These days, it’s pretty much all Wayne Whyles thinks about.
At home. At school. At his friend’s house, tapping away at video games. It’s what he thinks about as he does his daily toe raises, trying to strengthen his calves and give his legs more spring. And in the gym, as he jumps to slap the glass backboard, taking note of any newly acquired lift.
He’s getting close. Oh so close. But until he can slam a basketball through a hoop before a cheering, game-time crowd, there’s just something about life that feels . . . incomplete.
“I just keep waiting for that day,” says Whyles, a 6-foot freshman basketball player at Boston’s John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.
In the mind of a teenage basketball player, at least, there may be no athletic feat that equals the dunk. In football, touchdowns are a dime a dozen, and if you swing your way through enough Little League games you’re bound to hit a home run sooner or later. But basketball’s dunk, on full display now in the heat of March Madness, is a crowd-rousing display of physical prowess that only a relatively few gifted players are able to achieve. Those who do win glory, new social standing, and, if there’s video, a whole slew of Instagram followers.
It is, in other words, the Holy Grail.
“When you’re a kid, all you want to do is dunk,” says Boston College all-conference junior Jerome Robinson, who remembers riding his bike up hills as a youngster because his father told him it would improve his leap. “And you’re trying to find a thousand-and-one ways to figure out how.”
For the young athletes who head down that path, the quest for the first dunk can know no bounds — and, often, no shame.
It’s what prompted countless ’90s-era teens to order outlandish-looking training shoes from the back pages of sporting goods magazines, with mushroom-shaped appendages on the soles said to work the muscles needed for higher jumps. And it’s what compels many to stay after practice to attempt dunk after dunk — holding tight to the belief that they’re just one perfectly timed leap, or half-inch growth spurt, away from the Promised Land.
“I remember getting blisters on my hands trying to dunk,” says Damani Scott, a junior at Mansfield High School whose first-quarter slam in the Division 1 state title game earlier this month helped set the tone for the team’s 67-54 victory. “Every time we would play, I would try.”
Growing impatient as a 6-foot-3 eighth-grader, Harvard’s Seth Towns — who would go on to become a four-star prospect at Ohio’s Northland High, receiving scholarship offers from the likes of Michigan and Ohio State — remembers procuring a can of Firm Grip, a sticky spray, to get a better hold on the ball.
One day, at the gym at his family’s church, he slathered his hands with the stuff and, after a few unsuccessful tries, finally crossed the barrier, much to the delight of his mother and, later, his teammates.
Did his friends begrudge him the help of a little hand goo?
“I didn’t tell them that part,” he says.
Like a certain other rite of passage, everyone remembers their first time — often in significant detail. “It was against Snowden, in the home opener” ; “On a fast-break, on court 5 at Mass Premier”; “We were at old Cardinal Gibbons High School, in the old gym.”
Though, sometimes, players can wait so long that when it finally does happen, they can be left unprepared.
“I didn’t even know how to react,” says Rivaldo Soares, an O’Bryant junior, of the moments immediately following his first dunk, in a game during his freshman season. “I just looked at the crowd and gave a little mean mug and slapped my chest.”
And like a baptism, players often emerge feeling reborn.
Take Dasonte Bowen, who in just the second game of his freshman season at O’Bryant last fall introduced himself to the school’s student body with an emphatic dunk against prep power Pope John XXIII High School of Everett. By the time the game ended, a cellphone video of the play was making the rounds on social media, and the next day at school, he says, even teachers were approaching him in the hallways to talk about the dunk.
“I feel like in that moment, it changes you,” says Bowen. “When you do it, I feel like it brings something else out of you. Not something you can describe. You just have to do it.”
To coaches, on the other hand, the infatuation can be a little less intense.
Season after season, O’Bryant coach Drew Hughes-Brock has watched with a kind of bemused exasperation as his players have lingered after practice to take turns trying to dunk — many of the teens falling comically short.
“As a coach, I’m like, ‘Who cares about the dunk? It’s only worth two points,’ ” says Hughes-Brock. “How about not turning the ball over?”
Lately, though, with his team boasting a pair of bona fide leapers in Soares and Bowen, even he admits to some excitement-by-association. As recently as two years ago, he says, a player attempting an alley-oop in a game would have been rewarded with an immediate benching. This past season, the coach caught himself implementing an offensive set specifically featuring the alley-oop.
“If you got it,” he says, only a little grudgingly, “you might as well flaunt it.”
Whyles, for his part, is trying.
It’s only a matter of time now, the youngster says. He can feel it. If not this spring, during off-season league play, then next season, when he’ll be a sophomore at O’Bryant. He’s completed a few in practice and pregame drills but not yet in a game, when it counts.
In his mind, he can picture it. There will be a steal, maybe. Then a fast break. And in that moment, he’ll find himself with the ball, nothing in front of him but an open lane, a 10-foot goal, and a final leap toward immortality.