We watched Brent Barry at face value. Asking who was this white kid who dunked form the foul line to win the Slam Dunk Contest. We were abstractly aware of his pedigree. That his daddy was an NBA legend, his older brother a respected two-guard, but put that aside in favor what Brent represented. That the way he cruised to the basket, he looked like he could have started from farther back than the free throw line. I said the first guy to dunk from the three-point line would win the Dunk Contest for sure, and Vinnie nodded along, because we didn’t yet have a sense of the limitations of anatomy. We believed in three-point dunking not as wild speculation and fantasy, but as real possibility, maybe even an inevitability of our lifetimes.
And Vinnie, he took Brent Barry’s dunk and applied it to taunts from the boys at school who called him short and called him pudgy. The boys who laughed when he couldn’t catch net when we all ran and leapt, seeing how high we could reach on a basketball hoop.
“I’m going to dunk,” Vinnie said.
I didn’t believe him. No one did. The difference was I wanted it to be true, and thought maybe he could pull it off. We’d grown up on Hulk Hogan body slamming Andre the Giant, Daniel Larusso crane kicking Johnny into next week, Luke Skywalker bullseyeing womprats in his T-16. We learned to believe in the power of hard work and the reality of chosen ones.
In the years to follow, I sat on the steps outside Vinnie’s house while he did calf raises. Calf raises while we debated the finer points of who was the hottest girl in our junior high. Calf raises while I read chapters of To Kill A Mockingbird aloud so we could both know what happened, calf raises while we sipped not Mountain Dew, but Diet Mountain Dew.
Body squats while we watched NBA Inside Stuff and The Knicks play the The Lakers.
Then he stopped.
Vinnie introduced a new philosophy over a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips. “It’s the ability to do something that matters,” he said. He referenced the scientific system he’d set up on his bedroom wall alongside the plastic basketball hoop. A strip of masking tape he’d applied at his highest jump before he started working toward dunking, a foot from the ceiling. Another from the week later, an inch higher. “If I keep going, I’d be dunking by summer. Easy. I just don’t want to.”
There was an impeccable quality to the argument, or perhaps just to the confidence with which he made it, and yet infuriatingly imperfect about the logic. The logic he’d apply to not trying out for the JV, let alone varsity squads in high school. To the colleges he didn’t apply to and the women he didn’t ask for digits from at our college bar.
We didn’t re-watch video of Brent Barry for long, after it was clear he wouldn’t become a superstar, least of all after Vince Carter went three-sixty into a windmill jam, went between his legs, started from behind the backboard. Not sheer distance traveled, but acts of athletic ingenuity. Imagination.
The truth is, Vinnie stopped watching basketball much a couple years later. Got stuck in time on his basketball knowledge, and when we caught a Warriors game one Christmas, was quicker to recognize Steve Kerr, one time point guard, now one the sidelines as coach, rather than Steph Curry, top-five player of his day, budding superstar, world champ and world beater.
We didn’t talk about Brent Barry, but he brought up Vince Carter, frozen in his rookie year, all potential and power. “He may have been the best dunker of all time.”
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.