I contemplated a Flight Crew career until last Wednesday at the dunk team’s final training session, where I realized I couldn’t do any of these very well. Actually, that’s a lie. I couldn’t dunk at all.
The Flight Crew has arguably the most exhilarating job at The Palace, performing aerial feats for crowds year-round at Pistons games and community events. They make it look so easy, so fun, you can’t help but wonder what the view must be like. I tried to find out and discovered the view and fun come with practice. The easy part is just an illusion.
The Flight Crew director, Taylor Griswold, coordinated the tune-up for Monday’s tryouts. He encouraged us to learn as much as we could and not try to impress him or the returning Flight Crew members. “I’m not looking for front flips your first time down,” Taylor said. That brought little relief. I couldn’t recall the last time I had jumped on a trampoline.
We started with the approach. “You want to jump into it, not onto it,” preached Taylor, explaining that the trampoline’s 45-degree incline would take care of the elevation if you hit it in stride. Of course, this is the first of million things that sounds easier than it is. Like a long jumper, you want to always take the same number of steps. Following a routine is the best way to ensure maximum speed and, consequently, height. But I can’t get my footing right or I’m planting only one foot (a big no-no) or I’m missing the trampoline’s “sweet spot,” right in the middle, where the elasticity is greatest. And I don’t even have a ball yet.
On my seventh or eighth run, I finally get a decent lift. “Perfect,” said Mike, a three-year Flight Crew veteran. I nail it a second time and at the peak of my flight feel like I’m looking straight into the suite at the top of the 100 level. That’s an illusion, of course. I wasn’t even above the backboard, where the Flight Crew often flies. I bet Vince Carter could still out-jump me.
After a couple good jumps, I took a break to write notes. I didn’t check my heart rate, but I was breathing heavily, thirsty and had sweat dripping onto my notepad. I also noticed my legs were trembling. That feeling stuck around a couple days.
People think the trampoline makes it easier to do the dunks, but it doesn’t take long for you to learn everything has to be harder than you think it should to be. You have to run harder, jump higher and especially pass harder. Those underhanded lobs off the backboard need a lot of oomph if they’re going to reach my partner, who trails behind me for the flush. If you merely bounce it off the glass, the ball will be coming down when your partner’s going up. It’s not a pretty sight. “These passes are weak,” Taylor scolds us. “I want you to throw it hard.”
That pretty much sums up the Flight Crew philosophy. Their dunk show is an aerial performance, just like the Navy’s Blue Angels. Whether you’re on a trampoline or in a fighter jet, showmanship best reveals itself at full throttle. That’s why setting is so important. Setting is like a pass, but you must toss it even higher and harder off the backboard so the teammate running behind you can elevate to the highest point before catching the ball and “finishing” it for a trick-filled dunk.
After a few feeble setting attempts, I bounce off a beauty and I know it. Just before my partner slams it, my right ankle explodes with pain and I plunge to the mat. I was so busy admiring my set I never paid attention to the landing. And I’ve learned my final lesson: Don’t fall in love with the view - you’ve still got to come down.
Kyron is transferring from Bethune-Cookman College to Michigan State, where he’ll compete in track and field and wants to walk-on for Tom Izzo’s basketball team. After dropping some of the flashiest dunks of the night, I do not underestimate his chances. When Kyron (who seems taller than the 5-foot-8 he’s listed at on Bethune-Cookman’s track and field roster) arrived to learn about the “dunk team,” he didn’t know a trampoline was involved. “I’ve won a lot of dunk contests,” Kyron explained with no sense of bravado. “I heard the word ‘dunk’ and thought it would be fun.”
Adam has no background in basketball, but you’d never guess it. He grew up with a trampoline in his backyard and has a dozen years of dancing experience. Adam was doing flips before anyone else. Despite his slight build he is showing surprisingly good finishing power, though he says he was initially afraid of “saluting the rim” with his face. (He wasn’t the only one.) “I wish I had played basketball when I was younger, I’d be more comfortable going between the legs,” Adam said, referring to one of the tricks that Flight Crew members master in time.
With a shrunken ego and swollen ankle, I limp through the Pistons’ tunnel after the three-hour session and find Adam at the drinking fountain. I tell him I need an ice pack for the ride home. “Man, I’m going to sit in a Jacuzzi full of ice tonight,” he replied. Adam, who said he has broken bones in his wrists, ankles and elbows from his acrobatic exploits, will be taking flight again Monday.