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The Leaping Legends Of Basketball : Some Of The Names Will Jump Out At You, Others Won't; But All Of Them Took Their Games To Lofty Heights

February 12, 1989|SCOTT OSTLER | Times Staff Writer

"I said to myself, 'I've got to try.' I angled to the right. I knew he was right there with me. I made a left turn at the baseline, flew under the basket to the other side, put it through his arms, and dunked it with two hands over my head.

"I said to him, 'Yes, yes, yes!' Wilt said, 'I'm gonna kill you.' "

Many of the legendary leapers of that era didn't play NBA ball because all they could do was leap. Jackie Jackson's all-around game, by most accounts, was only fair.

One dunking dinosaur who could fly and play was Gus Johnson, a 6-6 hipster-forward who had a gold star implanted in a front tooth. Gus was a colorful thunder dunker and a breaker of backboards. He played nine seasons for the Baltimore Bullets, beginning in '63, and he died last year.

Every time Gus slam-dunked at home, the recorded sound of a rifle shot would whistle through the arena.

Gus once said, "When I dunked that ball and heard that shot for the first time, I said to myself, 'Oh, oh, Gus. Somebody done gotcha.' But man, that was sweet music. It sure did make me feel good inside."

The matter of color:

A person who is a poor leaper is said to have "white man's disease." White guys use the expression, black guys use it, mostly in a spirit of good fun.

In the six years of the NBA's slam dunk contest, only one white player has been invited to compete, 6-10 Tom Chambers in 1986. He finished well out of the running--or jumping--when he clanged at least one attempt off the rim.

There have been--and are--very good white jumpers. Jerry West could get up. Billy Cunningham wasn't nicknamed the Kangaroo Kid because he had a pouch. Bobby Jones could swoop and soar. Stanford's 6-4 Todd Lichti is a big-time leaper, regardless of race, creed or color.

Chamberlain was asked, weren't there any great leapers of the white persuasion?

Wilt mentioned a few names, then said, "You know, there was a white boy who played for Atlanta around 1970. Never got off the bench, but in warmups he could dunk better than anyone I've ever seen."

Chamberlain couldn't remember the player's name, but Rod Thorn did. The mystery leaper was--and is--Herb White, 6-foot-2, eyes of blue, from Decatur, Ga.

As with most leaping legends, Herb's aerial reputation often preceded him. As a high school senior, he received a scholarship offer from a Midwestern college, asking him to become the school's first black player. Instead he went to Georgia as a white player and was a so-so power forward.

Before his senior year, White happened to work out with some Atlanta Hawks players and they went to coach Richie Guerin with tales of this amazing leaper. Herb was not drafted, but was invited to Hawks' camp after his senior year and made the 1970-71 team as a point-guard backup and road roommate of another rookie, Pete Maravich.

White started five games, but was mostly a mop-up guy, then was injured and finished his career in a pro league in Mexico.

White, also known as the Elevator from Decatur, made the NBA all-time all-warmup team that one season. Pregame warmups were his showtime. He would perform a reverse dunk-dunk with two balls. He would toss the ball off the backboard and then slam it home. In Madison Square Garden, he got a standing ovation for his warmup dunks.

"I won the unofficial NBA slam dunk title that season," said White, who now sells heavy equipment in Georgia. "In warmups, we would always check out the other team and get into little contests with their guys. All the teams did that. By word of mouth, you would get to know who the best dunkers were, and by the end of the season it was pretty much agreed the best two were a Portland guy named Claude English and me.

"We played Portland in the last game of the season. Before the game, English and I went back and forth. Finally he did a 360, one handed. So I did a 360, two handed, and he conceded."

White is a regular at Hawk games and a fan of Wilkins. Can the old Elevator still ascend?

"On a good day," he said. "About a year ago, I was in a playground game with some black guys. I got fired up and did a 360 dunk. I went back a few hours later with a tape measure. The rim was two inches low. I said, 'What the hell, I'm 40.' "

If the Land of Leap had a national holiday, it would be Feb. 8, the anniversary of the legendary 1976 ABA All-Star game's first--and last--slam dunk contest. The NBA had no such contest at the time, considering such frivolity to be beneath the senior league's dignity.

The ABA wasn't about dignity, it was about style. You don't play with a red, white and blue ball if you're into dignity.

That Feb. 8, the ABA trotted out its five best slammers. Artis (A-Train) Gilmore, George (Ice) Gervin and Larry (Big Cat) Kenon all dunked admirably. But the final came down to David Thompson vs. Julius Erving--the Skywalker vs. the Doctor.

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