At the behest of our peerless leader Ray, I'm posting a three-year-old story I shared earlier with RemembertheABA readers.
It's about Darnell Hillman, the NBA's first slam dunk champ. It was published in the newly-defunct Courtside magazine, which means you've likely never seen or heard of this story.
At the time it was written, we were unaware of any footage from the contest final between Darnell and Larry, but for the 30th anniversary festivities during All-Star Weekend in Denver a couple of years ago, a few seconds of footage surfaced.
I'm attaching a longer version of the story than I orginally submitted--the "rough cut" if you will.
All right, here's the story:
Explosion in the Sky
Master of hops Darnell Hillmanâ€”the NBAâ€™s very first slam dunk contest winnerâ€”has been largely forgotten in the annals of the slam
By BRETT BALLANTINI
The Portland Memorial Coliseum was filled with rabid, red-adorned Trail Blazers fans, clamoring for their heroes to bring home the teamâ€™s first NBA title in just its seventh year of existence. Blazer nationâ€™s president, Bill Walton, was about to block an NBA Finals record (since tied) of eight blocked shots. A heavily-favored Philadelphia 76ers team, up 2-0 in the series before getting steamrolled in the next three games by an average of 20 points, nervously braced for this must win.
Off in a room tucked into the bowels of the Coliseum on June 5, 1977, sat Darnell â€œDr. Dunkâ€ Hillman, one of basketballâ€™s all-time greatest leapers and a finalist in the NBAâ€™s first-ever Slam Dunk Tournament, awashed in thought, plotting the five dunks that he hoped would earn him the $15,000 first prize.
At halftime, with the outcome of the NBA Finals still very much in doubt, Hillman took the floor against journeyman challenger Larry McNeill and ran off a series of thundering dunks that brought the house down and drew fan chants of â€œWe Want Dr. Jâ€ in hopes of a postgame dunk-off between Hillman and Sixers star Julius Erving.
Hmmâ€¦maybe it started when â€œthe Hawkâ€ McNeill lost the coin flip, dunked first, and missed his trademark â€œChin-Upâ€ dunk right off the bat, the ball bouncing high up off the rim and deep into the Coliseum seats. The title was Hillmanâ€™s to lose.
No, no, it was Hillman who dunked first, winning the crowd over with a â€œRock the Cradle,â€ and coasting to an easy win with his friend and rivalâ€”and 1976 ABA Slam Dunk championâ€”Erving looking on in admiration.
Any three of these scenarios could be trueâ€”or false. You see, other than the principal details of this Slam Dunk final in 1977â€”as well as the entire Slam Dunk Tournament, held throughout the 1976-77 NBA seasonâ€”not much else is known. Especially given the increasing attention paid to the dunk as both weapon and exhibition, the 1977 Slam Dunk Tournament could well be the NBAâ€™s biggest secret.
â€œYou got me,â€ Hillman says when asked to recall the details of the Slam Dunk final on that June evening. â€œI was in a zone, at the NBA Finals, ready to cap off an entire year of hard work. I was focused only on winning.â€
Admittedly, the contest was very different from any dunking competition held before or since. The rousing success of the ABAâ€™s contest a year earlierâ€”held at halftime of the ABA All-Star Game and featuring Erving, David Thompson, and George Gervin, the highest fliers in basketballâ€”spurred the NBA to action in the first season after the merger. Each of the 22 NBA teams was instructed to have an internal â€œdunk offâ€ to name a team representative for a season-long competition. (There was no competition on his Indiana Pacers, Hillman recalls with a laugh. â€œThey came in and talked about the contest, pointed at me, and said, â€˜Darnell is the guy.â€™ [My teammates] didnâ€™t want to dunk against meâ€”they wanted to get paid.â€) Winning at each level of the tournament was worth $300 apiece to his Pacers teammates, says Hillman, â€œSo you were truly representing your team, not just yourself.â€
The first stop on Hillmanâ€™s road to dunking prowess came at Balboa High School, where one of his teammates was a future ABA All-Star, â€œWondrousâ€ Willie Wise. Two years Hillmanâ€™s senior, Wise would motivate Hillman with his ability to dunk from a flat-footed start. A few years later, Hillman was a nationally-regarded high jumper (topping seven feet) who fell just short of representing the U.S. along with San Jose State track teammates Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
But it was an encounter with Ervingâ€”a first meeting in what would become a lifetime friendshipâ€”that forever altered Hillmanâ€™s attitude toward the dunk.
