When I was a kid, I was a straight up basketball junkie. As the song goes, “I was a victim of a basketball jones.” I studied the players, the history, the art of the game obsessively – and played it all the time, often by myself. My basketball card collection was probably my most prized possession. Shooting hoops just made sense to me and was a place I could Zen out and also compete at something I loved. It’s one of the things I most miss about childhood.
Of course, I never was a gifted athlete. I played on my school teams throughout middle and high school, but that was the extent of it. In the years since I graduated high school, me and basketball have drifted apart a bit, but never too far. I still keep tabs on certain teams and players at both the college and pro levels. I still love to catch highlights, especially when there’s a lot of thunderous dunking involved.
To state the obvious — except for rare plays like buzzer-beaters or 4-point plays — the dunk is the most exciting play in basketball. It’s crazy to think dunking was actually banned in the NCAA from 1967 to 1976. As with so much else in American history, that insane policy was probably at least partially racially motivated:
Many people have attributed this to the dominance of the then-college phenomenon Lew Alcindor (now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar); the no-dunking rule is sometimes referred to as the “Lew Alcindor rule.” Many others have also attributed the ban as having racial motivations, as at the time most of the prominent dunkers in college basketball were African-American, and the ban took place less than a year after a Texas Western team with an all-black starting lineup beat an all-white Kentucky team to win the national championship.
Thank God that ban didn’t last too long or extend to the pros. In any case, I have never been able to dunk of course – not even close – but it hasn’t stopped me from loving the art of the dunk. I never watch the All-Star Game, but I always catch the highlights from the Dunk Contest. Who doesn’t? That said, the greatest dunkers are the ones who can do those kinds of acrobatic, backboard-shaking, posterizing dunks in the midst of real games. No disrespect to dunk contest winners like Spud Webb, Nate Robinson, Harold Miner, or Isaiah Rider, but it only really counts when you can do that in the heat of competition. And it’s even better in traffic.
Anyway, a few days ago some of the ESPN experts got together and picked every NBA team’s greatest dunker of all-time. It’s a bit of a weird list because some franchises haven’t actually had very many great dunkers, while others have had several. But it got me thinking again about some of basketball history’s great dunkers, and I figured I’d make a list. I’m sure I’ve made vague lists in my head of the greatest dunkers and dunks before, but I never really tried to codify it. So here’s my attempt. The first 5 dunkers are basically all tied for first. Most of them actually competed at different times, and each added sometime new to the art of dunking. The rest are all just incredibly exciting dunkers — and I’ve only counted great in-game dunkers in this ranking. The dunk is basically a work of athletic art, so I recognize that this list is pretty subjective (like all aesthetic judgments), but I hope you enjoy the highlights just the same!
1.) Michael Jordan (1984-2003)
2.) Vince Carter (1998-2020)
3.) Dominique Wilkins (1982-99)
4.) Julius Erving (1971-87)
5.) Lebron James (2003-present)
6.) Blake Griffin (2010-present)
7.) Darryl Dawkins (1975-89)
8.) Shawn Kemp (1989-2003)
9.) Jason Richardson (2001–15)
10.) Zach Lavine (2014–present)
11.) Clyde Drexler (1983–98)
12.) Kobe Bryant (1996-2016)
13.) Scottie Pippin (1987–2004)
14.) Tracy McGrady (1997–2013)
15.) Shaquille O’Neal (1992–2011)
16.) David Thompson (1975–84)
17.) Giannis Antetokounmpo (2011–present)
18.) Grant Hill (1994–2013)
19.) DeAndre Jordan (2008–present)
20.) Russell Westbrook (2008–present)
Honorable mentions, pt. 2 — everybody else: Aaron Gordon, Amare Stoudemire, Baron Davis, Charles Barkley, Connie Hawkins, DeMar DeRozan, Dennis Smith Jr., Derrick Rose, Desmond Mason, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, George Gervin (finger roll king), Gerald Green, Harold Miner, Isaiah Rider, J.R. Smith, Ja Morant, Josh Smith. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin Durant, Larry Johnson, Larry Nance, Larry Nance Jr., Michael Finley, Nate Robinson, Paul George, Steve Francis, Wilt Chamberlain, Zion Williamson.