When an NBA coach dunking is more than a highlight: 'It does add to the respect and appreciation'

ByTim MacMahon ESPN logo
Tuesday, February 20, 2024

"YEAHHH!"ORLANDO MAGICplayers hollered in unison as coach Jamahl Mosley turned and started his approach, chopping his feet to check the grip on the soles of his Nikes.

It was Nov. 8, and practice was winding down inside the Arena Ciudad de Mexico, one day before the Magic faced the Atlanta Hawks in the annual NBA Mexico Game.

Moments earlier, point guard Markelle Fultz had issued the challenge to his 45-year-old coach with the entire team huddled at midcourt.

"Come on, Coach, you said we gotta bring it," Fultz told Mosley, who stays in shape with mixed martial arts training and occasionally jumps into drills during practices to ramp up the intensity. "All right, you go to get one in."

Mosley knew exactly what Fultz meant: A demand for the 6-8 third-year coach to throw down a dunk.

Mosley took one dribble just outside the 3-point line and then committed a massive traveling violation, taking 10 steps before leaping off his left foot with the ball in his right hand. Players giddily jogged behind their coach and jumped when he finally took off.

Mosley's vertical proved just enough, as he squeaked the ball over the rim and through the net, much to the delight of his players. Most were toddlers during his globetrotting career for teams in Mexico, Australia, Spain, Finland and South Korea in the early 2000s.

"That was a strong 4 [out of 10]," Mosley told ESPN later this season. "I didn't want five attempts. I didn't want to have to do that. One and done."

Mosley had to get the dunk. "That's why I tried to grab the ball with the most grip," he said.

Mosley is one of a handful of NBA coaches who are still capable of fulfilling such an above-the-rim request. New Orleans Pelicans' Willie Green, Houston Rockets' Ime Udoka, the Los Angeles Lakers' Darvin Ham and Detroit Pistons' Monty Williams -- listed from youngest to oldest -- are other confirmed dunkers among the league's coaching fraternity.

It's a source of pride for the coaches to continue to be able to dunk years after their playing careers ended, and in some cases, it plays a role in building teams' culture and camaraderie.

Mosley used to be a prolific dunker, as proven by a highlight video tweeted by the official account of Australia's NBL when the Magic hired him in 2021. That video featured some ferocious slams that Mosley celebrated by pretending to pop his collar with his right hand and then his left, providing comedic fodder for Orlando's players.

His hair and hops have faded in the decades since, but he was still up for the challenge in Mexico City.

Magic forward Franz Wagner described the dunk as "not a super clean one" but satisfying, adding that it captured the joy that Mosley brings to the gym.

"It shows the standing that Mose has," Wagner told ESPN. "Everybody really likes to play for him and really respects him for what he brings every day and what he's created in this organization. I think it's just a special vibe."

If players want an encore performance, they'll have to wait. Mosley dunks once per year, just to make sure.

"I got mine this year," Mosley said with a big grin above gray whiskers on his chin. "I don't know how many more years I got that."

HAM'S DUNKINGrésumé is unmatched among the league's active coaches. Immortalized on a famous Sports Illustrated cover, Ham threw down an iconic dunk in college, shattering the backboard on a two-handed putback during Texas Tech's win against North Carolina in the second round of the 1996 NCAA tournament.

As an undrafted rookie, the 6-7 Ham participated in the NBA dunk contest -- won by a fellow rookie named Kobe Bryant -- at the 1997 All-Star Weekend, highlighted by him smacking the glass with his left hand en route to a 360 slam.

That, unlike his March Madness highlight, isn't a fond memory.

"Still brings me pain," Ham told ESPN earlier this season, still stung that the judges eliminated him after the first round. "I got ripped off, to put it simply."

Dunks accounted for more than half of Ham's 443 buckets during his eight-year career as an NBA journeyman. According to Basketball Reference, he threw down 222 dunks. He also dunked on 19 of his 29 field goals in playoff games. Ham said he had dunked about once a month until just before his 50th birthday in July.

"It was just a simple little one-hander -- bang! Off two feet. Off the vert," Ham said. "It was a clean one. It wasn't all elbow over the rim, but I got the ball over and just threw it in, man.

"The takeoff is good, but it's the landing gear you got to worry about."

Pistons coach Williams, 52, threw down a similar dunk in October 2022 at the Suns' practice facility when he was Phoenix's head coach. His first attempt rattled off the rim and the backboard before going in, so the 6-8 Williams gave it another go. Williams, who had 89 dunks during his nine-year NBA career, threw it down cleanly on the second try.

