Who Are the All-Time Greatest Slam-Dunk Artists? 1977

[Over at NBA.com, it’s Dunk Week, a celebration of the very best jams, crams, and super slams of the 2020-21 season. Joining in the fun, From Way Downtown celebrates some of the game’s premier dunkers from way back when in this story plucked from the January 1977 edition of Basketball Digest. Stan Hochman, then a columnist with the Philadelphia Daily News, has the byline. Interestingly, this piece first appeared in the Daily News nearly a year earlier on February 3, 1976.]


Dr. J. is the slam-dunk champ of the ABA. Won it fair and square at halftime of the league’s All-Star game last winter. George Gervin did some whirling dervish stuff; David Thompson double-pumped, spun 360 degrees, whipped it over his head. Artis Gilmore took two basketballs and slam-dunked them, wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

Then, it was Dr. J’s turn, and he loped along ‘til he got just inside the foul line, and then he floated the rest of the way, jamming the ball through the hoop. Did four more variations, and then wrapped it up, soaring along the baseline, grabbing the rim as he drifted past, and stuffing the basketball through with the other hand. Slam. Dunk.

Give the league credit for a harmonious halftime show, since All-Star games are designed to showcase the dazzle and razzle of the playgrounds, childhood choreography, dancing to the music that sneakers make on asphalt. 

The halftime show at the NBA All-Star game in Philadelphia featured the Harrowgate Mummers band, a different kind of harmony. A man prowled the corridors of the stars’ hotel, seeking an all-time all-star squad of dunkers. 

“Wilt,” said broadcaster Sonny Hill without a flicker of hesitation. “He used to bring ‘em out of the sky. When he first came in the league, that is. He came in with zest. 

“He’d dunk ‘em all kinds of ways. Til they beat him to death. He was No. 1. Gus Johnson, Honeycomb, he was another great one. Saw him dunk three straight times at Convention Hall. 

“First time, he jumped over Billy Cunningham’s head. Second time, leading the fastbreak, took off at the foul line and stuck his hand into the basket. Third time, he got loose and lightly dunked the ball. 

“Wilt from the NBA, and Jackie Jackson for all-time from the Globetrotters. Only 6-foot-3 but one of the great leapers. Took a quarter off the top of the backboard once.”

“A quarter, a half dollar, what difference,” said Marty Blake, the super scout. “Jackson is one of the legendary ones. The thing is, everyone can dunk. Except maybe Charlie Share. And Clyde Lovelette.”

“Lovelette,” Butch Van Breda Kolff said, “had trouble dunking doughnuts. The guy I remember was a college kid, 5-foot-6 or 5-foot-7. I was coaching Hofstra then. Can’t remember his name, but they called him ‘Corkscrew.’”

Blake couldn’t think of the name either, but he had a torrent of other names. “Helicopter Knowles, the guy from the New York playground league,” Blake said, “he was great. 

“Sweetwater Clifton, he was artistic. Joe Caldwell, he would dunk it from the hip. And then there were guys like Bob Pettit, who couldn’t dunk.

“We’re playing an exhibition in Mexico. They turn out the lights, put the spotlight on Pettit. Takes the ball and can’t see the hoop in the dark. Jumps and hits his head on the rim. Ball goes one way, he goes the other. 

Cleo Hill

“Cleo Hill, 6-footer, jumped center at Winston-Salem. Jumped against a guy 7-foot-1 and blocked the guy’s jumper. He could dunk!

“And then there was the guy Jack McMahon had at San Diego, Helicopter Something. He was terrific.”

“Charlie Helicopter Hentz,” McMahon said. “Shattered two baskets in one night. I’m coaching Pittsburgh in the ABA. We’re playing in Charlotte. Hentz breaks a basket, and it takes 30 minutes to repair. Then, he’s got a breakaway. I say ‘Oh no,’ but he does it again. This time, there’s 1:30 left, and we’re down by 18. What do I do? I concede the game.”

“Ken Durrett,” suggested Fred Carter, smoking a Red Auerbach reject of a cigar. “For leaping, floating grace. For explosiveness, Gus Johnson. I was there the night he shattered the glass backboard in Milwaukee. 

“I even remember one I had, against Philly. Was with Baltimore then. Caught it in traffic. Between Billy Cunningham, Gus Johnson, and Jim Washington. Not bad for a little guy.”

“Yeah,” said Bob Ferry. “And then there was Walter Dukes. Dukes, he was the only guy who could dunk the ball and break his nose at the same time.”

And, whatever became of Walter Dukes?

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