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An Excerpt From 'Year Of The Dunk'

This article is more than 5 years old.

Excerpted from YEAR OF THE DUNK: A MODEST DEFIANCE OF GRAVITY Copyright © 2015 by Asher Price. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Check out Price's conversation with Only A Game's Bill Littlfield.


Everybody wants to dunk, at least metaphorically. We think that if we spent just a year away from our everyday distractions, we could rise above our terrestrial lot: learn Spanish, pick up the piano, re-master calculus, paint. In our fantasies, we think we might all be naturals—the capability of mastering some talent hidden inside us. A few years ago, The Onion cheekily mocked our unspent dreams in an obituary with the headline “97-Year-Old Dies Unaware of Being Violin Prodigy.”

The notion of a “hidden talent” can haunt, too. My mother stopped making art after a junior high school teacher told her she had little talent; she became an art historian instead, her days spent tromping through museums to examine other people’s work. It’s a familiar story: We leave our singing in the shower. Most adults never bother to pick up a violin, write fiction, or learn other languages. Why ac¬quire a talent just to explore its limits?

I meant to take this dunking metaphor literally: I wanted to slam a basketball through an orange rim. My quest was to make the most of the piece of flesh I’d been given. The test I had set myself was just possibly manageable: Given my height and vague athleticism, I felt that with a lot of effort I should be able to push a nine-and-a-half-inch ball through a 10-foot-high hoop.
I faced some challenges. I’m of Austro-Hungarian stock, more closely associated with making good pastries than with jumping ability: At the start of this project I could only swipe the rim with the tips of my middle and index fingers. As Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) famously tells Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson): “Billy, listen to me: White men can’t jump.” I owned healthy love-handles—I weighed 203 pounds—so I was going to have to lose weight and put on muscle. But I had some things going for me: height—I’m 6'2½" with orangutan arms; what a former coworker once called a “big ol’ sprinter’s butt,” just the kind of powerful posterior I’d need to propel myself hoopward; and, as I neared my 34th birthday, some leftover sportiness (I had never played a varsity sport, but once upon a time I had captained my college Frisbee team). I had never weight-lifted, either—I despise weightlifting—and so, to my mind, at least, I remained a tabula rasa. “Pure potential,” my wife, Rebecca, said, with a not-so-small degree of skepticism.

Naturally this would be a navel-gazing exercise: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well,” Thoreau wrote, by way of apology, at the outset of Walden. Because in its bones this is a peculiarly American story, a story about optimism, about self-reliance, about the ability to remake oneself, Thoreau, who counted on the labor of his two hands just as I was to count on the labor of my feet, was a lodestar. The dunk is, yes, as American as jazz or apple pie. But it stretches beyond that—it is lit¬erally about upward mobility, about the very American idea, evoked so often in Walden and by Thoreau’s contemporaries, that everyone is capable of self-improvement, of rising above her lot. For me, the test was physical; for others, the barriers, involving everything from class to gender, are obviously harder to overcome. Americans have long thought that they could move on up, as they say in The Jeffer¬sons. They believe in self-made men, and, I suppose, that’s what I was trying to do: remake myself.

Hovering over my story is the psychological question of how we disappoint ourselves when we grow up and how we try to over¬come that disappointment. A “slam-dunk,” of course, means a “sure thing,” and in this sense the dunk stands counter to the adult chal¬lenges that we face, finding certainty in our lives amid the shifting questions of career, of marriage, and of children. Trying to dunk ap¬peals because there is something childlike and uncomplicated about it. And going after it was a way, in a modestly rebellious act, of not acting my age.

I was no kid, making this my last chance to dunk. I gave myself from the end of one August to the end of the next to improve. It was a year to discover whether, embedded in my bones, muscles, and DNA, was some grand jumping potential.

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