On Christmas night in Denver, a shining star emerged. The world learned what longtime Colorado sports fans already knew. Denver is the basketball slam dunking capital of the world.
A slam dunk is a powerful act of aggression, art and athleticism. The key ingredient is elevation. It only makes sense that hoopsters jump a little higher at altitude.
In the mid-1960s, it was deemed way too easy to dunk for tall, coordinated Black phenoms like Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes. Texas Western, with all-Black starters, had shocked an all-white Kentucky team to win the 1966 NCAA Championship. The “stuff shot” was banished by the NCAA, and high schools followed suit from 1967 to 1976.
We took pride in our basketball at Denver’s George Washington High School in the early 1970s. Our Patriot team was stacked with talent in 1973, and our all-state superstar was senior power forward Larry Walters.
In the fourth quarter, we were leading rival Manual when Larry stole the ball clean at mid-court and rocketed toward the basket. The moment was electric. It was the 1973 Denver Prep League championship game.
There was a big crowd at the downtown Denver Auditorium Arena. Our Patriots lead was double digits and we were ranked No. 1 in the state.
I knew Larry. As a 6’5” bespectacled junior on the Patriots’ second team, I covered Larry in practice. Or tried anyway.
For fun, Larry would sometimes dunk on me. That was more fun for him than me. Especially since I could not retaliate in kind.
Denver Prep League hoopsters idolized the Nuggets and their legal dunking. We regularly played games in the same arena where Spencer Haywood, Julius Erving, Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman and Artis Gilmore performed amazing dunks. We all giggled when 6’10” Nuggets’ center Dave Robisch occasionally had his dunk attempts rejected by the front of the rim.
Larry Walters would have no such problems. Of course, he’d lose the two points and a technical would be assessed. But so what?
With adrenaline and passion. Larry soared way above the rim. The basketball was hammered down. The arena erupted.
Two years later, Denver’s basketball venues welcomed young David Thompson, starring for our run-and-gun, Larry Brown-coached, Denver Nuggets. In college, the most complicated part for Skywalker Thompson was to catch the ball above the rim, and place it down gently, because dunking was illegal. The no-stuffing rule was ridiculous and racist, and soon became extinct.
The term alley-oop in basketball references a high pass that the scorer receives and shoots in one motion. Slam dunk alley-oops are all the rage. The term “alley-oop” is derived from “allez hop!,” which is what French acrobats shout before leaping.
The alley-oop was actually perfected in Denver in the mid-1970s. Monte Towe, a 5’7” 150-pound guard, had been Thompson’s point guard pal from college. Thompson started putting on slamfests all around the American Basketball Association, but especially in Denver.
Denver had its brand-new McNichols Arena to show off in 1975. Pro basketball was at an inflection point with the NBA a better league, but the ABA was more exciting with three-pointers. More entertainment was needed.
What better way than staging the first, and perhaps most memorable, slam dunk contest in professional basketball history? Carl Scheer, a savvy North Carolina lawyer, was the Nuggets’ innovative general manager. Scheer sought to inject more fun for the basketball audience.
Hoop fans crave basketballs thrown down with force on a rim 10 feet above the ground. At Denver’s 1976 ABA All-Star Game halftime, Scheer had David “Skywalker” Thompson, Julius Erving and other ABA superstars, like Artis Gilmore and George Gervin compete. Dr. J. won when he took off from the free throw line.
Dunk contests took off. In 2016, Aaron Gordon, then a young phenom for the Orlando Magic, performed flawlessly and yet somehow lost. In 2020, Gordon got robbed again. Orlando traded Gordon to Denver in 2021.
Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic believes Gordon is “a top two-way player (offense and defense) in the league right now.” Gordon refers to Denver’s double MVP as a basketball genius. Anybody would love to play with these two competitors. If the Nuggets stay healthy, they’ve got a chance at a championship.
Christmas Day is ideal for watching NBA basketball. Five games. Back to back. Sadly, early games this Christmas were blowouts. When the hapless Broncos suffered Christmas humiliation, the day seemed hopeless.
It occurred to me suddenly on Christmas night. Ball Arena was 20 minutes away. I contemplated Jokic obtaining vengeance on the Phoenix Suns with a monster game. I got there well before the 8:30 p.m. tip and secured a great seat. Jokic came through with a historic triple-double performance.
But Gordon stole the show. His alley-oop throwdowns were extraordinary. His monster dunk to win the game set the Ball Arena crowd into a frenzy.
I went home exhilarated, having witnessed seven Gordon jams and the greatest Christmas dunk ever. Gordon’s perfect Christmas stuffing was an awesome way to solidify Denver as the world’s basketball dunking capital.
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