Dunking hurts: Why players hate — and love — the NBA’s greatest feat

The dunk is basketball’s most lionized play. The most iconic ones are canonized, referenced fondly and often, debated for their merits and significance. The sport’s language has created so many names for it: jam, yam, slam, poster, stuff, hammer. It’s a unique club that only few on this world can join. It’s marvelous.

And it hurts like hell.

“Can you think of any other concept where your hand swings at something metal?” 11-year NBA veteran Austin Rivers asks. “It’ll probably hurt, yeah?”

When asked, players catalog the pain dunking has caused: broken nails; bent fingers; recent bruises; lasting scars; midair collisions; twisted necks; dangerous landings. Injuries that cost them games or even seasons.

Derrick Jones Jr., a former NBA All-Star Weekend dunk contest winner now with the Dallas Mavericks, points out two specific marks on his left wrist. Larry Nance Jr., another high flier in his ninth NBA season and third with the New Orleans Pelicans, recalls childhood memories of his father’s scarred arms from a 14-year NBA career that included winning the first-ever dunk contest in 1984. Dallas’ Josh Green remembers one pregame dunk that set his nerves afire.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why would I do this before a game,’” the 23-year-old Green says.

And yet still they dunk.

In the modern NBA, the dunk’s frequency has been increasing, going from 8,254 in the 2002-03 regular season to 11,664 last year. The rise is mostly due to the 3-point revolution and the increased spacing and cleaner driving lanes that come with it. But the league also has taller, more explosive athletes entering every year. With them come even more spectacular aerial feats, ones that enrapture fans and wow even the players who witness them.

What players think of the dunk, and the agony that can come with it, is ever changing. This isn’t some new trend. It’s just that the dunk, for all its allure and mystique, is the most visceral mark of a player’s maturation.

Basketball’s most exclusive club, one only entered 10 feet in the air, isn’t one that players can — or always want to — live in forever.

Dennis Smith Jr., now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, had a 48-inch vertical as a prospect, but says now his struggles with landing affected his shooting form. (Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)

When young basketball players first start dunking, they never want to stop.

“It makes you the guy,” Dennis Smith Jr. says.

Smith’s first in-game dunk was an off-the-backboard slam in a state title game when he was 13. His team was up big and his teammates were showing off. “Now it’s my turn,” the 26-year-old Brooklyn Nets guard recalls thinking. “I got one.” An in-game dunk is a status symbol he has never forgotten.

Willie Green, now the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans after a 12-year NBA career, was told as a teenager that toe raises would help him reach above the rim. Every morning in the shower, he counted to 300 — rising onto the balls of his feet with each number until this club finally let him in.

“If you could dunk, people looked up to you, they glorified you,” Green says. “You felt like you got over a big hurdle in basketball. It was a huge step in basketball when I was able to dunk.”

Every player asked remembers how old they were when they first started. “You’re young, you’re bouncy,” Markieff Morris, 34, says. “You dunked so you could talk your s—.” It was the first thing youngsters like him did stepping into the gym, the last before they left.

“When you’re first dunking, your fingers are full of blood because of the (contact),” Philadelphia 76ers forward Nicolas Batum recalls. “But you get used to it. You have so much joy of dunking. You’re one of the few people in the world that can.”

Once players start dunking in games, it becomes even more addicting. “When you try to dunk on someone, you’re hyped up, you’re amped up,” the New York Knicks’ Donte DiVincenzo says. “You don’t feel any of that s—.” It’s the same as any adrenaline high. “It feels like energy,” 21-year-old Mavericks guard Jaden Hardy says. As the crowds grow bigger and the reactions reverberate louder, it’s even better.

Marques Johnson, a five-time NBA All-Star who retired in 1990, remembers one slam he had at age 15 in a summer league over a player who had just been drafted to the NBA. To dunk on him, to knock him to the ground, proved something.

“As a young player, if you can hang with guys on the next level,” he says, “it becomes that validation that you belong.”

Johnson, currently the Milwaukee Bucks’ television analyst, played collegiately for UCLA, where he was named the Naismith College Player of the Year in 1977, the first season the dunk was re-legalized in college basketball. “I really believe it’s a big reason why I won,” he says. “People ain’t seen a dunk in college basketball in 10 years.” Johnson, a hyperathletic 6-foot-7 forward, took up residence above the rim.

Once, he missed two weeks with a knee sprain after dunking on a teammate in practice and landing hard. As he lay on the ground in pain, he still remembers what his first question was.

“Did the dunk go in?”

