The First (1976-77) NBA Slam Dunk Champion

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The First (1976-77) NBA Slam Dunk Champion

Postby Brett » Thu Jan 03, 2008 5:55 pm

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 Hillman—the NBA’s very first slam dunk contest winner—has been largely forgotten in the annals of the slam


The Portland Memorial Coliseum was filled with rabid, red-adorned Trail Blazers fans, clamoring for their heroes to bring home the team’s first NBA title in just its seventh year of existence. Blazer nation’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 “Dr. Dunk” Hillman, one of basketball’s all-time greatest leapers and a finalist in the NBA’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 “We Want Dr. J” in hopes of a postgame dunk-off between Hillman and Sixers star Julius Erving.

Hmm…maybe it started when “the Hawk” McNeill lost the coin flip, dunked first, and missed his trademark “Chin-Up” dunk right off the bat, the ball bouncing high up off the rim and deep into the Coliseum seats. The title was Hillman’s to lose.

No, no, it was Hillman who dunked first, winning the crowd over with a “Rock the Cradle,” and coasting to an easy win with his friend and rival—and 1976 ABA Slam Dunk champion—Erving looking on in admiration.

Any three of these scenarios could be true—or false. You see, other than the principal details of this Slam Dunk final in 1977—as well as the entire Slam Dunk Tournament, held throughout the 1976-77 NBA season—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 NBA’s biggest secret.

“You got me,” Hillman says when asked to recall the details of the Slam Dunk final on that June evening. “I was in a zone, at the NBA Finals, ready to cap off an entire year of hard work. I was focused only on winning.”

Admittedly, the contest was very different from any dunking competition held before or since. The rousing success of the ABA’s contest a year earlier—held at halftime of the ABA All-Star Game and featuring Erving, David Thompson, and George Gervin, the highest fliers in basketball—spurred the NBA to action in the first season after the merger. Each of the 22 NBA teams was instructed to have an internal “dunk off” to name a team representative for a season-long competition. (There was no competition on his Indiana Pacers, Hillman recalls with a laugh. “They came in and talked about the contest, pointed at me, and said, ‘Darnell is the guy.’ [My teammates] didn’t want to dunk against me—they wanted to get paid.”) Winning at each level of the tournament was worth $300 apiece to his Pacers teammates, says Hillman, “So you were truly representing your team, not just yourself.”

The first stop on Hillman’s road to dunking prowess came at Balboa High School, where one of his teammates was a future ABA All-Star, “Wondrous” Willie Wise. Two years Hillman’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 Erving—a first meeting in what would become a lifetime friendship—that forever altered Hillman’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.

“Even as a collegian, I wasn’t primarily an offensive player. I rarely went down on offense and became the team’s first line of defense,” Hillman says. “Julius 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.

“The only thing I said to Julius was, ‘When we’re done, you have to show me how to do that.’” 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 him—one resulting in a chipped hip bone that took him off that Pan Am Games squad—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. (“It was not uncommon for me to go crashing into the backboard because I had misjudged my speed,” 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 Hillman’s Warriors preference was obvious, yet his hometown team not only refused to match the Pacers’ 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.

“The Pacers were set in their winning ways,” Hillman says. “They didn’t need me to do anything but play to my strengths—defense and rebounding.”

Hillman’s enthusiasm—not to mention his willingness to play both forward spots and center—made him an instant favorite among teammates.

“Darnell was an incredibly hard worker on a team full of hard workers,” says Hillman’s coach in Indiana, Slick Leonard. “He just did everything was asked of him, and that was a lot.”

While Hillman modestly turns away Leonard’s assertion that he was Indiana’s best defender, there weren’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.

“I won’t say I was the best—how about the most flexible?” Hillman laughs. “I had no choice but to be flexible on that talented a team. But I had my tough moments.”

While Hillman’s toughest matchup was against Gilmore, it was a series of brutal one-on-one matches against teammate Roger Brown in Hillman’s rookie season that proved to be his most humbling—and educational—experience as a defender.

