The cover of "The Year of the Dunk: A Modest Defiance of Gravity" depicts a man looking up at a basketball rim that seems to loom about 20 feet over his head. The book recounts the year-long attempt of the author, Asher Price, to cover that distance. Price joined Only A Game's Bill Littlefield.
Bill's Conversation With Asher Price
BL: Why did you, a not-especially-tall fellow with small hands, past his athletic prime, such as it was, decide to spend a year trying to dunk a basketball?
AP: Well, I had gotten up into my mid-30s and I started thinking about what kinds of talents I might have left on the table. And I always thought dunking a basketball was one of the great athletic maneuvers in sports. And going back to my time as a kid, one of my earliest memories was Spud Webb dunking a basketball, and he was only 5-foot-6, so I thought, "Here I am, a guy about 6-foot-2, shouldn't I be able to dunk a basketball?"
BL: You sought advice and assistance from trainers, doctors, researchers and so on. Who was most important person in encouraging you to believe that you could, in fact, one day dunk?
BL: All right, the flip side of that question, obviously, is, "Did anybody with whom you consulted say, ‘No, this is stupid, man. You have no chance. Go back to your day job.’”
AP: That's a good question. Part of what I was thinking about during this whole thing was our ability as a species to jump. It turns out that humans are kind of lousy jumpers. We're great long-distance runners but we're not fabulous sprinters or jumpers when you compare us to chimps or other species. One of the people I talked to was an evolutionary biologist at Harvard — Daniel Lieberman, and he basically said, "Look, if you're not able to dunk into your mid-30s. you're probably not going to be able to dunk now if you haven't done it before."
BL: In reference to your consultation with a genetics expert, you write, “We started having the sort of conversation that straddles philosophy and science.” I submit that the whole book might be characterized that way. What do you think?
AP: Well, that's really nice of you to say. I think the book isn't meant just to be a book about my trying to dunk a basketball because I don't think many people would want to read just that. It's about, more broadly, this kind of gulf between our daydreams and reality.
BL: I think you have said that very well and I think you say it even better in the book:
"Yet I discover that even if we're not all quite dunkers, we have what might fairly be called a superhero's confidence in transformation, a capacity for creative self-improvement that winks at the grave."
Is it far to say you began the quest to dunk with a determination to wink at the grave?
AP: Oh yeah, I think that's right. This book is about how much room we have for improvement and how we can really surprise ourselves. Without giving away the ending of whether I was able to actually dunk or not, I can tell you that I got far higher than I ever thought possible. And I think that's true with a lot of people. Whatever it is you imagine yourself doing, you're actually probably a lot better at it than you think. It's really just a matter of giving it a shot.
BL: I don't want to give away the ending of the book either -- I'm with you on that. But I think it probably would make sense for you to talk a little bit about your own perspective winking at the grave because you have had a closer brush with that than a lot of people.
AP: Yeah. that's right. The book tells a shadow story about my surviving testicular cancer. Testicular cancer, once upon a time, was really a death sentence. And now it's among the most curable of diseases. But it is harrowing to be told at age 26 that you have a tumor in your left testicle, it has to be taken out immediately, you have to undergo chemotherapy, and I think you're right: the sentence about winking at the grave gets at exactly that.
Going through that experience, at least for me, leavened how I thought about mortality. The cliche of course is that you live each day like it's your last but for me it just, life became in a way more fun cause once you pass through that experience, it feels like there's less on the line.
Bill's Thoughts On 'Year Of The Dunk'
"Year of the Dunk" follows the progress of Asher Price as he tries to become lean, strong, and confident enough to dunk a basketball.
He begins his quest with several disadvantages. He’s past his athletic prime. He’s recently recovered from surgery to address cancer. He doesn’t much like working out.
[sidebar title="An Excerpt From 'Year Of The Dunk'" align="right"]Read an excerpt from "Year of the Dunk" by Asher Price.[/sidebar]But he has an active imagination. He can see himself dunking. And he can see in his own pursuit of the dunk metaphors for the various ways in which all sorts of people attempt to reach beyond their respective grasps.
It’s that last quality that enables the author to make a book out of something that might otherwise have been an entertaining magazine article. Price addresses such matters of biology, psychology, philosophy, politics, and race in the book, and he still manages to avoid taking himself entirely seriously — a great quality in a writer and an excellent reason to read the book.
This segment aired on August 29, 2015.