As a child I used to think about the fate of the first interstellar spacecrafts launched in the 1970s to study the outer Solar System. These brave hunks of metal, named Pioneer and Voyager, did their task and after Neptune have just kept going – they are going still, far past our solar system and into the dimly lit airlessness beyond. These spacecraft have ventured farther than any manmade object before them, heading into unknown dark.
A not-dissimilar feeling of endlessness washes over me when I think about searching for record of the first dunk. Given the likelihood that basketball’s first actual dunk was never recorded, this is close to an impossible piece of investigative history. I’d have more luck finding the Garden of Eden’s coordinates on Google Earth.
And yet, I could not help myself in a recent piece for the Daily Beast.
Something deep within compelled me to suss out the earliest known dunks in history and I did (for now, at least). The first known in-game unassisted dunk happened in California in 1935, but – as you can read here – a cage-assisted dunk happened more than 20 years before that. I also tracked down the earliest known photograph of a dunk – which dates to 1937.
I don’t pretend to be able to even get close to finding the first known dunker in Arkansas basketball history. It is simply too big of a project to mess with. However, I did pick up some kernals that will serve anyone else willing to go down this path. Here are some piecemeal insights:
1. Rick Schaeffer, Arkansas’ former sports information director, doesn’t know who the first Razorback dunker was, but if he had to guess, he’s going with 6-10 George Kok, who was Arkansas’ first All-American center in the late 1940s.
2. It doesn’t appear there was much dunking at the University of Arkansas around 1960, when Jerry Carlton lettered for the Razorbacks and earned All-SWC honors. “During my college playing days (1958-62) I can not ever recall anyone “dunking” the ball during a game or during warm-up,” he wrote in an e-mail. “If it was legal during this time I am sure someone would have ‘dunked.’ Showboating would be a term our coach would use for the ‘dunk’ shot as well as behind the back passes. Try a behind the back pass in a game with Coach [Glen] Rose and I am sure we would be on the bench.”
He recalled the dunk was not allowed in his Southwestern Conference, not even in practice (n.b. I have not double-checked this; I do know the dunk shot was outlawed in the entire NCAA in 1967). The game was played a little more above the rim in other parts of the state, he added: “I lived in Pine Bluff from 1963-65 and would go to see AM&N play. Was an all black school at that time. They had a drill in warm-up where all the team would ‘dunk’ the ball with one exception. They had one player who could not “dunk” the ball so the guy in front of him would lean over and this guy would step on his back and ‘dunk’ it. They put on a show for the fans. However, they could not ‘dunk’ during game.”
3. Arkansas basketball was starting to emerge from its floorbound ice age in other parts of the state, too. In the mid 1960s, William Hatchette, a freshman at the College of Ozarks who had a 42-inch vertical jump, angered fans when he dunked the ball in warm ups at Arkansas Tech. He “kind of hung on the rim. The crowd was ready to kill him,” then Ozarks coach Sam Starkey recalled in Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes Before Integration. “We hadn’t beaten them in 17 years, but we won that game.” [N.B. Hatchette would go on to transfer to UALR, where he was that program’s first black player]
By the late 1960s, there were skyrisers doing their thing in actual games. In Altheimier, 6-3 superstar guard Jackie Ridgle was inspiring Earl Manigault-like tales of being able to grab a dollar off the top of the backboard. Ridgle would go on to average more than 30 points a game as a UC-Berkeley freshman. Around this same time, 5-11 guard Al Flanigan was earning a reputation as an explosive dunker at the all-black Columbia High School in Magnolia and later as a two-time Little All-American for Magnolia’s Southern State Muleriders.
In recent years, Arkansas players have produced some of the best dunks in the world. With the levitating likes of Michael Qualls, KeVaughn Allen, Malik Monk and Victor Dukes, the future looks very bright.