“Yeah,” he was told. “You dunked on him.”

Marques Johnson, shown here with the Bucks, believes dunking was a big reason he was the Naismith Player of the Year in 1977. (Heinz Kluetmeier / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Last season, Christian Wood rebounded his own miss and found an empty path to the rim. He dribbled once, planted both feet, hurled the ball through the rim — and then clutched his left hand as he ran back down the court.

Wood, who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers this summer after his one season with the Mavericks, finished the game but missed the next eight with a broken thumb. “I went for a tomahawk (dunk), trying to look flashy for some reason, and hit my thumb again,” he says. He had already injured it, he says, but that’s the moment when he knew he “had really hurt it.”

As teenagers age into veterans, their relationships toward dunking often change. “To really dunk consistently in the NBA, you gotta be a freak athlete.” Rivers says. For those who aren’t, dunking becomes more akin to a tool than a feat.

“S—, those things are really adding up,” the 26-year-old DiVincenzo says. “A lot of the younger guys want to dunk every single time. I am not like that anymore.”

DiVincenzo still dunks — he had nine last year with the Golden State Warriors — but prefers layups when possible. It isn’t always possible, though. “Sometimes, (a dunk) is the only way to draw fouls,” he says.

When Willie Green neared the end of his career, he recalls hating when defenders forced him into it.

“They’re chasing you down hard on a fast break, and you want to lay it up, but you know if you lay it up, they’re going to block it,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Man. You made me dunk that.’”

Green was a two-foot dunker, which meant accelerating into the air was hard on his knees, especially the left one, which was surgically repaired in 2005. “That force, that gravity, compounded with coming down,” he says. “It takes a toll on you.”

Smith, the ninth pick in the 2017 draft, entered the league with a record-tying 48-inch vertical — and with a dangerous habit of coming down on one leg. While recovering from knee surgery, he learned to land on both of them. “I don’t even think about it now,” he says. But he still does thoracic therapy to treat scar tissues in his wrist from his childhood dunks, which he believes has had an effect on his shooting form.

The league’s freak athletes, the ones Rivers referenced, do have different experiences. Nance Jr., who remembers his father’s forearm scars, has none of his own. His hands are large enough to engulf the ball rather than pinning it against his wrist. “I never really learned how to cup it like everybody else,” Nance says. “I genuinely don’t believe I could do it if I tried.” He drops the ball through the rim rather than relying on inertia.

“Not really,” he says when asked whether it hurts. “Unless I miss.”

Players like him still experience pain from the midair collisions and the misses: when the basketball hits the cylinder’s rear and sends shock waves through their arms; when an opponent’s desperate swipes hit flesh and nerve; when the crash of bodies sends theirs sprawling to the floor.

Anthony Edwards, another alien athlete, doesn’t even refer to what he does as dunking. “I don’t really dunk the ball,” he says. “I just put it in there the majority of the time.” Earlier this month, though, Edwards elevated over the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Jaylin Williams, nicked him on the shoulder and came crashing back down.

Though Edwards only missed two games with a hip injury, the Timberwolves’ rising star admitted he was “scared” and “nervous” in his first game upon returning. And even if missed dunks don’t injure him, there’s still pride.

As Edwards said of them last season: “Those hurt my soul.”

Anthony Edwards, shown here after a dunk in last season’s Play-In Tournament, was recently injured on a dunk attempt against Oklahoma City. (Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)

Kyrie Irving had stolen the ball and was alone at the basket in a December game when he rose up to dunk in front of his own bench. His Dallas teammates had already risen up to celebrate — until they couldn’t.

“I mistimed it,” he says. “My momentum wasn’t there.” The ball grazed the front of the rim and fell out.

The 31-year-old Irving is known for every sort of highlight except dunking, of which he has only 25 in his 11-year career. But a flubbed dunk is embarrassing even for a player like him.

“You just feel bad!” he says. “We’re the best athletes in the world. I should be able to get up there once in a while.”

Later that quarter, the 6-foot-2 Irving had another chance at a wide-open fast break, at redemption. This time, he made sure to prove he could still do it.

“I had to double pump,” he says, laughing now. “I had to get up there, bro. I couldn’t come in the locker room to my teammates, coaching staff, upper management. They would’ve been on my head.”

Still, as players grow closer to retirement, they often hang up their dunking careers first.

Rivers, who remains a free agent after spending his 11th season with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2022-23, recently retired from dunking. “I just prefer laying the ball up,” he said last year. “A dunk takes a lot out of me.” It was the hard landings that ultimately got him to stop, but he believes he became a better finisher once he made the decision.