Hillman had arrived as a slam-dunker in basketball via the unusual route of track-and-field, having high-jumped for years in high school and college. On the basketball court, Hillman was a power jumper: Run to a spot on the court, then explode into the sky. What Hillman saw on the floor while he and Erving were trying out for the Pan Am Games.
â€œEven as a collegian, I wasnâ€™t primarily an offensive player. I rarely went down on offense and became the teamâ€™s first line of defense,â€ Hillman says. â€œJulius was bringing the ball up on a three-on-one fast break. I was standing on the foul line, shading him on my left. Julius juked at the top of the key and took an opening. I turned to see his hips going by my head. He just glided to the hoop and threw it down.
â€œThe only thing I said to Julius was, â€˜When weâ€™re done, you have to show me how to do that.â€™â€ After that discussion, where Erving showed Hillman how to glide rather than simply power jump, Hillman began taking a decidedly scientific approach to his leaps.
Hillman already was on an instructive path with regard to dunking. After a few scary tumbles on the court after having his legs taken out from under himâ€”one resulting in a chipped hip bone that took him off that Pan Am Games squadâ€”Hillman began taking judo classes in order to better learn how to fall (and later took to starting out his basketball camps by kicking the bottom of the rim). He followed up on his brief instructional with Erving by studying physics, velocity, and vertical lift. (â€œIt was not uncommon for me to go crashing into the backboard because I had misjudged my speed,â€ Hillman says.) Most of all, Hillman was forced to be a little more selective when it came to making his monster leaps, knowing that he was exposing himself to a greater chance of injury with reckless play.
Hillman was drafted into the U.S. Army after his sophomore year at San Jose State. After his stint ended in 1971, he was a first round draft choice of both the NBA Golden State Warriors and ABA Indiana Pacers. Bay native Hillmanâ€™s Warriors preference was obvious, yet his hometown team not only refused to match the Pacersâ€™ contract offer, they never even returned his calls. It turned out to be the best thing for Hillman, who quickly became the most popular Pacer on a squad filled with homegrown heroes.
â€œThe Pacers were set in their winning ways,â€ Hillman says. â€œThey didnâ€™t need me to do anything but play to my strengthsâ€”defense and rebounding.â€
Hillmanâ€™s enthusiasmâ€”not to mention his willingness to play both forward spots and centerâ€”made him an instant favorite among teammates.
â€œDarnell was an incredibly hard worker on a team full of hard workers,â€ says Hillmanâ€™s coach in Indiana, Slick Leonard. â€œHe just did everything was asked of him, and that was a lot.â€
While Hillman modestly turns away Leonardâ€™s assertion that he was Indianaâ€™s best defender, there werenâ€™t many players in either league who had the strength to match a muscleman like 7-2 Artis Gilmore block-for-block, then creep out to the perimeter and neutralize lightning-quick jumping jacks like the 6-6 Wise on the perimeter.
â€œI wonâ€™t say I was the bestâ€”how about the most flexible?â€ Hillman laughs. â€œI had no choice but to be flexible on that talented a team. But I had my tough moments.â€
While Hillmanâ€™s toughest matchup was against Gilmore, it was a series of brutal one-on-one matches against teammate Roger Brown in Hillmanâ€™s rookie season that proved to be his most humblingâ€”and educationalâ€”experience as a defender.
â€œRoger was a phenomenal basketball player, unlimited in what he could do,â€ Hillman says. â€œHe also was the best one-on-one player Iâ€™ve ever seen, and I should know: I had the honor of guarding Roger every day in practice.
â€œWell, I played one-on-one with Roger before or after practice every day for a year. I beat him twice.â€
But for one day, Hillman was the most dangerous player in the game. Used to defying expectations, Dr. Dunk was far from the favorite to win when the tournament beganâ€”even after Erving withdrew. David Thompson and George Gervinâ€”among the best dunkers from the ABAâ€”were entered, as well as monster Philadelphia 76ers rookie Darryl Dawkins.
â€œChocolate Thunderâ€ Dawkins was a favorite of Hillmanâ€™s: â€œThunder was just unbelievable with the things he could do. He was one guys whose dunks in an actual game were way better than what he came up with in dunk contests.â€
All three of the so-called favorites fell out of the competition in the early rounds, leaving the path more and more wide open for Hillman.
â€œI knew I wasnâ€™t the favorite going in,â€ Hillman says. â€œNot as much for my dunking ability, but for the fact that there were other, letâ€™s say, more well-known players competing. But I knew that I could win it all.
