To Dunk or not to Dunk?

Lady Vol Michelle Snow takes women's basketball to a new place—above the rim. Not everyone is happy about it.

L'il Snow didn't get to go to Maui to see the first dunk, but the 17-year-old unofficial Lady Vols team poet/rapper was right there in Memorial Gym talking smack to some Vandy fans when Big Snow slammed the second one down. L'il Snow was shocked by the mixed reaction.

"I was actually standing in the corner of the gym hollering 'It's over —y'all can go home,' when I saw Kara [Lawson] throw the ball and Michelle go long. I told my friend, 'She's gonna dunk!' And by the time I said it, she was hanging on the rim. Most of them were clapping for her and stuff, but some of them were down there booing and saying 'no class,' and I said 'That was GOOD! Don't boo that!' Buncha snotty-nose people."

L'il Snow (also known by her equally melodious name, Crystal Pillow) is from Columbia, Tennessee, and plays center for the Spring Hill High School Lady Raiders. Among her generation of young athletes, there is no dunking controversy at all. Girls who can run fast and jump high want to do all the things their brothers do, and every one of them who was interviewed for this story is irked to hear their elders question the wisdom, class and ethics of the dunk. Prior to Snow's two-handed jam against Illinois last Nov. 27, the athletes never gave much thought to the politics of the dunk, and L'il Snow, who is an accomplished rapper as well as a basketball player, has little patience for the discussion.

"A lot of people don't want to see the women's game elevate. They really think the women's game is a fundamental game, and they think that a lot of people are going to start dunking now that Michelle has done it. I don't agree. Not a lot of women can ever do that. They're just hating on her."

The Wizard of Westwood would put it differently. John Wooden, the most venerated basketball coach of our time, once advocated banning the dunk from the men's game, and his oft-quoted view represents the heart of the anti-dunk argument:

"The purest basketball is played by the collegiate women's teams. I've never liked the dunk...I think it brings on selfishness, showmanship, too much individual play."

Former WNBA player Fran Harris, who does color commentary for TV games, wrote an online column about Snow's first dunk. She's not for banning the dunk, but she doesn't really approve of it, either:

"The dunk, or lack thereof, was the one lingering criticism still hanging over the women's game—mostly by men, but also by a few women who've been brainwashed to think that we have to emulate men all the time, no matter what we're doing.... There's no denying how far women's basketball has come—even if most newspapers still bury women's scores in the depths of their sports sections and TV sports anchors only mention women's hoops highlights if they have time.

"But now that a woman has gone where few thought she would, women's hoops is the lead story on the 10 o'clock news?

"Huh?

"Last time I checked, dunks were still worth two points. The dunk is just a high-percentage shot that requires no real skill. It's more about physical abilities. Can you jump 40 inches off of the ground? Then you too could probably dunk."

If Harris is right, then why is Snow only the third woman to dunk during a game, and why, indeed, has it been such a big deal?

Answering that question in context requires going back a ways to a schoolyard playground in Middle Tennessee circa 1962, where a bunch of third-graders were playing on the see-saw. The principal, who was also the basketball coach, singled out the tallest girl, Patricia Head, a tomboy who was used to playing with her three brothers, and asked her to join the team, which, quite naturally, was dominated by older kids. Trish, as she was called in those days, called her mother for permission and suited up that day.

Although the state had a long tradition of girl's basketball, and Nashville Business College had produced some of the best teams ever seen, at the elementary and high school level the game was played with special rules. It was thought that running up and down the length of a basketball court could render girls infertile, due to severe jostling of the delicate inner workings of the female reproductive system. So the game was played in the half court, six players to a team; three shooting forwards doing all the scoring and three non-shooting guards on each end of the court. Nobody was allowed to cross the midcourt line.

When Trish got to high school, each team was allowed a "rover," generally the most talented player, who could traverse the midcourt line and roam the floor at will. At Cheatham County High, the rover was Trish Head.

By the time she played college basketball at the University of Tennessee-Martin, her friends were calling her Pat. Her college career ended abruptly in the fall of 1973 when she tore a knee ligament. She graduated in 1974, accepted a job as head coach at the University of Tennessee, rehabbed her knee and played in the 1976 Olympics. She built her Tennessee program and coached the 1984 U.S. Senior National Team that won America's first Olympic gold medal in women's basketball. Later, she would marry R.B. Summitt and her name would further evolve.

