The dunk is one of the most iconic plays in all of sports, let alone basketball. It gets the crowd on its feet and benches bouncing as the rim rocks for two points.
But it hasn’t always been around. Who started it and when?
In the 1940s, Bob Kurland was a major part of Henry Iba’s Oklahoma A&M teams that won two NCAA titles in 1945 and 1946, and his play altered the course of hoops forever.
It didn’t happen on purpose, though. In 1944, Kurland and the Aggies were playing at Temple. When the ball fell under the basket Oklahoma A&M was attacking, Kurland picked it up, followed his instincts and invented the dunk.
“The ball happened to be under the basket,” Kurland told Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel in 2012. “I got it up and stuffed it in. That started it, I guess … It was an unintentional accident. It wasn’t planned, just a spontaneous play in Philadelphia.”
His accidental genius would alter the course of basketball and add an entire element to the sport’s culture. How Kurland protected the rim became a big deal, too. Add in George Mikan’s dominance while at DePaul, and two giants controlling the lane conquered college basketball.
Their play led to the introduction of rules against goaltending in 1945, and the commotion from dunking only added to the frenzy.
“The dunking, the goaltending, it was a really big thing stirring up the sports world,” Kurland said. “You have to remember, you take an ordinary-sized guy who probably doesn’t have the tools to execute the act of dunking the ball. So it was probably blown out of proportion a little.”
The NCAA outlawed dunking in 1967, with the restriction earning the colloquial name, “The Lew Alcindor Rule,” thought it brought it back only seven years later in 1976. From then on, the dunk has been a major part of a game that has only become flashier and more athletic over the years, the perfect mix for the shock and awe of a rim rocker.
“It evolved, just evolved over time with these guys today,” Kurland said. “Back then I wasn’t trying to jump over an automobile. That wasn’t my bag.”
The Spin on Bob Kurland
Unlike Mikan, Kurland never played professional basketball after winning two college championships and being named tournament MVP both times, which earned him a spot on the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1961. Instead, he chose sales, taking a position with Phillips Petroleum and stuck around for 40 years. He was even extended an offer from the New York Knicks during the 1948 Olympics that he rejected.
“I wasn’t a gifted athlete,” he explained. “And I didn’t see security in the pros. I saw security in a bank account … After World War II, sales (industry) was exploding. They weren’t building arenas. It was a whole new world. You really didn’t think about playing basketball for a living.”
Kurland found great success on the international stage, too, winning two Olympic golds with Team USA, first in London in 1948, and then in Helsinki in 1952. The St. Louis Bombers did draft him in 1947, but he opted for Phillips Petroleum. While working, though, he played for the company’s AAU team, the Phillips 66ers, and led them to three titles.
He died at his south Florida home Sept. 29, 2013. He was 88.