Thursday, November 12, 2009

There Will Be Dunk

In 1920, Babe Ruth became a full time hitter for the New York Yankees. Ruth's arrival signaled a transformation of the game of baseball itself, primarily because he was such a prodigious home run hitter. Before Ruth, they called the baseball played before Ruth the "Dead Ball Era" for a number of reasons, one of which was that in the pre-Babe Ruth Era the strategy was to push runners on hits rather than to clear the bases with one swing of the bat.

That changed. Babe could hit more home runs by himself that entire teams put together. The home run became the "payoff" in baseball games and fans flocked to see how Babe changed baseball.

However, other teams noticed what was going on, and they wanted to have their own Babe Ruths. Part of Babe's ability came in his swing, which was a different kind of swing than the standard swing of the baseball bats. It wouldn't be hard for batters to adapt to the power swing, and the new generation of batters would learn it from childhood. There was, however, one obstacle that had to be overcome for a new era in home run hitting to begin....

...the field itself.

You might have heard baseball fields being called "Green Cathedrals". Well, the 'cathedrals' part was certainly right - some of those old fields were about as big as a cathedral. Some of those fields had a distance from deep center to home plate of 450 feet - or more! Outfields in that era were truly cavernous.

So what to do? Gradually, other teams began to change the shape of the game. They began to slowly bring the fences forward, and in effect, shrink the size of the baseball field. This made home run hitting a lot easier, and everyone wanted to see home runs, so there were few complaints.

Let's suppose that Britney Griner becomes the "real deal", a figure who is Ruth-like in what she can do on the ball court. (Hints are, however, that she does not have the ebullient Ruth-like personality, but we can't have everything.) Suppose she begins to dunk with alarming frequency. Suppose that say, for whatever WNBA team she ends up with she can register about 20 real dunks a year compared to, say, zero dunks or one dunk for all other teams in the WNBA combined?

If this happens, I predict that we are going to see real pressure to lower the rims in women's basketball. If Griner's dunking ability fills the seats for whatever WNBA team she ends up with and if all the rest of the sports world can talk about is Griner-Griner-Griner, then every WNBA team is going to want to have their own Griner. Period. And as it might take another century to grow another Griner from scratch, the question will then be asked, "why not give everyone the chance to dunk?"

Of course, there will be an uproar from those who want to keep women's basketball the way it is - a game where the results are not tilted in favor of height and leaping power. Those that want to keep the game free from flash will speak, and speak loudly against such a thing.

What will happen at the Stern/Orender levels of power? Two things will have to be weighed, one against the other:

* a few voices crying for restraint
* turnstiles turned, increased visibility for the sport, celebrity, and $$$

Guess which side wins battles like that? The rims will start to drop, and women's basketball will be divided into two eras, with the 10 foot rim-era being viewed the same way we view six-on-six basketball and the WBL. As a sort of quaint era before the "real basketball" began in the WNBA.

And then what happens? What will happen is that a lot of fans will turn their backs on women's basketball. This is what happened in baseball with the advent of the Babe Ruth Era. Believe it or not, many fans, writers, and players decidedly did not like the new direction in which baseball was going. Ring Lardner, one of the great baseball sportwriters, slowly gave up following a sport he did so much to help popularize. Ty Cobb bemoaned the fact that his game had become home run ball, and one legendary story about him was that on May 25, 1925 he once hit three home runs in a game just to shut reporters up - the argument being that any fool could hit home runs. His scientific approach to getting on base had fallen out of fashion.

Of course, for every fan of dead ball baseball who found some other sport to follow, there was at least one new fan to replace him, and the Dead Ball Era was consigned to history. A lot of women's basketball fans would be facing the same dilemma if the rims were lowered - do you keep following the less pure form of the sport, or do you just give up altogether?

There is a way to stop this from happening. Simply petition the NCAA and ask them to ban dunking in women's basketball. (It could be banned in the WNBA as well, but the WNBA likes the publicity it gets from its occasional dunk - not a good sign.) The NCAA banned dunking in men's basketball between 1967 and 1976 - some claim the ban was written to stop Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) from dominating the game. Even that ban didn't work, because Abdul-Jabbar developed the nigh-unstoppable skyhook in response and took it with him to the NBA in addition to the dunk.

If dunking is coming, it will come, and we won't be able to stop it. Of course, we can hope that it doesn't come, or comes later than sooner. My suggestion is that if you can't stop Griner from dunking, then make sure that the word
"skyhook" is not mentioned within fifty miles of her presence.

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