A philosophical question for the reader: What if, in the 1991 playoffs, Michael Jordan, in, let’s say, Game 3 of his squad’s Eastern Conference Finals sweep of the Detroit Pistons, drove down the lane, met Bill Laimbeer at the hoop, raised up for the dunk, and literally killed him?
Imagine, for a second, that MJ flew in the fucking air, went straight into Laimbeer’s midsection, cracked his sternum wide open, sent a shockwave into the big man’s chest, unwinding Laimb’s heart muscles, sending him crashing to the floor, the light escaping from his eyes on national TV. Laimbeer, sprawled out on the hardwood, feeling the grim specter of death come to take his soul away, utters his last words ("My only regret… is that I didn’t injure more dudes…"), and his lifeless body collapses in front of the assembled Palace crowd, shocked at what they’re seeing.
A man, killed by a dunk.
Do you cancel the playoffs? Does Jordan retire? Does congress get involved? Does Jordan, maybe the savviest athlete who ever lived, manage to express proper regrets and fandangle his way out of consequences? Does throwing down the literal death dunk, the dunk that killed, add an unspoken edge to his legend, burnishing his reputation and making him a totem of fear for the rest of his career, a career that is much the same as the one he has, but marked by, in addition to unceasing victory and success, The Specter of Death Itself? Or would it make all his accomplishments seem tawdry, begotten at the expense of a human life, the kind of thing we simply wouldn’t be able to stomach in the modern world?
What would the video become? Certainly, you wouldn’t see it on ESPN Classic, no matter how good the game around it was, and it wouldn't be available regularly on YouTube, but, certainly, someone, a diligent taper, would have a copy, would make copies, it would spread on underground circuits, groups of 12-year-old boys, huddled in basements, showing copies of the Death Dunk to their friends, who grow up to either be haunted by what they saw, or forget about it, become fathers and productive members of society, only bringing it up when they’re three deep at a barbecue and maybe letting out some embarrassing laughter about the time they watched a man die?
I pose this extreme circumstance to ask a broader question about today’s subject. To ask, at what point does enjoying a dunk…become immoral?
I had some trouble finding this bad boy on the Bulls social media accounts, which is kind of strange, but for some reason, the NBA decided to include it in their weekly dunk roundup video. It is, by any objective measure, a wonderful and bizarre piece of basketball work. Seven-foot Robin Lopez, not known for his ball handling, catching the ball above the key, taking Zaza Pachulia—who has, for some reason, decided to not drop back on a Robin Lopez DHO—off the dribble with a pair of big, hulking, hunched over, giant-like dribbles, rising up in the key, and slamming it down over Jordan Bell, who finds himself splayed out on the floor, embarrassed by, of all the things you could possibly end up embarrassed by, A Cool Off The Dribble Robin Lopez Dunk. It is, at first glance, the healthiest of pleasures, a weird ass thing happening for a weird reason.
But there’s a reason it was… a little hard to find. Because poor Jordan Bell, splayed to the ground by this bad boy, wasn’t just temporarily embarrassed by this thing. He was hurt on the landing, dignity and health robbed from him all at once. He had to get hauled off the court in a wheelchair, receive that dreaded polite clap for the injured, he had to worry and fret about having broken a bone in his ankle or, god forbid, his foot.
Videos of this slapping highlight dunk/yucky-ass injury don’t really make you feel much better about it. “Huge Robin Lopez Dunk Puts Jordan Bell In A Wheelchair (Ankle? Knee?)” manages to combine compliments to Lopez and a cursory, literally parenthetical concern for Bell’s well being into one title, and Stacey King, no one’s favorite announcer, rips loose, screaming “DOES ANYBODY KNOW HOW TO POST VIDEOS TO FACEBOOK,” while Bell writhes on the ground in pain, just out of his line of sight.
Chuck Swirsky takes notice, though: “Bell came down awkwardly…”
King, still in a poster dunk state of mind, lets out a big ol’ “WOW!”
“...as he tried to get out of the way…”
“Way to start a game off… with authority!”
“...might have hurt himself, on that dunk by Robin.”
You can practically hear someone, a producer or Swirsky, tapping on King’s shoulder, trying to get him on the same page with reality, as Stacy sheepishly lets out a disassociated “...He might have twisted his ankle,” struggling to shift from the big dunk mindset he hyped himself into with the reality of a young man writhing on the ground in pain in front of him.
As it continues, the whole thing just gets weirder and weirder. Swirsky lets out the ol’ “You don't wanna speculate, but that could be a knee, his left knee,” the two compare it to another injury they saw recently and Swirsky, as trainers and teammates surround Bell and try to gauge his ability to walk, is, for some truly fucked up reason, prompted into saying, “that, uh, Dunk by Robin, is our Dunkin' Donuts Highlight Dunk, America Runs on Dunkin’. But, uh, for Golden State, concern now, as their coaches and trainers come down.”
In that sentence, we see the trouble with this dunk. It truly is a spectacular, bizarre, once in a lifetime piece of work from Lopez, a dude breaking his personal box open, athletically and skill wise, and slamming a hot one down, like the proverbial New England Donut into coffee—I, personally, almost certainly would have written about it even if it, didn’t end up injuring a dude and posing a philosophical quandary—but here we are, sitting in the wake of this dunk’s destruction, counting the human cost, and wondering… was that baller ass dunk really worth it? Should I really enjoy that, considering the pain and suffering it wrought? (Which is not to say it was Lopez’s fault—he was just dunking.)
Bell, for his part, seems to be mostly fine. Just a sprain, no structural damage, out-two-weeks type of shit, rendered far scarier by his exit on a wheelchair. It softens the blow, and, I think, makes enjoying the dunk less malicious, mostly acceptable. But at what point would I have to relent, and consider watching the dunk for pleasure enabling snuff? A ligament tear? A broken bone? Would I have to see a man die? When does a dunk’s destructive capacity render it unacceptable? What can I, the viewer stomach?
Troubling question. I thank God I don’t have to write about the NFL. And I worry I do not have the morally justifiable answer in my heart.