NBA Dunk of the Week: Larry Nance Jr. and the Curse of Nostalgia

There was far too much reminiscing about the days of yore during this year's NBA Dunk Contest, and Larry Nance, Jr. was the worst offender.

Feb 21 2018, 2:00pm

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Dunk Contest is sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes transcendent in a way that makes the dumbest shit imaginable into high art. This year it was mostly not great, suffering from some lackluster farty dunks, a performance from Victor Oladipo so uninspiring that it could turn our children onto layups for the next decade, and entirely too much reflection on Dunk Contests past.

The worst and most disconcerting of these was Larry Nance, Jr. putting on the tasteful Phoenix Suns uniform of his father, Larry Nance Sr.—the winner of the first NBA dunk contest in 1984—and imitating his best dunk in that contest, a twisty, two direction windmill thing, while his father weakly cheered from the sidelines.

It was a dunk with an unnerving texture, the velvety feel of daddy issues caressing the hand of the viewer. In the moment, you would feel Nance, Jr.’s lifetime spent playing hoops while his father cheered or didn’t cheer on the sidelines, the avalanche of takes about his game from his dad, an honest-to-God NBA player, cascading down on him, day after day, year after year. For Christ's sake, Sr. couldn’t even keep himself from cursing his son with HIS OWN NAME, the very avatar of SELF, damning one’s progeny with the ever present knowledge that, no matter who they are or what they do, they are inherently wired into the circuitry of the person who gave them the spark of life.

Later on in his submission, Nance had his dad pass the ball to him as a part of an alley-oop attempt. Did he find acceptance in this moment, or in ANY moment of this farce?

Did he free himself from the prison of need every man finds themselves trapped in, the poisonous craving we have from birth for our fathers to just, for once, give us a big hug and say, “Good job, son. I’m proud. You are acceptable to me.”

Of course not. Because even though Nance made the second round (Over Dennis Smith who was, by my eyes the superior dunker), he lost, he was the junior to his father’s senior, he continued to carry the curse of sonhood, the sense that you can never measure up, that the world you walk on was crafted by the distant man reading a newspaper in the kitchen, and that there is very little you can do to escape from that world. All of this has left junior back where he started, craving approval and never quite getting it.

Why in so many traditions, is God, the creator, a patriarch? Because the cruelty of The World mimics the cruelty of The Father. Larry Jr. seeks freedom from that cruelty through performance, through trying to walk through the front door of paternalistic approval into the imagined front yard of self-actualization.

If Larry seeks true freedom, he will abandon the past, the expectations of the world, of the father. He will close his eyes to the childhood home he was kept in, concentrate on his breath, and seek enlightenment from the deeper self. He will learn that there is no self-actualization because There. Is. No. Self. In so doing, he would abandon the expectations, the tacky old Suns uniform, the pass from the Father, and discover for himself a deeper, greater truth of living.

As he burrows deeper and deeper he will realize that the arbitrary limits of his world are nonsense, the walls of the house, will fall away and he will find himself floating in space, the light of pure dunk creativity floating in front of him. He will float toward the light, and as he gets closer, he will recognize a figure on the horizon who will greet him, and shake his hand.

“Welcome. I have been waiting so long for someone else to join me, here. Come, enjoy some birthday cake. Ahead of you is the future. Float into it. Become one with it and bring the light back, by snuffing it out as I once did.”