by Cameron Fields
As Jordan Kilganon prepared to do his final dunk for “The Dunk King,” the other dunkers watched on the baseline. A few others were off to the side. Kilganon was about to perform something original.
The idea for the dunk came from Isaiah Rivera, a 19-year-old pro dunker from the University of Central Florida. But Kilganon would perform it for the world.
Kilganon ran up to the hoop, the ball sitting on the edge of the rim. Before he came down, Kilganon swung his arms behind his back and tried to bring the ball over his head for the slam.
He missed, so he prepared to try again. Before he ran up to the hoop, he screamed, perhaps to motivate himself.
“That moment would have been the greatest moment of my life, like times a hundred,” Kilganon said in a phone interview.
Kilganon jumped toward the hoop, did the same motion and experienced a similar result. He grabbed the rim and knocked the ball in – he didn’t completely dunk it.
Kilganon didn’t win “The Dunk King,” a TV series on TNT that displays the best dunkers in the world. But that didn’t mean his time on the show was a failure for him or the dunking community.
“The Dunk King” finished its second season in May, and in its first season, the show gained 10.9 million viewers. It was the most-viewed program of the night on cable for all four episodes. People must like what they see.
“The thing you can’t deny about dunking is that it’s so entertaining,” Kilganon said. “There’s so much you can do with it, especially in terms of creativity.”
Social Media Playing a Role
Chuck Millan and his friends didn’t go to parties in high school. Instead, they would go to a gym and film themselves dunking.
Millan, 33, could dunk in high school, but he wasn’t anything special. He wasn’t Kilganon, Guy Dupuy or Isaac White, pillars in the dunking community. In the summer of 2003, Millan dunked for Slam Nation, a dunking team that was in France.
Millan didn’t like how Slam Nation was run, so he created something similar. Millan created Team Flight Brothers, a company that records some of the best dunkers in the world. In the beginning, shooting videos of dunk sessions was just a hobby for Millan and his friends.
But when YouTube started in 2005, it changed the dunking world forever. Team Flight Brothers hopped onto the new site quickly, and it became one of YouTube’s first sports partners in late 2007.
“Team Flight Brothers wouldn’t be in the spot it is without YouTube,” Millan said. “Overnight we were on the front page of YouTube, which in 2007 was crazy.”
With Team Flight Brothers being in YouTube’s partner program, Millan and his group could make money off their videos. A platform for dunking was born, and in the process, children were watching some of the best dunkers in the world.
Team Flight Brothers wouldn’t be where it is without YouTube. But the same can be said for dunking. The videos inspired the current generation of dunkers like Isaiah Rivera and Christopher “CJ” John. Like Rivera, John is a professional dunker from Florida. He plans to transfer to UCF next semester.
John remembers watching Dupuy and Terry “T-Dub” Cournoyea, dunkers who have worked with Team Flight Brothers. Dupuy and T-Dub helped spark interest. Now, the new generation of dunkers rules the community through a new medium: Instagram.
Instagram is a hotbed for pro dunkers. Members of the community follow one another on Instagram, and videos of gravity-defying dunks are plentiful.
While Millan and Team Flight Brothers created the concept of dunking as its own entity, Kilganon, Rivera, John, and others helped spark a movement.
“He (Kilganon) got really popular these past couple years,” Rivera said. “And he was hitting new dunks almost every single day. That helped push dunking into more mainstream.”
Kilganon is viewed as the most creative dunker in the world. He said that he has invented over 130 dunks, and would be surprised if others even have 40.
Kilganon is the face of the community. But with “The Dunk King” and Millan’s “Dunk League,” a dunk contest series on the go90 app, more faces will emerge.
“With all the attention that it’s getting now, imagine all the kids that are going to grow up wanting to be pro dunkers. It’s going to be crazy in the end,” Kilganon said.
Instagram: An Instant Dunking Connection
When Isaiah Rivera posted on Instagram that he would be attending UCF, Christopher John knew he had to meet him.