Meanwhile, in post-Title IX America, the half-court game was disappearing from the national scene. Tennessee resisted the move, which was controversial among those who sought to protect their daughters from the mannish rigors of full-court basketball. But Pat Head believed her home state had to change if girls were to have a fair chance of competing for the limited number of college scholarships available. The turning point came when F.M. Williams, a sportswriter with the Nashville Tennessean, came to Knoxville to see Head's Lady Vols play Tennessee Tech, then ranked 5th in the nation, in a packed Alumni Gym. The atmosphere was electric, and Williams caught the fever. He wrote a lengthy, provocative story about the changing nature of women's basketball. Fireworks and lawsuits ensued, and UT's head coach was in the eye of the storm.

"It was very controversial," Summitt says. "A lot of high school coaches in this state were really upset with me. I got subpoenaed, and had to go to court and talk about whether half-court basketball could hinder a high school player's chances of being recruited. The answer was obvious: Sure. A player who played only defense was at a distinct disadvantage."

Michelle Snow was born the year that Summitt's side won. The game started moving faster and flying higher, and some 20 years after she first helped to change the politics of women's basketball, the Tennessee coach found herself at the center of another kind of basketball politics—the politics of the dunk.

"In general, people really struggle with change," she says. "Yet, the changes that have taken place in the women's game—the level of excitement, skill level, style of play—have allowed the game to survive and grow."

Despite the battles she's had to take on as a women's basketball pioneer, Summitt has been somewhat taken aback by the backlash to the dunk. In fact, she was visibly irked by the questions in the post-game interview.

"If this were a men's game, you wouldn't even ask that question," she told reporters who asked about the ethics of dunking on Vanderbilt when her team was sitting on a 7-point lead with 10 seconds to go. (Tennessee fans who remember Vanderbilt star Dan Langhi's last-second slam off an alley-oop pass in Memorial Gym last year when the Commodores enjoyed an 11-point lead over the Volunteers may tend to agree with her.)

"I guess it's not ladylike," she snapped, and even threatened to think about moving over to the men's game if she continued to be asked such lame questions.

She has calmed down now that she's had a little time to reflect.

"At the time, both in Maui and in Nashville, a very common remark I heard even from people who were not Tennessee fans was 'I am so glad I saw that. It was awesome.' In Maui, the place erupted. And for me—conservative me—I thought it was pretty awesome, too. It's no big deal in the men's game, but it IS a big deal in the women's game.

"I like players who are brave. I like players who will take risks. It took a lot of courage for Michelle to do what she did in both those situations. I recall when we were recruiting her that dunking was something she thought was important. She wanted to make sure we'd help her with strength, and with her vertical leap. I'd never had a player discuss that before. Somebody might have a great voice, but they never pick up the microphone and sing. A lot of players can dunk in practice. But to make it count, you have to have the courage to try it during a game. That is what separates Michelle from the others. "

Summitt's recruiting coordinator Mickie DeMoss also coaches the post players. She is protective of Snow and blunt in her disdain for those who have been harshly critical.

"The people who are trashing her do it for one of two reasons—either jealousy or envy or a combination of both. I can't imagine anything that would more enhance the women's game, add excitement, a new flair.

"When the game was first being played, women didn't do the things we do now. They didn't go behind their back like April McDivitt; didn't do a 360 [spin move] like Semeka Randall. Now, they love it when Ace bounce-passes the ball between her legs. What's the difference doing something different when you're handling the ball than jumping up and slamming it over the rim? Michelle gets called a hotdog and a showboat and accused of being cocky and overzealous. She does have a little flair about her. But she also steps on the floor and wants to take care of business. Are these kids supposed to play in a straitjacket?

"She is a complex kind of kid with a heart as big as Thompson-Boling Arena. She is very genuine, very sincere and wants to please. She's not an easy person right off the bat to get to know—but she is undyingly loyal. We have a very special relationship, and I feel confident that we will always have it."

People tend to remember the first time they ever saw the lean, intense player who kept talking about wanting to dunk.

For most Tennessee fans, that was Midnight Madness in October 1998, when Chamique Holdsclaw and the towering freshman came out onto the floor to try to throw one down after the men put on their slamma jamma exhibition. They each tried a couple, then missed and missed again. Holdsclaw was ready to give it up. But not the freshman, who clenched her jaw and kept on bricking until Holdsclaw practically dragged her off the court.