“Roger was a phenomenal basketball player, unlimited in what he could do,” Hillman says. “He also was the best one-on-one player I’ve ever seen, and I should know: I had the honor of guarding Roger every day in practice.

“Well, I played one-on-one with Roger before or after practice every day for a year. I beat him twice.”

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 began—even after Erving withdrew. David Thompson and George Gervin—among the best dunkers from the ABA—were entered, as well as monster Philadelphia 76ers rookie Darryl Dawkins.

“Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins was a favorite of Hillman’s: “Thunder 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.”

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.

“I knew I wasn’t the favorite going in,” Hillman says. “Not as much for my dunking ability, but for the fact that there were other, let’s say, more well-known players competing. But I knew that I could win it all.

“Julius 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, ‘Young fella, we won’t be having any of that [dunking] once I’m in the game. The players knew I could hold my own.”

Hillman’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.

“I wanted the fans to remember that I won, not that Moses missed his,” Hillman says. “Even in an easy win, I wanted to try something that would catch your eye and attention.”

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. Hillman’s semifinal match was in mid-March vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—in Milwaukee, where Abdul-Jabbar still enjoyed enormous popularity.

Hillman won the coin flip, and looking ahead to his final dunk—the Rock the Cradle that electrified fans—had Abdul-Jabbar dunk first to damper down the crowd. It turned out to be a big mistake.

“Kareem brought the house down with a two-hand, under-the-rim reverse,” Hillman says. “I had to push the Rock the Cradle up to my leadoff dunk to get their attention. Thankfully, it worked.”

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.

“Believe it or not, it was the hardest thing just finding a vacant gym in Indianapolis, where I could work on my dunking game alone,” Hillman says. “I finally found a place, Marion College—and I’d spend a half-hour cleaning up all the pigeon droppings from the court before I worked out.”

Hillman’s opponent in the final, McNeill, had started the season on the Warriors roster, qualifying as Golden State’s dunker—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 team—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 O’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. “After arriving for the finals, I felt I could win it all,” Hillman says. “I knew I’d get the fans involved—it was more a question of me trying to figure out what to do.”

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: “It 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 wasn’t in the playoffs or the Finals, somebody from the team had something to win on that day.”

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.

“There’s no trophy or plaque from the competition,” Hillman says. “There’s no footage of the final—even the ABA contest gets shown over and over again. No one wants to take the time to unearth something about 1977.”

Worse, whenever former slam-dunk contest winners are collected together by the league, Hillman is left out. Only his own Pacers—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 franchise—have taken steps to acknowledge the oversight, having Hillman present 2004 NBA Slam Dunk champ, Indiana’s Fred Jones, with his trophy before a game last spring.

“It is disappointing not to have the recognition as a slam dunk contest winner,” Hillman says. “I got a call a few years after I retired, from a reporter asking why I wasn’t at the NBA Slam Dunk Contest that year, when all the other past winners were. I told him, ‘No one invited me. If you find out why not, tell me, too.

“But the people who count do know. If the league chooses not to recognize me, what can I do?”

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 basketball’s greatest defenders, shot-blockers, and leapers, and a career playing against the best of the best in pro basketball’s greatest era,

“My goal always was to be a complete ballplayer,” Hillman says. “Back then, you had to be able to play both ends of the floor, and you don’t find a great deal of that today—guys aren’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.”

Sidebar: Leaping for Spare Change
Every basketball fan has his or her favorite basketball leapers. And just about every hoops junkie knows of stories about—or “swears he saw”—somebody take a quarter off the top of a backboard.

It’s the stuff of Rucker League legend, a topic bandied about at nearly every level of roundball. No record—not a detailed account or a single snapshot, much less video footage—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.

“During my rookie year, there was a $100 bill up there, and I go and get it, walk away with it in my pocket,” Hillman says. “But you can see a bill over the side of the backboard. A quarter is so much harder—you can’t see it up there.”

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 Pacers’ Director/Camps & Clinics/Alumni Relations, Hillman still hears plenty about the leapers of the day, pros and amateurs alike.

