An inherent trait of most popular sports is the human collision.
The collision can be downright perilous in our most bruising exploits of football, rugby, boxing, mixed martial arts and other games as the primary objectives involve one player exacting his or her physical will over another. Over the course of a hockey game, bodies crash into each other based on the speed of the game, the size of the players and the never-ending debate over fighting in the sport. Even baseball, where player contact isn’t as frequent, the lack of what’s essentially body armor can bring heart palpitations to fans when an outfielder crashes into a teammate when both run for a pop-up or sheer rage when a “gritty” base runner slides into an infielder to break up a double play.
Yet, the most unique collision of two athletes occurs in basketball when one player furiously dunks upon another. One rises off the ground in anticipation of contact from a defender trying to either draw a charge or block the posterization that’s about to happen.
The violence in this moment is quick, an entanglement of limbs, torsos and braggadocio. Basketball’s most exciting play can make a quiet crowd howl like a night at a raucous club. In a tight game, it can emotionally lift one team, while shattering another. In a game that is out of hand, it's that extra cherry on top if the dunker's team is winning or the small point of pride of his team is losing. (Or in the case of Paul Pierce, some confusion.) For the fans watching on television or online, they leap out of their recliners and rewind the DVR or video player out of sheer disbelief.
But why do we keep replaying the highlights, spinning yarn on the greatest facials and even crafting our YouTube montages to the game’s most high-impacting play?
Because when it’s all said and done, no one gets hurt.
We do not revel in our delight over the play, only to pause and hope that the defender is OK. We do not have to worry about the physical condition of the dunker or the dunked on after the moment passes. Trainers don’t have to run out on the court and check on anyone to see if he can remain in the game.
We just continue on with our ridiculous reactions.
The only true pain inflicted in these moments is to the soul of the defender and the psychological state of his team, as evidenced here by the dejected bench players for University of Texas-Arlington after Texas Longhorns guard Kerwin Roach Jr. made them famous last week.
Dunk of the year? #RIP pic.twitter.com/uBb4Snc13l
— 120 Sports (@120Sports) December 2, 2015
Think about DeAndre Jordan’s proverbial destruction of Brandon Knight in 2013. Recall Baron Davis riding a rocket ship over Andrei Kirilenko. Watch Shawn Kemp tell the story behind his famous slam over Alton Lister in the ’92 playoffs. Remember what may be considered the greatest dunk of all time, Vince Carter hurdling over Frederic Weis at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
The defenders on the wrong end of these moments are temporarily scarred and humiliated — though for Weis, one may believe that the aftermath was darker than anyone could have ever realized. They are able to get back up, dust themselves off and focus on the next 24 seconds (or 30 for college players).
And that’s what we want to see after a player gets the hammer thrown on him, the bounce-back. Some of the best ever defensive players such as Dikembe Mutumbo, Alonzo Mourning, Ben Wallace and even Bill Russell never let the fear of embarrassment keep them from protecting the rim at all costs. For all players, we want to see if they can respond to the moment where the entire crowd is either laughing at them or muted into an angry silence. How does he get back at the guy who just made him an unwitting co-star in a NBA Vine?
In other sports, the player at the receiving end of a crash might have the chance to immediately respond, yet that’s not often the case. A bone-crushing tackle or crosscheck may have done just that, crushed a bone. Slamming into an outfield wall to save a double is equal parts dedication and folly if the wind is knocked out of him, or worse. A vicious hook to the jaw may provide unintentionally hilarious Internet fodder, but it can also invite questions of a fighter’s mortality.
Though players may prefer to give the gift of dunk instead of receive one, they don’t take the same punishment for daring to defend their turf. In moments where the irresistible force meets the seemingly immovable object, the latter can physically absorb the power of the force, even if may not do so mentally.
After all, who would ever want to get dunked on?
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