Rivera came down to visit UCF, and he and John met in person for the first time. The two had a dunk session, and they’ve been friends since.
Meeting up through Instagram isn’t uncommon in the dunking community. Instagram provides an outlet for dunkers to share their dunks, but it also gives them a way to connect.
Friendships are created, and whenever a dunk session comes up, everyone knows who will be there.
John and Rivera lead the way in Florida, one of the community’s hot spots for dunk sessions. Rivera posted on his Instagram account that he would have dunk sessions from July 18-26.
Dunk sessions can range from having 2-3 people or even as many as 15, Rivera said. When the gym has more people, it has more energy. That makes for a lively atmosphere, one where dunkers can talk about their common passion.
“We literally all just hang out all day, every day talking about dunking and it’s the coolest thing ever,” Kilganon said with a laugh.
Instagram allows dunkers to connect online before meeting in person, and that fosters support within the community. The community has flourished because of this support.
Pat Dickert, although he is not as involved in the community as Kilganon or Rivera, is connected to the community. Dickert is a Division III basketball player at Colby College in Massachusetts, and he dunked from the free throw line last summer.
He knows what helps dunkers succeed, and discouragement certainly isn’t part of it.
“If they have a group of people that are hostile against them and not trying to encourage them, that makes everyone’s performance suffer,” Dickert said.
Dunking: A Sport on The Rise
The dunking community began with Team Flight Brothers in the early 2000s, and it is still in its infancy.
But the sport is growing, and that’s because it’s separate from basketball. Dunking is part of basketball, but it’s not the sport itself. Other skills are included in the game – dunking is just one of them.
A basketball player can still be a good basketball player without being able to dunk. Pro dunkers know not everyone in the community can play basketball well. But NBA players also don’t have the time to dunk as often as pro dunkers do.
Peter and Jake Randall are part of the younger set of pro dunkers in the community. They’re twins and will be seniors in the fall at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri.
Having a basketball background themselves, they know not all pro dunkers are hoopers.
“It’s just different tools and different skill sets,” Jake said. “And I think you can also weave that argument of that’s why dunking should be a sport.”
The community views dunking as a sport, citing the training they must do to dunk at a high level. Sure, a dunker can train to jump higher. But trying to get that first between the legs 360? That’s going to require some work.
“There’s certain things and certain aspects that it’s honestly just not feasible for people,” Millan said. “I know people with 45, 46, 47-inch verticals that they would need years and years of work to get that stuff down.”
With shows like “Dunk League” and “The Dunk King,” it’s hard to ignore the growth dunking is making. The sport has surfaced in the NBA, with Millan training NBA players for the Slam Dunk Contest in recent years. He and Rivera helped train Indiana Pacers forward Glenn Robinson III for the 2017 NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
Millan flew Rivera out to Indianapolis because he knew that Rivera and Robinson had similar jumping styles. Robinson won the dunk contest, and Millan said that he helped Robinson do some dunks that weren’t seen at All-Star Weekend.
“We had two dunks that he put down that would’ve really messed shit up,” Millan said laughing. “So now the plan is to use them next year in (Los Angeles).”
Dunking used to be a novelty, something to watch on TV during the summer when only baseball was on. To an extent, it’s still like that; “The Dunk King” aired after games of the Eastern Conference Finals.
But with the rise of the sport through Instagram, pro dunkers like Kilganon have created a following.
“There’s definitely a lot of things in the works to keep dunkers busy and to make it so kids are coming up and they’re like ‘Yeah, I like basketball, but I love dunking,’” Millan said.
Members of the community are still trying to improve. Kilganon missed a dunk that would have etched his name into dunking lore. But new dunks are waiting to be created.
“The thing about dunking is it makes you reflect on yourself all the time,” Kilganon said. “And you always have to find ways to improve. And that’s my favorite part about it.”