of slam dunks.
“They were hanging on the rim,” Wooden said. “As I recall, I think they had to come out with ladders and bend the baskets back up.”
All of that took place under the watchful eyes of rules committee members, who met at the Final Four site.
Then-Houston coach Guy Lewis remembered it that way, too. He said he taught the dunk in practice and his team’s strategy was to take the ball strong to the basket against Alcindor.
In a question-and-answer session with The Sporting News, he said, “Coach Wooden told (Alcindor), ‘It wasn’t you that caused them to outlaw the dunk. It was that crazy bunch from Houston.’ And that’s probably the truth.”
They can still jump
While there was no dunking allowed in warm-ups or games from the 1967-68 season to 1975-76, there were still plenty of tremendous athletes in that era of college basketball. One of the best was David Thompson, who led North Carolina State University to the 1974 NCAA title.
When Robinson was coaching at The Citadel in the early 1970s, he used to conduct a camp and all-star game involving players who had exhausted their eligibility. Thompson was a huge draw in the summer after his senior season.
“He would put on a dunk exhibition,” Robinson said. “He was one the greatest dunkers of all time. People would pack the stands in the summer because they didn’t get to see him dunk during the season.”
On one of his dunks, Thompson shattered a backboard that had been in place since the 1950s.
“I still have grown men who were 12 or 13 years old when they saw that and they come up to me in airports and say, ‘I still have a piece of that glass from when David Thompson broke that board,’ ” Robinson said.
The next year a Citadel player broke the aging backboard at the other end of the court. Perhaps the rules committee’s concern about health and safety in the late 1960s was prudent.
Hank Nichols, the NCAA coordinator of basketball officials, was refereeing on the court during the no-dunk era. He remembers the difficulty officials had in judging whether players like Thompson were legally scoring points when they dropped the ball in the basket.
“Thompson could fly to the moon,” said Nichols, who also is a former NCAA basketball secretary-rules editor. “The question was whether players were in the cylinder, and if they were, should it be offensive basket interference.”
Nichols made that call against Thompson on one particular play, which earned a big-time protest from North Carolina State head coach Norm Sloan.
“Sloan said, ‘Hank, you’re not going to start calling that stuff now are you?’ ” Nichols said. “I never called it again. A guy like David Thompson would go up so high and lay the ball in the basket, and you just didn’t know if he was in the cylinder or not.”
With players becoming more athletic, people began clamoring to reverse the dunk rule. The rules committee allowed dunking in games before the 1976-77 season, but it wasn’t allowed in pre-game warm-ups. The officials were present during warm-ups and if they spotted a student-athlete dunking, a technical foul was to be assessed.
“From an officiating standpoint, it made it easier to referee the plays up there at the rim,” Nichols said.
It also allowed student-athletes to display their athletics ability.
Phi Slama Jama vs. Doctors of Dunk
The second semifinal game of the 1983 Final Four featured a highly anticipated matchup of athletic teams in the University of Houston and the University of Louisville. Many media outlets predicted the game would be a glimpse at what basketball would be like in the 21st century.
Clyde Drexler, Akeem Olajuwon (he added an “H” at the front of his first name later) and Benny Anders led Houston, then nicknamed “Phi Slama Jama.”
Louisville had their its share of dunkers, too, including Rodney and Scooter McCray and Billy Thompson.
Houston pulled away to win, 94-81, but an indelible memory of the game was the athletic prowess displayed above the rim.
Nichols had a great view of the action that day because he was one of the officials assigned to the game.
“In the first 10 minutes, I thought I was in the London Blitzkrieg,” Nichols recalled. “When you were under the basket and those guys came down, you just got out of the way. They threw the ball down so hard that if it didn’t touch anything it would kill you. It was just one after the other. There was one stretch where there were four or five trips up the court, and it seemed like everyone dunked.”
Robinson attended the game along with friend and then-Georgia Institute of Technology head coach Bobby Cremins.
“The raw athleticism of those two teams was incredible,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t just their ability to jump. They had quickness and running ability, too. There were great athletes all over the floor. You were blinking your eyes and wondering if you just saw what happened.”
Dunking has been a staple of men’s basketball since, and now it may even be creeping into the women’s game.
Fan and media anticipation is high whenever Candace Parker from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, takes the floor. Her dunks in championship play two years ago were shown repeatedly on sports news programs.
Parker is one of four collegiate women to dunk in a game, but a clip on YouTube of 6-7 Brittney Griner of Nimitz High School in Houston is an indication that dunking will only become more prevalent in women’s basketball. The incoming junior’s highlights include throwing the ball off the backboard and stuffing the ball into the basket one-handed.
Women’s basketball stakeholders have mixed feelings about dunking. Some see it as a marketing boost while others worry that it encourages rough play.
Jane Meyer, the senior associate athletics director at the University of Iowa and a member of the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee, believes it will take a mixture of skills to help the game grow.
“If we have women who have that athletic ability, why not use it in all aspects that the game allows?” she said. “How do we continue to build our fan base? If it only is going to be the dunk, you have to think back to years ago when the men weren’t allowed to dunk. Fans still came to the games for something other than that.”
Men’s fans come now expecting to see dunks.
“When it was put back in, people realized that the dunk was an exciting part of the game,” said Cunningham, a former member of the Division I Men’s Basketball Issues Committee. “It doesn’t affect the outcome of a game, but it certainly is an exciting part of the game and should be a part of the game.”
As long as John Wooden isn’t coaching.