When college basketball outlawed the dunk

Posted: March 24, 2014

A few seconds into Texas Western's socially significant victory over Kentucky in 1966's NCAA championship game, David "Big Daddy" Lattin slammed home a dunk over Wildcats star Pat Riley.

Adolph Rupp, the coach of all-white Kentucky, grimaced. He hated the dunk, thought it was an affront to fundamental basketball.

On the other bench, coach Don Haskins, no less a stickler for X's and O's, relished the psychological message Lattin's emphatic basket had delivered.

"[Haskins] was very strict about some things," said Orsten Artis, one of Texas Western's groundbreaking five black starters that day. "You couldn't go behind your back or between your legs. But he loved the dunk."

Unfortunately, not many coaches or administrators shared Haskins' delight. And within a year the NCAA rules committee, many of its members contemporaries and friends of Rupp's, outlawed the dunk.

Now, 48 years later, in the midst of another NCAA tournament and all the madness and interest that event evokes, college basketball's dunkless era is almost impossible to recall, harder still to fathom.

While the NCAA's 108-year history as college sport's regulator has been filled with controversy, few of its actions have been as profoundly puzzling.

In 2014, after all, the dunk may be basketball's single most recognizable element, and certainly its most popular. For the tens of millions who follow March Madness obsessively, college basketball without the dunk would be like baseball without the home run.

Yet for nine seasons, from 1967-68 through 1975-76, the shot was illegal.

The NCAA had tinkered with its rules before and would again in the decades that followed. But most of those changes were progressive-minded, aimed at improving the game, speeding it up, or making it more competitive.

Among other things, the rules committee had established a lane and a three-second rule, and eliminated the one-dribble limit and the center jump after each basket.

The dunk, still practiced sparingly in 1967, had not provoked any great outcry. While some saw it as an unfair advantage for big men, height had always provided an inherent edge in the vertically oriented game.

It's in the context of the 1960s where the most logical explanation can be found.

Following a burst of civil-rights progress, urban riots had created a racial backlash in America. That was manifested in basketball among those made uncomfortable by the growing presence and influence of African American players.

On announcing the dunking prohibition in late March 1967, following its annual Final Four meeting, the rules committee tried to couch the decision in concerns about injuries and damaged equipment.

It claimed that more than 1,500 players had been injured attempting the shot the previous season and that countless rims and backboards had been rendered useless. And aesthetically, members said, the dunk was an abomination.

"The feeling was that this was a game of skill and the dunk was not a skillful maneuver," Ed Bilik, a longtime committee member, explained in 1998.

In retrospect, though, it's hard to imagine that race did not play a major role.

Immediately after the ban, though the committee never publicly acknowledged such a link, many suggested its motivation was the dominance 7-foot-2 sophomore Lew Alcindor had displayed in leading UCLA to 1967's national title. In fact, many would refer to it as the Alcindor Rule.

But in 2004, Alcindor's legendary coach, John Wooden, no fan of the dunk, denied that was the case.

"Lewis felt that way, but I didn't," said Wooden, who died in 2010. "Some on the committee told me that Lewis' name did come up in the discussion, but that he wasn't the reason."

Others believe the move was a response to a number of developments the panel found unsettling - Lattin's in-your-face dunk; Texas Western's title with its unprecedented five black starters; and Houston's pregame dunking display at the 1967 Final Four, a day before the controversial vote was taken.

"Dunking, in a way, typified what a lot of people felt about blacks in basketball," said Perry Wallace, who a month after Texas Western's win became the first black to sign with a Southeastern Conference school, Vanderbilt. "It was threatening."

Wallace recalled that he once dunked against Kentucky's freshman team while Rupp watched from the stands.

"He just threw a fit," said Wallace, now a law professor in Washington.

For those convinced the rules committee had acted with racial motives, there was precedent for such thinking. It seemed that whenever a large black man became too dominant, the NCAA reacted.

When Wilt Chamberlain was at Kansas, for example, the committee redid the rule book, banning offensive goaltending and inbounds passes over the backboards and widening the lane to make sure the 7-foot Philadelphian couldn't camp out there.

"I don't think there's any question that some of those rules were racially motivated," said Randy Roberts, a Purdue professor who has studied the history of American sports. "They were like the anti-celebration rules in football. I think in part they were attempts to get back to the world in which these coaches grew up in, a white-bread world."

Willie Worsley, another Texas Western starter that day in 1966, agreed.

"I think about the time we won, they were seeing that people of color were dunking, jumping higher, and running faster," he said. "They were thinking, 'That's not how the game's played. Let's see if these athletes can shoot.' "

Like an equally inane social experiment, prohibition, the dunking ban died because of a widespread lack of public support. The dunk, as Julius Erving was then making so evident here in Philadelphia, could be intoxicating.

So for the next two weeks, we will watch with fascination as the rest of this NCAA tournament plays out. The dunk is now so much a part of the game that most will go unnoticed or unremarked upon, though the entertaining ones will find their way into ESPN highlights.

Perhaps those of us who recall their ban should make a silent, symbolic gesture each time a tournament player dunks spectacularly.

We could toast those occasions with a cold beer and ask ourselves how there ever could have been times when each was illegal.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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