Bob Kurland: The first man to dunk - 70 years on

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There's no good reason for the baskets to be situated precisely 10 feet from the ground in basketball, not one. It was a completely arbitrary decision.

When, In 1891, Dr. Naismith nailed two peach baskets to the walls of a gymnasium in Springfield College, Massachusetts, at an entirely random height, he didn't realise he'd set in motion a chain of events that would shape basketball and the NBA to this very day.

More than a hundred years on, a billion-dollar industry has sprung from his imagination. At the time, he simply thought he'd come up with an 'athletic distraction' for a group of rowdy school kids during the harsh New England winters.

In 2013, Bob Kurland passed away, aged 88. He died in his Florida home and left behind his wife Barbara, their four children Alex, Ross, Dana, and Barbara. He left behind plenty more besides too.

“I got it up and stuffed it in,” Bob said a fair few years back now. “That started it, I guess … it was an unintentional accident. It wasn’t planned.”

Given Dr. Naismith’s own accidental stumble into sporting history, It’s fitting that the man credited with being the first player to ever dunk the ball didn’t really do so on purpose either.

Amongst other things, Dr Naismith kick-started an arms’ race when he put his peach baskets well above the heads of the game’s first ever participants. Unbeknownst to those pioneers, the search for the first man to reach up and forcibly slam the ball through the hoop had begun.

Except it hadn’t, not really yet anyway. When Kurland began his college career in 1942 with Oklahoma State, the idea of the first glittering dunk contest on All-Star weekend was more than 30 years away. Indeed, far from being revered, the dunk was reviled; considered low-brow compared to the thinking-man’s game of dribbling and jump-shots.

Big, tall men - those who could dunk - were considered cumbersome and lacking the mobility required to get around the hardwood.

In 1935, an article entitled "Dunking Isn't Basketball" appeared in Country Gentleman magazine. Suspicion was rife throughout the game; John Wooden, who led UCLA to 10 NCAA championships in the 60’s and 70’s, relatively recently expressed his feelings on dunking while watching his former team play as a spectator, and his was the prevailing attitude of the time.

After seeing a young UCLA player attempt an elaborate behind-the-head dunk, Wooden was asked what he thought of the play. “I would have had him out of there before his feet hit the floor,” came the reply. Decades on, and his contempt for ‘showing off’ remained as fervent as it did all those years ago.


The NCAA would later move to ban the dunk from the college game before the 1967-68 season (Wooden, unsurprisingly supported the move), in part at least because of the dominance of Lew Alcindor, otherwise known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Oregon State University coach Ralph Miller believed men like Abdul-Jabbar, or Bill Walton, dunking had meant the game was becoming an ‘idiot’s delight’.

“That one dunk started it, I guess … it was an unintentional accident. It wasn’t planned.” - Bob Kurland

But before then, before the controversy and unspoken racial tensions underpinning the decision, there was Kurland. He was the man who kick-started the move that’s ritualistically celebrated today.

In the book “Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball's Early Years”, author Robert Peterson noted that in 1940, the average height of a list of all-time greatest players was 5’10.

Kurland wasn’t 5’10, nor was he six feet. He was exactly seven feet tall and one of the new wave of big men who would come to dominate the sport.

He would guide the A&M Aggies, as they were then known, to two NCAA championships during his college career, and earn two gold medals at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. A three-time All-American, Big Bob was chosen as the NCAA Tournament’s most outstanding player twice.

Such was Bob's height, that he was able to bat the ball away as opponents’ shots closed in on the hoop - and that was the driving force behind the decision to introduce the goaltending rule.

But that’s not the legacy Kurland left behind. It was a game in Philadelphia in 1944, when he saw the ball sail through the air and bounce around the rim, that defines him. “The ball happened to be under the basket,” Kurland said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel in 2012. “I got it up and stuffed it in. "That started it, I guess."

"What it was an unintentional accident. It wasn't planned, just a spontaneous play in Philadelphia," he added.


Kurland opted against turning professional when his time at college came to an end, instead choosing to remain with the Amateur Athletic Union and the Philadelphia 66ers. He would see out his remaining working years as a sales executive in Philly, before retiring with his family to Florida.

Although progress was by no means a straight line when it came to dunking, especially through the painful 1960’s and 70’s, Kurland was on hand to witness its rebirth to what it is today; a spectacle - from the first dunk contest in ‘76 to the slam revolution ushered in by Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving and later Michael Jordan, who would build an empire around the one simple act.

One of the last dunk contests Kurland witnessed was the 2012 edition. Then, The Utah Jazz’s Jeremy Evans upset the odds, beating off competition from Chase Budinger.

Four million people voted in that year’s contest. In almost seven decades since the very first one, dunking has come a hell of a long way.

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