â€œJulius and I, being friends and rivals, put on quite a show in the ABA. Our matchups were win-win for all the fans who watched us. It always became a challenge: Could we surprise ourselves? And Wilt Chamberlain [hired as player-coach of the San Diego Conquistadors in 1972-73 but barred from playing in the ABA] would watch me in warm-ups and say, â€˜Young fella, we wonâ€™t be having any of that [dunking] once Iâ€™m in the game. The players knew I could hold my own.â€
Hillmanâ€™s closest match of the tournament came in the very first round in Denver, where he faced brief Portland Trail Blazer Moses Malone. The two were tied after the regulation five dunks, and when Malone missed his tiebreaker dunk, Hillman could have played it safe and secured the win. Not Dr. Dunk.
â€œI wanted the fans to remember that I won, not that Moses missed his,â€ Hillman says. â€œEven in an easy win, I wanted to try something that would catch your eye and attention.â€
Hillman faced little challenge in subsequent rounds, dunking into defeat Richard Washington of the Kansas City Kings and Mickey Johnson of the Chicago Bulls, and by the All-Star Break, only four dunkers remained. Hillmanâ€™s semifinal match was in mid-March vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbarâ€”in Milwaukee, where Abdul-Jabbar still enjoyed enormous popularity.
Hillman won the coin flip, and looking ahead to his final dunkâ€”the Rock the Cradle that electrified fansâ€”had Abdul-Jabbar dunk first to damper down the crowd. It turned out to be a big mistake.
â€œKareem brought the house down with a two-hand, under-the-rim reverse,â€ Hillman says. â€œI had to push the Rock the Cradle up to my leadoff dunk to get their attention. Thankfully, it worked.â€
The next challenge of the tournament had nothing to do with dunking in competition. Hillman, whose Pacers fell short of the playoffs, was forced to work out on his own for some six weeks as he waited for the finals, scheduled to take place in early June, at the NBA Finals.
â€œBelieve it or not, it was the hardest thing just finding a vacant gym in Indianapolis, where I could work on my dunking game alone,â€ Hillman says. â€œI finally found a place, Marion Collegeâ€”and Iâ€™d spend a half-hour cleaning up all the pigeon droppings from the court before I worked out.â€
Hillmanâ€™s opponent in the final, McNeill, had started the season on the Warriors roster, qualifying as Golden Stateâ€™s dunkerâ€”but was released early in the season. The 6-9 forward caught on for a couple weeks with the New York Nets, but as the contest wore on, he was a player without a teamâ€”to the point of having to borrow a jersey before the slam dunk final vs. Hillman.
In fact, it was a bit of a fluke that Oâ€™Neill had made it so far. His only move was a two-hand slam/chin-up slam, which he usually did variations of for all five of his dunks in competition. â€œAfter arriving for the finals, I felt I could win it all,â€ Hillman says. â€œI knew Iâ€™d get the fans involvedâ€”it was more a question of me trying to figure out what to do.â€
Fans most enjoyed his Rock the Cradle, but there were several moves that Hillman wished he could have shown off in the competition. Back in high school, Hillman had developed The Hammer, where he stuck the ball in his left armpit, leaped up to the rim, and punched the ball through the rim with his right hand. And his favorite Indiana crowd-pleaser was even less of a true dunk: Palming the ball and sticking it completely through the rim up to his armpit, then withdrawing his arm, all while hanging in the air. And he was dusting off a 360-degree dunk for the final, but decided against the move as too risky.
Hillman also managed to use the fact that the slam dunk final was relegated to NBA Finals sideshow to his advantage: â€œIt heightened the excitement, actually. To be at the Finals in any way was a thrill. I was competing on behalf of my team, so even though Indiana wasnâ€™t in the playoffs or the Finals, somebody from the team had something to win on that day.â€
Win he did, convincingly. And ironically, arguably the most exhausting, thorough, and challenging slam dunk contest in basketball history remains almost completely unacknowledged by the NBA.
â€œThereâ€™s no trophy or plaque from the competition,â€ Hillman says. â€œThereâ€™s no footage of the finalâ€”even the ABA contest gets shown over and over again. No one wants to take the time to unearth something about 1977.â€
Worse, whenever former slam-dunk contest winners are collected together by the league, Hillman is left out. Only his own Pacersâ€”who proudly wave their ABA flags higher than the other three former ABA teams combined and are always sure to champion the pioneers of their franchiseâ€”have taken steps to acknowledge the oversight, having Hillman present 2004 NBA Slam Dunk champ, Indianaâ€™s Fred Jones, with his trophy before a game last spring.
