Greg Taylor caught a lob pass in midair and ripped the ball through the basket with both hands. It was a classic dunk, perfectly executed, and Taylor was clearly excited. So what if he was only practicing. So what if nobody was in the stands to appreciate his artistry. So what if the basket was only eight feet high instead of 10. Slams are basketball's most exhilarating experience, and even a little guy has a right to enjoy them.
In sports, being small is a deterrent to a professional career for most athletes, jockeys being the most notable exceptions. But no sport places as much of a premium on height as basketball. And in the National Basketball Assn., it's almost as though accelerated evolution has been taking place over the last three decades, selective breeding of agile 7-footers who are born to jam. Today in the NBA, 6-5 is small, 6-footers rare, and any player under 6 foot is considered a freak.
Taylor says he is 5-10, emphasizing the one-quarter as though those extra centimeters were going to get him a tryout with the Lakers. By basketball standards, Taylor is a little guy. If he were taller, he said, "I'd be playing major college ball." At 21, however, there is no chance that nature will give him another hormone boost and transform him into a larger member of the species.
Like a lot of little guys, Taylor will have to be content playing against other little guys in little-guy leagues. Taylor plays for the Warriors in the Woodland Hills Park league for players 6-1 and under. The court is only three quarters the size of regulation, perfect for little guys, but the basket remains a demoralizing 10 feet high. So close, but yet so far.
Until recently, little guys never had anyone to look up to for inspiration. Actually, Spud Webb of the Atlanta Hawks is someone to look down to, being only 5-7 and the only NBA player under 6 feet. The other day, Webb slammed-dunked one for the little guys, proving to them that it's possible to be two feet shorter than Manute Bol and still play professional basketball in the Twilight Zone.
The moral of his startling triumph in the NBA slam-dunk competition should be clear to everybody with a normal pituitary: size doesn't make any difference, and even little guys can soar with eagles and Kareems, as long as they have a 42-inch vertical leap.
"It was a victory for the little guy," said Scott Massie, a 6-1 teammate of Taylor. In any other league, Massie would be short. In the little-guy league, he's a giant.
Massie is typical of so many talented little guys who have been undermined by bad genes. The league's most valuable player last year, he realizes what possibilities existed for him had he not stopped growing. Not unexpectedly, he fantasizes about being taller. But Massie isn't greedy, even in his fantasies. He only wants a few more inches.
"If I was 6-5," he said dreamily, "I basically could do anything I wanted to on the court."
Still, Massie is luckier than most other players in the league. Using a two-handed grip, he can dunk the ball on a regulation basket with a regulation ball. Taylor can dunk, too, but only one-handed with a volleyball. Most little guys cannot palm a basketball. Massie, 19, played one year of high school basketball at Birmingham, but it was only after he graduated that he was able to dunk.
Your first dunk is always special. Massie will never forget his. "We were playing street ball at Shoup Park last summer," he said, "and I got the ball on a fast break. I drove to the basket, made up my mind I was going to slam, and did it. Was I shocked. I'd been trying to do it since I was a kid when we used to sneak into playgrounds and play on an eight-foot basket."
The indoor baskets at Woodland Hills are adjustable. They're lowered to eight feet for kids' games, which take place right before the little guys play. Before the baskets are cranked up to regulation height, Taylor and other players can't resist the urge to do imitations of Dominique Wilkins. For a brief instant, they're liberated from gravity, duplicating feats that are normally beyond their capabilities.
"It's really a rush," Taylor said. "Your adrenaline gets so pumped up."
Ruben Saul plays for the Blast, which lost to the Warriors the other night. Basketball is a passion with him, but he's frustrated at being 6-1, and feels that his basketball potential ended the same time as his growth. At 6-7, he said, "I'd have been a great player. I see the 6-9 pros do the things they do and it's like me playing on a nine-foot basket. Things are easy for them because they're so big."
One day recently, Saul, 23, cranked the basket down to nine feet at Woodland Hills and became the star he always knew he could be.
"It was great," he said, "a lot of fun."
At the moment, however, Woodland Hills has no plans to lower the basket for league play to let the little guys live their fantasies. Ron Frankel, director of the league, says he has no trouble filling the rosters of the eight teams even with the baskets at 10 feet, and has to turn players away.
Such is the demand to get into the league that some devious big guys pretend to be little guys. Frankel, a big guy himself, measures everybody and tries to weed out the cheaters.
"But I need a more accurate way to measure them," he said. "I wind up giving some guys the benefit of the doubt, even though I'm skeptical."
For those big guys who try to sneak into the league, Frankel has a warning: Pick on someone your own size.
It's tough enough being a little guy.