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The Pain and Pleasure of Dunking: Why NBA Players have a Love-Hate Relationship with the Greatest Feat

The dunk is basketball’s most lionized play. The most iconic ones are canonized, referenced fondly and often, debated for their merits and significance. The sport’s language has created so many names for it: jam, yam, slam, poster, stuff, hammer. It’s a unique club that only few on this world can join. It’s marvelous. And it hurts like hell.

“Can you think of any other concept where your hand swings at something metal?” 11-year NBA veteran Austin Rivers asks. “It’ll probably hurt, yeah?

When asked, players catalog the pain dunking has caused: broken nails; bent fingers; recent bruises; lasting scars; midair collisions; twisted necks; dangerous landings. Injuries that cost them games or even seasons.

Derrick Jones Jr., a former NBA All-Star Weekend dunk contest winner now with the Dallas Mavericks, points out two specific marks on his left wrist. Larry Nance Jr., another high flier in his ninth NBA season and third with the New Orleans Pelicans, recalls childhood memories of his father’s scarred arms from a 14-year NBA career that included winning the first-ever dunk contest in 1984. Dallas’ Josh Green remembers one pregame dunk that set his nerves afire.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why would I do this before a game,’” the 23-year-old Green says.

And yet still they dunk.

In the modern NBA, the dunk’s frequency has been increasing, going from 8,254 in the 2002-03 regular season to 11,664 last year. The rise is mostly due to the 3-point revolution and the increased spacing and cleaner driving lanes that come with it. But the league also has taller, more explosive athletes entering every year. With them come even more spectacular aerial feats, ones that enrapture fans and wow even the players who witness them.

What players think of the dunk, and the agony that can come with it, is ever changing. This isn’t some new trend. It’s just that the dunk, for all its allure and mystique, is the most visceral mark of a player’s maturation.

Basketball’s most exclusive club, one only entered 10 feet in the air, isn’t one that players can — or always want to — live in forever. Dennis Smith Jr., now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, had a 48-inch vertical as a prospect, but says now his struggles with landing affected his shooting form.

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