Looking at today’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. “There aren’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.”

One easy way to validate this, Hillman says, is by taking note of how much contact players today make with the rim when dunking. “One thing today I see is guys hitting the rim so often,” he says. “Back then we were into throwing the ball straight down.”

One exception is Harlem Globetrotter Michael “Wild Thing” Wilson, who broke is own world record by dunking on a 12-foot basket on April Fools’ Day, 2001, at Hillman’s own Conseco Fieldhouse. Says Hillman: “Can you imagine that—a 12-foot basket?

“Coach Leonard used to say I could grab a dollar off the top of the backboard and leave you fifty cents change,” Hillman laughs. “I could get the dollar, but not the change.”

Sidebar: Dr. Dunk vs. Dr. J—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 fan’s mind: Having Hillman take on the previous season’s [ABA] slam dunk champ, Julius Erving.

“Brent asked if I would go one-on-one with Julius in a dunk-off,” Hillman recalls. “I was game—I knew I could prove I was the best dunker in the game.”

After a bit of negotiation, Hillman agreed to put up the $15,000 check he’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.

“Honestly, I knew Brent was a big Dr. J fan, but he was really aggravating me with all his talk,” Hillman says. “I had just won the slam dunk title, and it was if I was just waiting to hand it back to Julius.”

Musburger never followed up with agreements from CBS or Erving, so after two weeks, Hillman cashed his prize check and moved on.

“Julius and I both respected the other’s dunking abilities,” Hillman says. “As 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.

“We respected each other. But what a dunking match it would have been.”
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Postby Brett » Thu Jan 03, 2008 6:02 pm

Further regarding Dr. J and his lack of involvement in the 1976-77 Tournament:

Erving declined to participate for a number of reasons: he'd proven himself the "best" dunker in the world already; the prize money (15k) was on the modest side; and the work involved (to win, a dunker would have to win four or five separate one-on-one dunking contests, scattered over the course of the year and not always travel-convenient).

On top of that, I love Doc dearly, but he wanted no part of a slam dunk competition with a crazy dunker like Darnell competing.
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Postby Robert Bradley » Tue Mar 02, 2010 1:43 pm

Anyone know if there's a complete list of participants anywhere? When did they hold the opening round?

Here's who I'm managed to come up with so far -

Atlanta Hawks – Joe C. Meriweather
Chicago Bulls – Mickey Johnson
Denver Nuggets – David Thompson
Detroit Pistons – M.L. Carr
Golden State Warriors – Larry McNeill
Indiana Pacers – Darnell Hillman
Kansas City Kings – Richard Washington
Los Angeles Lakers – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Milwaukee Bucks – Alex English
Philadelphia 76ers – Darryl Dawkins
Phoenix Suns – Ronnie Lee
Portland Trail Blazers - Moses Malone
San Antonio Spurs – George Gervin
Washington Bullets – Elvin Hayes

First round - Denver, CO (McNichols Sports Arena)
Quarter-Finals & Semi-Finals - 12Feb77, Milwaukee, WI (Milwaukee Arena)
Finals - 5Jun77, Portland, OR (Portland Memorial Coliseum)
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Postby rlee » Fri Jan 07, 2011 12:45 am

Robert Bradley's post of 3/2/10 is centrally cited here but without attribution ( & no mention of Robert or APBR):
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Postby Robert Bradley » Fri Jan 07, 2011 3:38 am

thanks for the heads up ray!
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Postby mtamada » Sun Jan 09, 2011 4:10 am

rlee wrote:Robert Bradley's post of 3/2/10 is centrally cited here but without attribution ( & no mention of Robert or APBR):

They seem to have updated it so that it now mentions both Robert Bradley and the APBR Forum.
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Postby Robert Bradley » Sun Jan 09, 2011 4:21 am

mtamada wrote:
rlee wrote:They seem to have updated it so that it now mentions both Robert Bradley and the APBR Forum.

i sent them a link to the discussion and they were happy to credit us with the work.

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