While sitting at a restaurant watching Saturday's dunk contest with a friend, I saw countless people ask for an explanation of what was going on and then proceed to flash a smile of excitement after seeing Blake Griffin pull off some ridiculous acrobatic feat.
"I'm still just stuck on the whole gravity thing," joked my friend who pays no attention to basketball after Demar Derozan's second dunk on Saturday. "Like, did gravity disappear?"
For better or worse, even if you don't pay attention to the NBA, at some level you probably could have appreciated that dunk contest - dunking, if you judge by Sportscenter standards, is quite possibly the most captivating aspect of basketball to mainstream fans.
So the excitement in the sports world about Baylor Lady Bears center Brittney Griner bringing the dunk to women's basketball makes quite a bit of sense.
For those concerned about lacking mainstream coverage of women's sports, the fact that Griner's dunk on Saturday against Texas Tech ended up on ESPN multiple times that evening - including a "Dunks of the Day" segment - is probably pretty cool. Although I couldn't find the video of that segment to post here, while searching for it, I stumbled across an article about Griner being featured on ESPN's "Sports Science" as well.
Brittney Griner's dunks to be featured on ESPN's 'Sports Science' | Wacotrib.com
"I got hooked up with all these little sensors," Griner said. "I felt like I was a lab experiment a little bit. It was really cool. I got to see myself on the screen, and my skeleton. I'm a big kid, so I started dancing around, jerking, and all that. I had a lot of fun."
In other words, it's probably safe to say that Griner's dunking is kind of a big deal for women's basketball in the mainstream.
In a recent Huffington Post article, Larry Strauss described our culture's obsession with dunking, particularly among young boys who sometimes spend more time working on their dunks than skills that might actually be useful to making the team and getting on the court for enough time to actually dunk in a meaningful situation.
Larry Strauss: Above-the-Rim Dreams
I have tried--like many high school coaches--to get my players past the obsession with dunking. A dunk after all, is only worth two points, and though the excitement can be a momentum changer--or reinforcer--a missed dunk (and in high school that is not at all uncommon) can have the opposite impact (and is worth zero points)--and, unlike in the NBA dunk contest, you don't get a do-over.
Still, the allure of that above-the-rim-throw-down is so overwhelming to some boys--having grown up on sports highlights--that I do not expect to convince them. The dunk has, for some young men, become a rite of passage, a losing of their basketball virginity.
On a personal note, I still vividly remember the day that I first dunked a tennis ball with about 10 of my peers watching and responding with the requisite, "OOOOOOOOOOO!" followed by a round high-five's, not that it had anything to do with anything except the illusion that I was close to dunking. And if you're in the generation that has grown up on Sportscenter highlights, you also know that it's not just getting above the rim that makes for a great highlight reel dunk, but preferably get above someone else in the process - I struggle to recall a SlamADaMonth from Slam Magazine that didn't include a secondary poster goat and it's made all the better if there's a backstory that makes the dunk some sort of expression of oneupsmanship (as with Juwan Howard's dunk over Chris Kaman. Go Blue!).
That's sort of what the dunk shown after Griner's in ESPN's highlight package made me think of.
The dunk shown after Griner's in ESPN's highlight reel was a dunk by 6'9" Washington Huskies men's basketball center Matthew Bryan-Amaning over Arizona Wildcats phenom Derrick Williams in a loss at the University Arizona full of highlight reel plays that you rarely see in the women's game.
So it sort of evoked the same response I had when I first saw Griner's dunk - ho hum - but sort of with a sigh as well.
- - -
For all of our excitement about dunking, FSN missed it during their broadcast of the game.
For some reason that I can't recall, when the dunk actually occurred FSN had switched to a shot of a player on the bench who had just come off the court to have someone look at her ankles or feet. The only way those of us watching saw it was the same way those not watching saw it - the replay in the video above.
However, perhaps it was fitting that it was rendered as something of an afterthought by the camera angles - as mentioned at the end of the video it's only two points and didn't exactly serve as a turning point for Baylor.
Lady Raiders knock off top-ranked Baylor | Lubbock Online | Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Roughly two minutes later, Griner was called for a foul after reaching over Mallard for a rebound. When the two untangled, both drew technical fouls.
The call energized the crowd and the Lady Raiders, who went on a 9-2 run to close out the half. Baylor didn’t score a field goal after Griner’s dunk, and Tech went into the break with 28-21 lead. Griner scored only seven points in the first half and seemed frustrated by Tech’s play and the frenzied crowd. Mulkey benched Griner for the final three minutes of the half after the technical.
And of course, Texas Tech ended up winning the game and Baylor has now fallen to #3 in the nation.
I'm not trying to say that dunking is irrelevant - just as I remember trying to dunk, I also remember the game where I ran my skinny behind out of the way of some dude who I thought was going to dunk (hence writing, not playing).
However, there are some that have celebrated Griner's dunking ability as something that will bring attention to the game much as Candace Parker's dunk in that McDonald's All-American game way back when that raised the eyebrows of men like me who had never seen a woman dunk on any level - there's sort of a, "Look - women can dunk too!" sentiment. And in one sense, I feel that - the anticipation of Griner dunking could make women's basketball more palatable to people like ESPN's Stacey Pressman.
Why women are less supportive of the WNBA - Swish Appeal
"I'm bored out of my skull at women's basketball games", said Stacey Pressman, a columnist for ESPN.com the website of the sports network. She generally watches men's sports. "I prefer a few women's sports, like tennis, but I refuse to be politically correct about basketball," she said. "I'm sorry but 40 minutes of underhanded layups is not entertaining."
But if you've grown up with an appetite for SlamADaMonths, it's actually still difficult to get excited about Griner's dunk. Placed next to Bryan-Amaning's (or Williams' acrobatic block out of the screen into a mass of screaming fans), Griner's dunk isn't even noteworthy. I can't be the only one that imagines those boys who regard dunks as a "rite of passage" seeing Griner's dunk in a highlight reel and maintaining their impression that women's basketball is boring - is a standing uncontested dunk really that much more exciting than a contested layup in traffic?
The bottom line is that the men's and women's games are just different and should probably be celebrated on different terms. One person dunking in a highlight package like that is probably not (yet) helpful to attracting mainstream fans: 1) it doesn't at all represent the "norm" in women's basketball or even Griner's career and 2) next to the top dunks of the day, it simply doesn't compare. And it's probably safe to say that those who appreciate women's basketball neither do so pending proliferation of the dunk nor because of a few highlights.
If that doesn't excite people, that's fine. But those who enjoy the game probably need to identify the elements that really are most appealing and find ways to promote those, whether in commercials or highlight shows rather than getting excited about a surface-level similarity with the men's game.