Dr. Dunk Rates His Competition

By Conrad Brunner | Sept. 20, 2005

To some, the dunk is a punctuation mark, an emphatic way to finish a play.

To others, it's a way to send a message, either to a team or a particular opponent.

To Darnell Hillman, it is a little of both, but it also is something else entirely. It is an art form, the ultimate avenue for a basketball player to combine creativity, raw athleticism and true grace to create a lasting impression on a hardwood canvas.

"The public views the player going up to the rim and throwing the ball down as just a great move," said Hillman. "As a player, to be a great dunker, I think you have to be very creative and artistic. When I say that, I mean being able to do different things while airborne, changing directions or making a move to avoid contact and still complete the dunk.

"There are a lot of guys that dunk the ball with power, and there are a lot of guys that can dunk the ball, but there aren't a lot of guys I consider great dunkers."

Few in the history of the game have done it better than Hillman, nicknamed "Dr. Dunk" during his six seasons with the Pacers (1971-77). Though all but the final season of his Pacers tenure was spent in the ABA, the league that turned the dunk from an accessory to a staple of the game, Hillman actually was the very first slam-dunk champion in the NBA.

With those credentials, Hillman was the natural choice to critique the best dunkers in Pacers history.

Though known as a dunker, Hillman was a valuable all-around player for the Pacers, helping the team win back-to-back ABA championships his first two seasons. Overall, he averaged 10.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.28 blocked shots while with the Pacers. He currently is the Director of Camps, Clinics and Alumni Relations for Pacers Sports Entertainment.

"People remember, 'All he could do was dunk the ball.' That's not true," Hillman said. "My biggest love was to block shots. I was kind of a sixth man so when our team had kind of a flat spot, I just wanted a chance to get in to spark them, to ignite them. I knew if I got a shot to dunk the basketball, that's going to pick up the crowd, which would then pick up our players and then our momentum would pick up and we're off and running.

"But a player wants to be remembered for being complete, not being a specialist in one area. Jermaine (O'Neal) just tied my record for blocked shots (10 in a single game) during the 2003-04 season. Defense was my forte and I did a lot of things on the court, defensively, as well. I always had the assignment of taking the high scorer on the opposing team. But it does open a lot of doors for you if you get a chance to compete in a dunk contest and people get a chance to see you, they start to recognize who you are."

Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the dunk contest in the final ABA All-Star Game, the NBA launched an aggressive slam-dunk event of its own for the 1976-77 season, the first after the merger. Each team had one representative and players would be paired for dunk-offs when their teams met during the regular season. The big names of the era were involved, including Julius Erving, George Gervin and David Thompson – who was given the opportunity to be eliminated three times by a network (CBS) anxious for star-power. After the third elimination, Thompson finally was dropped from the bracket.

Hillman beat Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his way to the title round. He faced Golden State forward Larry "the Hawk" McNeill in a dunk-off during the NBA Finals, with Hillman winning thanks in large part to his signature slam, rock-the-cradle. The contest met with lukewarm response and was shelved. The NBA didn't revisit the dunk contest until 1984, and it's been an All-Star Weekend staple ever since.

For purposes of the evaluation, Hillman prefers to remove the so-called "power dunkers" from the competition, thus taking George McGinnis, Mel Daniels, Dale Davis, Jermaine O'Neal and Antonio Davis out of the discussion. It wasn't that they were inferior dunkers, Hillman said, but because big men tend to view the dunk more as an exercise in pure force than an expression of creativity.

In the 30 years since his prime, Hillman also has seen the dunk evolve from a vertical to a much more horizontal approach. In the '70s, the dunkers went straight up, and up, and up. Now, the trend is to take off as far as possible from the rim, showing off hang-time on the flight.