"That might be it, though," Williams said before the Suns' season opener the next night. "I just wanted my boys to see me dunk post-50. And now, I'm just like, it's a wrap. Put a bow on it. It's too humbling."

Ham has had to slow down on slamming because of aches and pains, which he associates with "all those old frequent flier miles." He had one of his knees drained in early December.

Rockets coach Udoka, 46, has also dealt with an injury this season while engineering the Rockets' turnaround during his first year in Houston. He was experiencing soreness in one of his Achilles tendons and did rehab work under the guidance of the Rockets' athletic training staff.

"That was bothering me, so they got me stronger," Udoka told ESPN. "So one test was to go dunk. It was a basic one. Not special."

That dunk by Udoka was similar to Mosley's in Mexico City -- "I'm a one-foot jumper," Udoka said -- but without the enthusiastic audience. Udoka had only 10 dunks in his seven-year NBA career, but the look on his face indicated that he might have been a bit offended when asked whether he could still dunk.

"[It is] not that hard," Udoka said. "I'm 6-5, I got big hands and long arms."

Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff is proud of his aerial highlights from his college career at Oregon State and Minnesota, but the 44-year-old hasn't been able to dunk since undergoing reconstructive foot and ankle surgery a couple of years ago. Not yet, at least.

"I am actually working with our [physical therapist], and my goal is to dunk before the end of the season," the 6-5 Bickerstaff told ESPN. "I haven't tried to dunk yet, but I have worked my way up to grabbing the rim."

The Dallas Mavericks' Jason Kidd and Portland Trail Blazers' Chauncey Billups, who had the most illustrious playing careers among active head coaches, are both uncertain about whether they could still dunk. Neither has any interest in finding out -- and both are skeptical, for good reason.

The 6-4 Kidd, 50, dunked 42 times in his Hall of Fame career, none of which occurred during his last decade in uniform. The 6-3 Billups, 47, had 24 dunks during his 17-year career, none in the five-time All-Star's final five seasons.

Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy has the attributes of an active dunker, as he's 6-6, only 36 years old and remains fit. But Hardy never dunked in a game after he broke his ankle during his freshman year at Division-III Williams College, joking that he received "D3 treatment" of aspirin and ice as he rehabbed from the injury. Hardy can't recall the last time he dunked and has no ambition to answer the question of if he still can.

"I have no idea," Hardy told ESPN. "I'm trying to avoid injuries at all costs."

Boston's Joe Mazzulla, the league's youngest head coach at 35, also isn't certain whether he can still dunk and hasn't tried in years.

Mazzulla, who does jiu-jitsu to stay in shape and sharpen his mental focus, points out that dunking was "never a big part of my game" as a 6-2 point guard at West Virginia. Competitiveness was, though, and that hasn't changed over time. Mazzulla mulled the possibility of dunking again for a few seconds.

"If somebody challenged me enough," Mazzulla told ESPN, "I probably could."

MOST PELICANS PLAYERS had cleared out of Miami's Kaseya Center after a practice in January last season when Green grabbed a ball, took one hard dribble into the paint and uncorked a right-handed windmill dunk that the 6-4 coach made look easy.

The moment went viral. Pelicans director of performance and sports science Daniel Bove caught it on video from the other end of the court and fired off a tweet with the video and a caption: "When your head coach performs nonchalant windmills after practice."

"Heyyy!" the handful of players who saw the dunk live yelled as Green threw it down. The rest of the Pelicans soon saw the video. Green had 96 dunks during his 12-season NBA career. He occasionally participates in pickup games with low-minute reserves and rehabbing players, so they knew he still had some explosiveness.

"But I didn't know he had that," Pelicans forward Herb Jones told ESPN. "That was pretty impressive."

Pelicans forward/center Larry Nance Jr. qualifies as an expert on the subject, considering his dad won the NBA dunk contest in 1984 and Nance participated in 2018. He was also dazzled by Green's windmill.

"I hope I can still do that at that age," Nance told ESPN. "It sounds silly, but it does add to the respect and appreciation we have for the things he says. Because we can tell he's been there and done that."

Green, 42, admitted that he can't usually execute a windmill so easily, saying he usually needs 10 or so attempts to get one to go. But he only needed one try that afternoon.

"That was special," Green told ESPN. "We were in Miami -- humidity, body felt great."

Green estimates he dunks about once a month to confirm "I still can get up there." But he doesn't reach any deeper into his old bag of tricks than the windmill.

"I got to be real careful of how much I do," Green said. "We're at that age, I'm at that age, where it's easy to pull something, tear something.

"I'm good, I've dunked enough."