â€œIt is disappointing not to have the recognition as a slam dunk contest winner,â€ Hillman says. â€œI got a call a few years after I retired, from a reporter asking why I wasnâ€™t at the NBA Slam Dunk Contest that year, when all the other past winners were. I told him, â€˜No one invited me. If you find out why not, tell me, too.
â€œBut the people who count do know. If the league chooses not to recognize me, what can I do?â€
Most important for Hillman are the things that no one can take from him: back-to-back ABA titles in his first two seasons, a reputation as one of basketballâ€™s greatest defenders, shot-blockers, and leapers, and a career playing against the best of the best in pro basketballâ€™s greatest era,
â€œMy goal always was to be a complete ballplayer,â€ Hillman says. â€œBack then, you had to be able to play both ends of the floor, and you donâ€™t find a great deal of that todayâ€”guys arenâ€™t asked to do as much, and become specialists. I wanted to be one of those rare big men who was exciting to watch, who are as versatile as smaller players. And I think I accomplished that.â€
Sidebar: Leaping for Spare Change
Every basketball fan has his or her favorite basketball leapers. And just about every hoops junkie knows of stories aboutâ€”or â€œswears he sawâ€â€”somebody take a quarter off the top of a backboard.
Itâ€™s the stuff of Rucker League legend, a topic bandied about at nearly every level of roundball. No recordâ€”not a detailed account or a single snapshot, much less video footageâ€”exists of such an accomplishment.
Darnell Hillman wants to set the record straight.
No, Hillman never plucked a quarter from the top of a backboard. But he came close.
â€œDuring my rookie year, there was a $100 bill up there, and I go and get it, walk away with it in my pocket,â€ Hillman says. â€œBut you can see a bill over the side of the backboard. A quarter is so much harderâ€”you canâ€™t see it up there.â€
Hillman acknowledges that he talked a lot with Rucker League vets Roger Brown and Connie Hawkins about the legends of the day, including stories of four- and five-second hangtimes and, yes, tales of plucking bills, coins, and soda cans off the top of the backboard. And as the Indiana Pacersâ€™ Director/Camps & Clinics/Alumni Relations, Hillman still hears plenty about the leapers of the day, pros and amateurs alike.
Looking at todayâ€™s game, Hillman has a bit of a contrarian attitude compared with those who say the game is played higher above the rim than ever before. â€œThere arenâ€™t many players out there who jump like Julius and I did. Dominique Wilkins is definitely one guy who stood out with a powerful above-the-rim game.â€
One easy way to validate this, Hillman says, is by taking note of how much contact players today make with the rim when dunking. â€œOne thing today I see is guys hitting the rim so often,â€ he says. â€œBack then we were into throwing the ball straight down.â€
One exception is Harlem Globetrotter Michael â€œWild Thingâ€ Wilson, who broke is own world record by dunking on a 12-foot basket on April Foolsâ€™ Day, 2001, at Hillmanâ€™s own Conseco Fieldhouse. Says Hillman: â€œCan you imagine thatâ€”a 12-foot basket?
â€œCoach Leonard used to say I could grab a dollar off the top of the backboard and leave you fifty cents change,â€ Hillman laughs. â€œI could get the dollar, but not the change.â€
Sidebar: Dr. Dunk vs. Dr. Jâ€”The Match That Never Happened
After the Portland Trail Blazers clinched their first NBA title with a win in Game 6, CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger invited newly-crowned dunk champion Darnell Hillman back to his hotel suite to discuss what was on every slam fanâ€™s mind: Having Hillman take on the previous seasonâ€™s [ABA] slam dunk champ, Julius Erving.
â€œBrent asked if I would go one-on-one with Julius in a dunk-off,â€ Hillman recalls. â€œI was gameâ€”I knew I could prove I was the best dunker in the game.â€
After a bit of negotiation, Hillman agreed to put up the $15,000 check heâ€™d just won in the NBA Slam Dunk Tournament and Musburger pledged another $10,000 from CBS in a winner-take-all match dunking match between Dr. Dunk and Dr. J.
â€œHonestly, I knew Brent was a big Dr. J fan, but he was really aggravating me with all his talk,â€ Hillman says. â€œI had just won the slam dunk title, and it was if I was just waiting to hand it back to Julius.â€
Musburger never followed up with agreements from CBS or Erving, so after two weeks, Hillman cashed his prize check and moved on.
â€œJulius and I both respected the otherâ€™s dunking abilities,â€ Hillman says. â€œAs much as we seemed similar in build and looks, we were different individuals. I wanted to be a more powerful dunker, while Julius was more of a finesse dunker.
â€œWe respected each other. But what a dunking match it would have been.â€