Cassius Stanley was confident that he’d eventually be able to do one of basketball’s most iconic dunks, the one where you run from one end of the court and jump from the free-throw line at the other, gliding to the basket before slamming the ball through the rim.
He would be able to do the dunk introduced by Julius Erving and perfected by Michael Jordan. Stanley would star at Harvard-Westlake and Sierra Canyon in high school before going to Duke. He was then drafted by the Indiana Pacers.
This weekend, he’ll live out a lifetime dream, competing for the NBA’s slam dunk contest trophy at halftime of the All-Star game Sunday despite playing only eight games in his rookie season.
The dream started with Stanley as a soon-to-be seventh-grader in Los Angeles, a belief that he’d eventually be able to fly from the free-throw line. “Eventually” means different things to different people, and for Stanley this wasn’t some long journey to master the dunk.
Less than two years later, just like Dr. J and Air Jordan, he could do the dunk, fulfilling his “eventually.”
Now the owner of a 44-inch vertical leap, he’s on the cusp of a special night in front of some of the NBA’s best players and the legendary dunkers tasked with picking a winner.
"Dunking on a little rim or big rim, it didn't matter, I just started doing crazy things that I knew I couldn't do,” Stanley said. “But sometimes, progressively they would just go in. And I kept trying crazy things and I started to make them. I kept trying crazy stuff and we're here now.”
Spud Webb will be one of the people judging the contest Sunday between Stanley, Portland’s Anfernee Simons and New York’s Obi Toppin.
The former Hawks guard and slam dunk champion could never pull off the free-throw line dunk, a challenge he couldn’t accomplish because of his inability to palm a basketball.
The fact that Webb could dunk at all is still a sort of miracle, one of the shortest players in league history becoming an aerial wonder.
Before a spurt pushed Webb to 5-foot-7, he was six inches shorter, set to become a senior in high school in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He spent that summer in the Highland Hills recreation center, playing game after game before the dunking would really under way.
“It was one of those summers where you're playing 900 games and then everyone starts dunking afterwards," he remembered this week. "You try it a couple of times. And then when you finally get one, the guys are looking at you like, 'About time. We're tired of you running up in there missing dunks.' …The guys who would stick around and could dunk started doing them, started throwing it off the wall, the backboard, everything. You just wanted to fit in I guess.”
Yet for everything Webb could do, he could never palm the ball. He still laughs when thinking about the dunks it meant he could never even dream of doing.
Dee Brown, who will also be a judge on Sunday, won the 1991 dunk contest but he couldn’t pay tribute to one of his earliest favorites — a rock-the-ball slam from Larry Nance in 1984 — because Nance dunked after jumping off one foot. Brown preferred dunking off of two.
“It didn’t look right,” he said. “Any of those one-footed dunks, I wasn't any good at them.”
Sometimes being good at one type of dunk is even more important than dunking itself.
When future NBA All-Star Steve Smith finally learned how to dunk, his brother was quick to tell him that it wasn’t good enough.
“It was, ‘You can dunk? Can you 360? When I finally, finally dunked, my brother told me, ‘But you can't 360,’” Smith said. “Damn, I had just dunked!”
He eventually was able to live up to that standard, making a 360-degree dunk that barely resembled the kind of stuff for which Dominique Wilkins was getting perfect scores.
“It was just barely a 360, if you know what I mean. One to 10, I probably got a four,” he said with a laugh. “… Legally, it was a 360. Technically, you can't say I didn't do it.”
While this year’s slam dunk contest doesn’t have name-brand contestants, it does seem to have a healthy amount of the adventurer’s spirit — something that can lead innovation and a fun exhibition.
Simons, a Floridian, first saw former Vince Carter do a between-the-legs dunk in person as the then-NBA star casually went through warmups during a pro-am game.
“I always wanted to do it,” Simons said. “I went home and worked on it on my mini-hoop. After I get that down regular, I used to try and jump over like small little chairs and try to do it too. He really inspired me, trying to do that dunk.”
Another Carter dunk — the one where he hung on the rim by his elbow — was one Stanley was drawn to.
“It was really appealing as a little kid but it was also kind of dangerous,” he said, touching on the reason why is was so appealing.
Sunday will be more about the unknown, a dunk contest happening at halftime in an All-Star weekend compressed into a single day.
Stanley might end up inspiring the next wave, adding to the list of dream dunks for future fliers.
“I have a plan,” Stanley said. “All my dunks are original. All my dunks have never been done before.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.