With all due respect, a recent proposal to enhance fan interest in women’s basketball by lowering the rim is deadly on arrival. The argument, put forth in a New York Times essay by decorated energy and environment reporter Asher Price of Austin, Tex., is that a lower rim would “lead to more of what is arguably the single most exciting maneuver in all sports: the dunk.”
Ah, the dunk. That numbingly defiant routine in men’s basketball which runs the gamut of athletic creativity from A to B. Just what the women need, a belligerent power move on steroids—all testosterone, no nuance—at a time when the game could use more passing, teamwork and pinpoint shooting.
A case against the promotion of more dunking, by men or women, can start with Stephen Curry in the current NBA championship finals. To witness the efficiency and theatrical style of Curry, the Golden State Warriors’ spindly guard, is to appreciate enthralling skills under substantial duress—not based on mere size and strength.
Cleveland’s self-proclaimed “best player in the world” LeBron James (6-foot-8) is far bigger, more forceful and frightening than the 6-3 Curry, but it is Curry who has displayed all of hoopdom’s brilliant colors. Deft passing, whirligig circumnavigation of defenders, soft floating layups, darting crossover dribbles that produce defenders’ whiplash. And, with the accuracy of his trigger-quick three-point shots, there is a lesson in the physics of the perfect parabola: Flawless arches, launched from his hands through considerable space, directly to the bottom of the net.
James deals in angry thunderbolts. Curry gives us lovely rainbows. And, as Kermit The Frog noted, there are good reasons we have so many songs about rainbows. Those binocular-range Curry jumpers provide a fizz that the bullying monster slam just can’t equal.
Price’s contention is that the 10-foot basket is unfairly high for women because they are, on average, roughly seven inches shorter than their male counterparts. Therefore women “are deprived of the opportunity to fully express their raw athleticism,” he reasons.
That’s a weird conclusion, since being able to shoot down into the basket does not require a particularly wide range of physical skills. For a combination of keen passing, back-door scheming and deft shooting, what I witnessed more than 30 years ago at the girls’ Iowa state high school basketball tournament was far more entertaining than some slam-dunk highlight reel. More to the point, those games drew a decidedly larger following than most male players enjoy.
At that time, and as recently at 1993, Iowa used a set of rules that were out-of-date and, to many, sexist: Girls still were restricted to playing an old six-a-side game, wherein three forwards remained on the offensive half of the court and three defenders in the defensive half, on the troglodyte theory that females couldn’t handle full-court runs.
Yet nowhere else had high school girls been as accepted as athletes as those playing basketball in Iowa, with a state tournament dating to 1919. I saw overflow crowds in excess of 14,000 at the finals in Des Moines, front-page coverage in the local papers that was three times that afforded the University of Iowa men’s team simultaneously playing in the NCAA tournament, live television coverage that spread to neighboring states, six-figure TV-rights money paid to tournament organizers.
The restrictive rules hardly kept those Iowa kids from rendering a crisp, fast-paced style with precise, telepathic teamwork and dead-eye jump-shooting. In 1969, it was an Iowa state high school girls’ senior, 60-plus-points-a-game Denise Long, who became the first female drafted by an NBA team (the Warriors of Stephen Curry’s future). There were elements of a publicity stunt to that pick, which quickly was negated by then-NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy, but at least Long was not being sought for the single ability to dunk, what Price gushingly calls a “swaggering, swooping move.”
Really, the dunk is mostly just the tallest guys showing off, and there is nothing intrinsically admirable about being 7-feet tall. Watch perennial NCAA women’s powers UConn, Notre Dame, Tennessee or Stanford and there will be aggressive defense, seeing-eye passing and dead-eye shooting. There will be neon offensive skills akin to some brilliant jazz quartet, the individual players meshing their applause-inducing solo abilities together as one ensemble.
So why predicate the women’s potential appeal on the need for dunking, just because the men emphasize (overemphasize?) it? Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril, who spent 29 years at Princeton before working as an NBA assistant after “retirement,” long ago lamented the “obviousness of the attack” that evolved in the men’s game—“Here I come! Try and stop me!”—while the “finesse part is dwindling.” Carril preferred that a player learn to “probe, look around, set up, use your head a little bit.”
So, careful what you wish for. This is not such much espousing a vive la difference approach as simply advocating that we not take basketball—women’s or men’s—to a new low.