"Was I discouraged by all those bricks I laid up there? Huh-uh! Oh, Lord, I was brickin' up a storm, but I was sayin' 'Oh, man, I'm close. I'm CLOSE.' The crowd was really encouraging me, and I was feeding off it. The next year I said I wasn't going to try it again, but I got talked into it, and it went down the first time I tried," Snow said.

Summitt remembers Snow the high school star as "just this little bitty girl in this long tall body." The fall Snow was a senior, the 1997-'98 Lady Vols were on their way to racking up a 39-0 season, despite the lack of a strong, true center. So it was not surprising that Tennessee set about to snag the best low post prospect in the country, despite the fact that she was not one of the "corn-fed chicks" Summitt traditionally preferred, and despite the fact that Snow was thought to be a lock for North Carolina, whose head coach, Sylvia Hatchell, had made her an offer when she was in the 10th grade.

For Snow's high school coach, Alison Davis, that first look at her future star had come back in the spring of 1995, when she spotted her among a group of 8th-graders who had come over to Pensacola High School for an orientation session. She was hard to miss.

"She was about 6'3" and she was dressed up and had heels on," Davis said. "She played for Bellview Middle School and I was thrilled to see her. I hadn't been sure she'd be attending our school. I said 'I bet I know who you are.'"

Pretty soon everybody in the state knew who she was. When she came to Pensacola High, Snow joined an unusually tall high school team, and forged a tight bond with her coach. The team would go undefeated her junior year, win a state championship and Snow would become Miss Florida Basketball. Summitt credits Davis with teaching her the offensive techniques that have made her one of the best college centers in the country.

"Coach Davis did a great job of teaching her," says Summitt. "She turns around in the key with those arms up and there's nobody in the house who can get a piece of that ball."

One way Davis helped her young protégé was to take her to Sylvia Hatchell's summer basketball camps at the University of North Carolina. There Michelle met former Tarheels Charlotte Smith (the second woman, after West Virginia's Georgianne Wells, to dunk in a college game), and Sylvia Crawley (who won an ABL slam dunk contest). Hatchell talked to Michelle about strength and conditioning to help her achieve her dream of dunking, and the Florida phenom thought she was destined to wear Carolina blue.

"I always thought she had such a unique jumping ability for someone her size," says Davis. "She worked so hard to develop that ability, and at North Carolina, the strength and conditioning coach discussed building her strength, so she knew she would have that opportunity to dunk under Coach Hatchell. Tennessee was not as strong in that area. Pat was known for preferring a bigger bodied kind of player, and that was a negative, because she did NOT want to gain the weight. Michelle would say 'I want to be a finesse type athlete like Scottie Pippen—not Shaq.' Besides, I don't think she could gain weight. She has a very high metabolism, and she eats all day long."

Snow says people told her that Summitt would attempt to beef her up.

"They told me I'd weigh 300 pounds by the time I left here. And they told me I couldn't play here—'They're 39-0. You're gonna sit the bench.' I was like 'I know I can compete with them. I know I can play.' I learned that when I'm in a competitive situation, I play better. It makes me step up."

She went out for track—high jump, of course, because her coaches told her "a high jump ain't nothing but a dunk..." And she watched the boys dunk.

"After practice, I watched the guys have dunk contests after they got through practicing. I didn't participate with them, I would just watch. Finally some of them said "You're too tall not to be able to dunk—they didn't understand that it's different for a girl. Even Tony Harris [who stands a head shorter than Snow] can dunk the ball. They just jump higher than females do.

"I was real goofy—just a gym rat, period. I'd squeeze a tennis ball to make my hands bigger and stronger. Pretty soon I was dunking everything—tennis balls, t-shirts, whatever we could get our hands on, volleyballs. The boys never discouraged me."

She made her intentions clear to the college coaches who made her short list. (She had started with a list of 150 schools that made contact her junior year.)

"When I was being recruited, I told everybody what I wanted to do. I asked Coach Summitt 'Do you have a problem with a player wanting to dunk?' She told me she'd help me reach my goals any way she could."

Come signing day, Snow decided to change her plans and head to Knoxville, where Summitt's strength and conditioning staff designed workouts for her. She says she believes she made the right decision. She kept preparing in earnest to become the player who would make the dunk a real part of the women's game—not just a once-in-a-blue-moon oddity.