It’s easier for veterans who never needed to play above the rim. Like, say, Stephen Curry, who seems amused he was asked about something he hasn’t done in a game since 2018.

“I had no problem letting that part of myself go,” the 6-foot-3 Curry says. “I very easily moved on to the next chapter of my career.”

Batum, a 35-year-old with 367 career dunks, also swore off contested dunks before last season. “My body told me,” he said. “It said, ‘No more, bro.’” Now he only dunks, gently with two hands, when he knows he’s alone at the rim.

“When you hit 32, the game isn’t about dunking anymore,” says Morris, now in his 13th NBA season. “It’s about longevity and still being able to play at a high level.”

Caron Butler wishes he had realized that sooner. When he was younger, Butler, who had two All-Star appearances before retiring to become a Miami Heat assistant coach, practiced as hard as he played.

“I overemphasized the two points I was getting to prove a point or show off my God-given ability,” he says. “It would have given me more longevity.”

Butler doesn’t have any regrets. But he thinks about the dunk differently now.

“It’s just two points.”

Caron Butler, shown here leaping between two Cavaliers during the 2008 NBA playoffs, said his attitude toward dunking changed as he got older. “It’s just two points,” he says. (Ned Dishman / NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s just two points.

“I’m listening to an old man talk,” Butler says. “That’s what 13-year-old Caron Butler would say. He would say, ‘I’m listening to a very old man talk about dunking.’”

He’s not the only retired player who sees the irony. Green thinks his younger self, the one who counted his toe raises in the shower, would feel similarly

“Thirteen-year-old me would really be disgusted right now,” he says.

But Green did dunk again earlier in 2023, a windmill slam in a January practice that had his players hollering in amazement. “They always tell me I can’t dunk,” he says. “I wanted to show them I had a little juice.” Green, the league’s fifth-youngest head coach, says that one of his coaching qualities is his relatability.

“When you’re asking high level professional athletes to do something, it helps for them to know that you’ve done it,” he says. “And it helps to know when they look at you that it looks like you still can do it.”

For others, it’s something that hearkens back to the past: to the adrenaline rush they first felt, to the validation it gave when their NBA careers were still dreams. Klay Thompson, perhaps this sport’s second-best shooter ever behind Curry, his Warriors teammate, says one of the best moments of his career was a dunk. After missing two consecutive seasons with major surgeries, in his first game back, he drove to the rim and slammed one. Thompson knew in that moment, he says, that the Warriors could still win another championship — and later that season, they did.

The end result of Klay Thompson’s dunk through multiple Cavaliers in his first game back from ACL and Achilles injuries. (Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images)

Thompson used to stroll onto the court and dunk as soon as his shoes were on. “Now, I need a good hour to get the gears greased and the motor working,” he says. As his body has changed, so too has his appreciation for what dunking means.

“It’s always an amazing feeling hanging on the rim that you can (forget) most people can’t do it,” he says. “I no longer take it for granted.”

It’s just two points for these club members, yes, but it’s more than that. For Johnson, the former Naismith College Player of the Year, dunking still means something special. Johnson turns 68 in February, and he plans to continue his personal tradition that began when he was 55: dunking on his birthday.

It’s motivation, Johnson explains, to stay in shape, which was inspired by his son, Josiah, who films it every year. It started becoming harder when Marques turned 60. “The first two attempts, I’m barely getting above the rim,” he says. It’s harder to palm the ball as his hands lose strength, and it usually takes until the fifth or sixth try before he succeeds.

Johnson, who had hip surgery this summer, doesn’t know if he will succeed next year. After all, he only attempts to dunk on his birthday, never in-between. “I know, eventually, I’m not going to be able to do it,” he says. But his recovery has gone well, and he feels good he’ll dunk once more next February.

He still remembers it, misses it.

“I remember them vividly: the excitement, the adrenaline rushing through your body,” he says. “So the dunk, as you can tell, has meant a whole lot to me.”

When asked what his younger self would think about hearing him talk about dunking now — this exclusive club he first joined as a 14-year-old wearing slacks and dress shoes, one that has represented pain and joy, aging and authenticity — Johnson instead chooses to turn the question around.

“I’d tell 16-year old me,” he says, “do it until the wheels come off.”

(Illustration by Rachel Orr / The Athletic. Photos of Derrick Jones Jr. (left) and Anthony Edwards (right): Amanda Loman and David Berding / Getty Images)

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