As I remember it, the night of Jan. 25 in 1988 was a cold night in Pittsburgh, but that really is not at all why I remember that evening so well.
I was writing for the Pittsburgh Press then, covering the Pirates, but on that night Pitt was playing at old Fitzgerald Fieldhouse against Providence, and they sent me out to cover the game.
Normally, on a cold winter’s night, I would grumble a bit about having gotten that assignment, but instead it provided me with one of the most memorable nights of a less than memorable sports writing career, for that was the night Pitt’s Jerome Lane went up for a dunk and became the first person to shatter a backboard with the force of a slam dunk.
While I failed to etch the moment into sports writing history, Bill Raftery immortalized the moment when he blurted out, “Send it in, Jerome!”
I mention this because for some reason the dunk has fallen out of favor with this year’s West Virginia basketball team, which is uncharacteristic of a Bob Huggins’ team, especially one that has both Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver playing down low.
In fact, after last year’s struggles with making close-in shots — including that miserable experience of making one of 22 shots from a foot away against Oklahoma that Huggins keeps referring back to — it is surprising Huggins isn’t pushing his people to dunk far more often.
Understand this. WVU was not very good close to the basket in the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic they won in South Dakota over Thanksgiving, which Huggins acknowledged following the second game as hurting the team’s overall shooting percentage and margin of victories.
I’m not sure if WVU dunked in the opener against South Dakota State, but I went back and looked at their last two games and there was only one dunk in each by the Mountaineers — yet they struggled horribly up close.
In fact, inside of that inner arc that’s set up to help officials with charge calls, WVU went only 13 of 25. That is not good shooting inside 4 feet: just 52%.
What’s more, that statistic shows WVU wasn’t pounding the ball inside as the Mountaineers took only 25 shots from there while their opponents combined for 46 shots from up close… and remember, that’s the second and third game, not the first game in which WVU took 32 three-point shots.
This is troubling in that the dunk is a big part of West Virginia basketball history, especially on the women’s side, where Georgeann Wells was the first women to ever dunk in an official game.
As an aside, there is an interesting side story to her dunk, for it took some time to get people to really believe the 6-7 native of Virginia had accomplished that feat, for it came in a game against the University of Charleston played in Elkins in 1984 before a crowd of maybe 100 people.
Obviously, there were no TV cameras on hand, and WVU did not bring its then bulky reel-to-reel video machine on the trip.
In fact, the only video of the dunk was available because Charleston coach Bud Francis had set up a video camera under one of the baskets and captured a blurry image of it at the far end of the court.
West Virginia officials requested the video, as did members of the West Virginia media, but Francis refused to part with it, according to the Wall Street Journal’s research a few years back.
Why he did that no one really knows, but considering that he gave his team a strong pep talk urging them to make sure they did not get dunked on, it well might be a touch of pride mixed with embarrassment that kept him from handing over the tape.
Francis died in 1999, after which his son found a box of old VHS tapes. One was marked “W.V.U.-84 Elkins.”
That was the game with the dunk, but seeing as it was in with a lot of old stuff, a decade went by before anyone looked at it, that coming when the Wall Street Journal, doing on story on the deed in 2009, called and asked about the tape.
Finally, there was video proof of Wells’ dunk, putting to rest any doubts that may have been out there.
Who would have believed that in 2020, videotape of men’s dunks is almost as rare? And that’s something that really should change for WVU as it’s known for having an intimidating inside presence with Culver and Tshiebwe, and there certainly is nothing more intimidating than a thunder dunk that shakes the rafters?