“Yo, HERE COMES the Dunker.” There it was again-the familiar greeting from the amiable resident stoner at my local asphalt court. The tag threatened to stick; its sting certainly did. Because it was true: Although I stood a little over six feet, I could no more touch the rim than fly to the moon.
I was a late entrant into the world of hoops. My ninth-grade gym teacher, Mr. Benyak, had tried to recruit me for junior varsity. “What are you doing with your height?” he’d ask. “I’m using it to play chess,” I’d snicker. My attitude didn’t improve until the tail end of my twenties, when I moved to Tompkins Square in New York’s East Village and found I had a bird’s-eye view of the park’s ball courts. Soon, despite my demonstrable lack of talent, I was regularly scrimmaging with friends and local kids.
Sometimes, on summer afternoons, I’d stand on the sidelines and watch the homies engage in aggressive alley-oop and dunking contests, feeling thoroughly outclassed as their wiry bodies soared through the ether. “Hey, mister,” the nineyear-olds would ask as I practiced layups “can you dunk?” Resolving to do something about my vertically challenged state, I called the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers, which specializes in “sport specific” training. After looking me over, the Chelsea pros agreed to take me on as “a challenge.”
“JUMPING ABILITY isn’t SO much about muscle strength as about balance between the different muscle groups, and flexibility,” explained Erik Stevens, the center’s fitness director.
“All the parts have to work together seamlessly to create the action.” Stevens planned an intensive fiveweek training program for me with two Sports Center trainers, Paul Virtue and Tom Beaumont.
“The first thing we do is build you a more
efficient body,” declared Virtue, a second-degree black belt in karate and a competitive bodybuilder. Initial tests gave me good marks for strength but found me wanting in flexibility and endurance. Virtue focused my training accordingly. For the first time in my life, I was instructed to eat more-extra helpings and between-meal snacks. I visited the lavish Sports Center complex five times a week, watching golf balls whiz like mini asteroids across the driving range next door as I went through my paces. Alter an aerobic warm-up, Virtue would subject my legs and lower back to Active Isolated Stretching, in which the muscles are stretched to the edge of their normal range of motion in quick repetitions, then pushed slightly beyond that range by the trainer. Stretches that at first felt like intense rope burns quickly began to feel natural as I became more limber. Then we concentrated on strength training-leg presses, bicep curlsbut in drills of fifteen or twenty reps to increase muscle endurance rather than mass.
Virtue noted that my right shoulder was unnaturally elevated. I had had mild scoliosis since my teens-no big deal. Suddenly, I felt like Quasimodo. Virtue prescribed corrective exercises, centering on the rotator cuff. The posture I’d settled into was hindering my ability to leap-I tended to rely not on my legs but on the muscles in my lower back, which were somewhat overdeveloped because of my skewed stance. My posture soon improved noticeably, and I felt better-balanced. With Beaumont, I began to work on jumping mechanics, jumping rope, and basketball drills.
We concentrated on developing more “explosive” power in my hamstrings, gluteals, quadriceps, and calves-one of the keys, I learned, to increasing my vertical leap. The exercises included the “clean and jerk” and a forward standing press designed for football linemen. Then we added plyometric drills.
Plyometrics is the system developed in the Eastern-bloc countries that seemed to account for their dominance in track and field in the 1972 Olympics. “When you jump, the muscles involved are being stretched and then compacted,” says Greg Brittenham, the strength and conditioning coach for the New York Knicks. “Plyometrics enhances the body’s ability to absorb the shock of this motion.” Brittenham explained that there’s a sensory mechanism called a spindle inside each muscle. With plyometric repetitions, the spindle’s capacity is enhanced, enabling the muscle to contract with greater force. Brittenham says he’s seen plyometrics yield dramatic results; Mark Jackson, the former Knicks point guard, added three inches to his vertical after six weeks of drills.
My plyometric drills included stepping onto a bench and jumping into the air over and over again, and jumping onto one box, down to the floor, and up onto a higher one until I wanted to puke. Most excruciating, though, were the drills on a machine called the Shuttle 20001, on which I bounded repeatedly for thirtysecond or one-minute intervals on a spring-loaded board as shooting pains raced through my calves and thighs and my trainer shouted, “You’re a bird! You’re a bird!”
AFTER FIVE WEEKS of plyometric drills and the correction of my mechanics and posture, just how much had I improved? A retest at the Sports Center (accompanied by Seal’s version of “Fly Like an Eagle” blaring from a tape deck) showed a gain of a good six inches in my jump.
The acid test, of course, came back in Tompkins Square. It’s not that my game’s been completely transformed-I mean, we’re not talking Space Jam II here. I’m never going to shatter a glass backboard, okay? But I can jump and hook some fingers just over the rim, if not yet high enough to stuff the ball. Moreover-and I don’t think it’s my imagination-when the stoner calls me the Dunker, he doesn’t deliver it with quite the same sarcastic gusto.