One of the things she has done to prepare herself is work out with players from the men's team. Vincent Yarbrough and Ron Slay helped her refine her moves over the summer. They are incredulous that Snow has met with mixed reviews.

"The criticism? It's ridiculous," says Yarbrough. "I think what she's doing is a good thing for the women's game, and I just tried to help her get the mechanics down. It's something that wouldn't even be commented on if she were a man."

Slay applauds Snow's sense of showmanship—to a point.

"She ought to keep dunking in games, any time she gets a chance. A lot of people think the women's game lacks excitement, and this is a way to get it there."

Mr. Excitement shakes his head over the rim-rocking antics that got her a technical foul at Vanderbilt.

"At first, she was just hanging on the rim instead of putting the ball in the hole. Me and Vincent got together and showed her the basic steps—one, two three, four, five, six. We worked on her drop step and we just worked on getting her to put her wrist over the rim."

He grins a wicked grin.

"That hanging on the rim? That's Vincent's fault."

Yarbrough, of course, disagrees.

"All that hanging on the rim stuff is because of me? Naw. That's Slay."

Alison Davis is just plain proud of what Snow has accomplished. She didn't get to see the Maui dunk on TV, but she was watching the Vandy game when dunk number two occurred.

"I was about to turn the TV off, because I knew the game was just about over, but when I saw that play run specifically for her, I just started running through my apartment, I was so very excited. I knew what she was going to do. I wish the people who want to tear her down would remember that this is still a very young girl.

"So many players dream of being where she is right now. She's putting our town on the map. To me, when I see the wristband with 'Pensacola' written on it, she's saying—'This is where I come from. This is who I am... I haven't forgotten y'all.' And that says a whole lot about her character."

All this talk of criticism isn't going to end the possibility of more Lady Vol dunks. And next time, it may not be Snow. Freshman Ashley Robinson, who is an inch taller than Snow, can do it, too, if she wants to. But for now, she's biding her time.

"It's always on your mind, every game," says Robinson. "You're like, is this the day? Maybe this will be the game. But when Michelle dunked, it wasn't planned. She just got that high post steal and she dunked. Now, every time you get a steal, everybody wants you to dunk, instead of passing the ball."

Robinson has the rare ability to dunk off a vertical leap.

"Not many girls can do that. They have to be running to do it. I can just jump up off a drop step. I don't practice dunking, though. I'm working on other things in my game now. We're trying to win a national championship, and that's so much more important than any individual thing I could do."

If Robinson chooses not to dunk, there might be someone else in the wings who will do it. Michelle has two little sisters, Rosalyn, 15, and April, 14. April, an 8th-grader, "... she's a toothpick just like me. The only difference is she's left-handed, she's got an outside jumpshot, and she can dribble. She's more developed than I was at that time, and we're expecting her to be the best of all of us. She's a little mess—she's crazy, a lot of fun to be around. If you see her at any games, you'll know her."

In Snow's view, the important thing about the dunk is what it represents to younger girls.

"I want them to remember how hard I worked to accomplish my dream. Don't ever let other people discourage you. If you work hard, you can achieve your dreams. I want to help take the game to another level, and I want to win a national championship, and I want young kids to know that the only limits are the ones you put on yourself."

Lauren Miller, a 14-year-old from Wausau, Wisconsin, is one of the people Snow is talking about. She plays forward on her basketball team, attended Pat Summitt's camp last summer, and here is her view of Snow and her dunk:

"What is wrong with dunking? Nothing. Then why are people so upset that a woman dunked? Men dunk all the time. Women have a very pure game. I think the reason most people don't like women dunking is because they think women's basketball will turn into trash if everybody starts playing above the rim. That won't happen because not everybody can play above the rim. I give a lot of credit to Michelle Snow. She has put up with a bunch of B.S. since she first dunked in November. Everyone is hatin' on her. I'm on Michelle's side. If I could dunk, I would. So would every other girl out there. Dunking is just a part of basketball. And remember, girls play basketball too! "

Katrina Oglesby is a sophomore center at Central High School in Knoxville. She is having a break-out year, and is already catching the eye of college recruiters. She has nothing but scorn for those who criticize Michelle Snow.

"That's a hater for you. They're just mad because they're not as bad as she is. And they can just keep being mad, because if they wait a couple of years, they might just see one in high school. Right here. Cause that's the next level."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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