"I think today's player plays from the floor to the rim," Hillman said. "Back then, our dunkers were above the rim. We wanted not just a hand above the rim but arms, elbows, heads, chests – there were a few of us that could literally look down into the cylinder

"I think that's the difference. The dunkers today do have the ability of taking off farther from the basket so they fly a lot longer in the air and this brings a lot of excitement and enjoyment for the fans. We went all the way to the rim, then exploded, using our momentum vertically. Today's dunkers go more horizontally."

Though the Pacers have the league-wide reputation for fundamental play and not necessarily for flash and flair, they've had their fair share of representation in the dunk contest through the years. Terence Stansbury finished third three years in a row, the first two with the Pacers (in 1985 and '86). Kenny Williams (1991), Antonio Davis (1994) and Jonathan Bender (2001) also participated before Fred Jones brought the trophy back to the Pacers in 2004.

Hillman has been particularly impressed by Jones and Bender.

"Freddie Jones is very athletic in the air," he said. "Now, at his size (6-2), Freddie has a problem gripping the ball so he's limited in what he can do but if you give him the steps, he's going to really hammer you with one of his big dunks.

"And I don't think we've seen Jonathan Bender's best. He appears to be very athletic and have the ability to do things in the air. Now, he hasn’t always done so. I've seen him do some dunks in practice against his teammates, but he hasn't attempted to do them in ballgames."

Because of the difference in size and physique (Jones is s muscular 6-2, Bender a slender 7-0), the two are polar opposites in terms of style. And Jones, like Hillman and Stansbury before him, seems anxious to shed the dunker's label in order to be known as a more complete player.

"You've got to go with it," Hillman said. "Anything that will keep you above the radar in the spectators' eyes are important assets. He shouldn't fight that. Yes, as the years go on and he continues to play he can show other areas in which he's a great player and develop those areas. But right now, if this seems to be the thing they're pointing at, you've got to take that and run with it."

Seven-footers often are at a disadvantage in dunk competitions because it's difficult to make their moves look as dramatic and that was the case with Bender in 2001. Though he completed a dunk never before done in the competition – leaving from the free-throw line and finishing left-handed – the latter fact was lost on the judges, who assumed Bender was just regurgitating the right-handed version of the dunk made famous by Erving and copied by many others through the years.

Hillman believes Bender's height actually is an advantage because it shows the stark contrast in his abilities when compared to other 7-footers. If Bender has a weakness in his dunking, it is that his laid-back personality is often reflected in his style and he often lacks panache.

"I think it's an added plus for him but he has not presented himself with such flair that people would take notice," Hillman said. "There aren't many guys that have the agility like Jonathan has as a 7-footer. The ability to move as quickly as he does, change direction and then explode off the floor and do the things he can do in the air with the basketball are all assets for him that will only help him to succeed if he wants to be recognized as a dunker. Now, whether he works on those things and continues to develop that, it's all up to him."

Hillman never saw Williams play but during his brief time with the Pacers (1990-94), he made a big impression with his explosive leaping ability. He finished fifth in the '91 dunk contest. He has spent the past decade playing overseas, becoming something of a star in Israel, and still is active at age 36.

Stansbury, who electrified the Hoosier Dome crowd in 1985 by jumping over a teammate seated in the lane only to finish third (behind Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan but ahead of Erving, Larry Nance, Darrell Griffith and Clyde Drexler), also took his career to Europe, where he evolved into a Hall of Famer in France.

"Stansbury impressed me with his leaping ability – wiry, long, really quick off the jump," Hillman said. "He got to the peak of his jump really fast, which afforded him time and opportunity to do a lot of creative things in the air. I would give him a very high rating."

Hillman also singled out a former Pacers teammate, Mel Bennett (1976-78), as deserving consideration. But, given the opportunity to travel through time for a dunk-off against any of the aforementioned candidates, Hillman didn't hesitate to make his choice - the player who wears his No. 20.

"I'd have to go for Fred Jones," said Hillman, "simply because since my winning the title, he's been the only other Pacers player to come and win it."

If possible, it would be a matchup of old vs. new, big vs. small, vertical leap vs. horizontal hang-time – a quintessential collision of generations.