Twenty years ago, nearly to the day, I saw the improbable on TV. Of course, I was joined by millions of basketball fans. Oakland native and Minnesota Timberwolves player Isaiah (J.R.) Rider lived up to the hype at the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Weekend and delivered what we all had been waiting for.
It was the first All-Star game after Michael Jordan retired. The game itself was on a Sunday. But before the game, there were the events that I (and my friends) really cared about: the Three Point Shootout (which Mark Price from the Cleveland Cavaliers would win) and, of course, the Slam Dunk Contest.
The buzz surrounding the weekend was all about Rider possibly trying the “East Bay Funk Dunk” in the competition. Rider did the dunk in 1993 while in college during the NCAA Dunk contest
But this was on a much bigger stage. He started at the corner of the court, basically looking at the basket from the side. Then with a dribble or two and in full stride, he jumped into the air. The ball transferred from his left hand to right, passing underneath his right leg, and dunked through the hoop. Yes, a between-the-legs dunk.
The Target Center crowd in Minneapolis erupted and signs of 10 popped up through the arena. The judges gave him a near-perfect 49 points. There were other dunks after that, but none mattered. Rider was the king that year.
Here he was: an Oakland kid, playing for Minnesota and delivering one of the best dunks of all time in front of the Minnesota crowd. It was great. And he knew it was great. Rider nodded his head after the dunk, partly confirming to himself that he had done something so original and difficult on one of the biggest stages in basketball and partly like a maestro who just conducted his finest masterpiece.
Superstardom was not completely out of the blue for Rider. He was a prep school star at Encinal High School in Alameda. He would bounce around a couple community colleges before landing at UNLV. There he would average 29.1 points per game his senior year, second in the nation.
Minnesota drafted him with the fifth overall pick in 1993. He would make the All-Rookie First Team by averaging more than 19 points that season. He was a scorer, who had the “it” factor: His explosiveness on the court was fun to watch.
But Rider was explosive off the court, too. And he would pay the price. As he bounced around the league from Minnesota to Portland to Atlanta to Los Angeles to Denver (all in the space of a nine-year career), trouble popped up along the way.
I reached out to Rider to talk about the dunk, life after basketball and his foundation to get kids active in extracurricular activities. But I never heard back. I am not sure what I wanted to say to him or ask him. I suppose I wanted to tell him about the moment I saw him do the “East Bay Funk Dunk.”
While I am not excusing his bad behavior, I just wanted to let him know that there was this kid in West Virginia (as well as kids and adults all over) whose jaw dropped. He already knew that, though, I’m sure. Anyway, I called my best friend, Michael, when I saw it and neither one of us could believe it. It was pure joy (in someone else’s incredible accomplishment).
But that’s sports. At their least, they give us a sense of community and distraction from the real problems in our real lives. At their best, they make us believe anything is possible, even if that feeling is soon squashed by a brutal world.
Isaiah Rider’s dunk 20 years ago didn’t change the landscape of sports. It’s perhaps not even the best dunk in dunk contest history. It didn’t guarantee him a long and successful career, even though he played for nine seasons, averaging nearly 17 points a game. But for me, a boy barely in his teens watching that night, it was the extension of a childhood naiveté that those we idolize are perfect and everything we want to be. He took the pressure of the competition and delivered. The crowd roared with approval. And he was , if just for a moment, the champion that deep down most of us really want to be, even if we know real life may soon catch up to us.