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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

The Doc won it with a long run, a leap from two inches inside the free throw line and a dramatic, powerful windmill slam. Thompson, as a consolation prize, won the MVP award in the All-Star game itself.

The ABA folded after that season, but the slam-off was such a hit with the media that the concept was eventually ripped off by the NBA. And that performance in Denver was the national coming-out party for Dr. J, the godfather of dunk. He was discovered.

If we were to honor dunkers as we honor actors, Doc would be given a statuette for his body of work. With the exception of Chamberlain, Dr. J was the first superleaper who was also a superstar NBA player, and the first big-time player to exploit the dunk as an art form at the pro level.

Thompson was on a par with Erving but after five great NBA seasons, his career hit a quick decline, caused in part by cocaine problems.

Erving's early obscurity helped make him famous. Unlike Thompson, a huge star at North Carolina State, Dr. J kind of sneaked up on the basketball world. He was all but unknown at the University of Massachusetts, then played five seasons in the semi-secret ABA.

"Part of Dr. J's legend is the same as the mystique of a gunfighter coming into town," Costas said. "It was like, 'Legend has it that 20 men are buried in Boot Hill because of this guy. But who has seen him?' "

By the time Dr. J got to the NBA, in 1976 at the age of 26, more than 25% of his leg spring--by his estimate--was shot. Even so, Erving was the NBA's most dazzling aerial star until he retired in 1987 and passed the title to Michael Jordan.

In the Museum of Leap, Wilt (the Big Dipper) Chamberlain has his own wing. Who would he share a wing with? We should be glad he doesn't demand his own useum.

Very tall players are seldom recognized as great leapers. If they play the game far above the rim, it is because they are tall. So goes the popular assumption.

"What's unfortunate is that most people regard the great leapers as being only the short guys who could dunk," said the 7-1 1/16 Chamberlain. "My sergeant was higher than Jordan's. When I went to Kansas, they had a 12-foot basket in the gym, because Dr. Phog Allen was advocating the 12-foot basket. I used to dunk on that basket. It was an effort, but I could do it."

There is no documented proof of a man ever taking off from behind the free-throw line, 15 feet from the backboard, and dunking. But listen to Wilt. "When I was a freshman, I fooled around with shooting free throws this way: For some reason, I thought you had to stay within the top half of that free-throw circle, so I would step back to just inside the top of the circle, take off from behind the line and dunk. They outlawed that, but I wouldn't have done it in a game, anyway. I was a good free throw shooter in college."

Actually he was a 62% free throw shooter, which is poor except in comparison to his 51% as a pro.

Chamberlain played for the Globetrotters in the '58-59 season and said: "Jumpin' Joe Buckhalter and I would line up on opposite sides of the free throw lane when Meadowlark Lemon was shooting a free throw. He'd shoot it short and Joe and I would leap up and shake hands over the basket."

The greatest jumper today? If you give bonus points for obscurity and mystery, it would be Joey Johnson, younger brother of Celtic guard Dennis.

Dennis never was much of a leaper. Joey? He can't quite jump out of the gym, but he has come close to jumping out of a bar or two.

Joey is 6-3, with average-length arms and legs, and incredibly unaverage spring.

Joey was a good player at Banning High in Wilmington and spent two years at the College of Southern Idaho, a junior college. Then he transferred to Arizona State, clashed with then-coach Steve Patterson and wound up quitting the team. Right now Johnson is red-shirting at ASU.

He may be the greatest leaper of all time.

Joe Clarke, founder and president of the South-Central L.A. Athletic Club, has worked with most of the great L.A. prep stars of the last two decades. When Joey was a high school senior, Clarke took his Watts Magicians to Mesa, Ariz., for a prep tournament.

Joey made the trip but was nursing a hip pointer, so he couldn't suit up. He was in the gym in Mesa one afternoon, in street clothes and basketball shoes. Some of the guys started dunking.

"Joey didn't even have his shoes laced," Clarke said. "He had a baseball cap on, and he turned the bill sideways. He stood below the basket, no run, just jumped straight up with his arms at his sides, flipped his head sideways and dunked his cap."

At Southern Idaho, the legend grew. As a freshman he went out for the track team, worked out a total of 10 hours, then high-jumped 7-3 7/8. As a sophomore, with as little work, he improved to 7-5 7/8.

At halftime of one Southern Idaho game, Joey was pursuaded to give a brief high-jump demonstration. In his basketball uniform and shoes, with a short, unmeasured run-up, he soared over seven feet.

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