Professional basketball in America in the early-to-mid-1990s was special. No, I know what you're thinking, but that's not right. I'm not talking about Jordan or a cast of all-time greats permeating the league.
The singular raison d'être for 90s basketball was its capacity to just be unthinkably weird at any given moment in space and time. Whether it was Space Jam or Shaquille O'Neal deciding he should star in the worst fighting video game of all time or the inconceivable yet completely logical matchup of Charles Barkley against Godzilla, the fever dream of basketball meeting pop culture helped set the tenor for the sport for years to come.
This brings us, naturally, to Barry Sanders. The football Barry Sanders, the one who played for the Detroit Lions. That one.
Riding high on the fervor of the NBA Slam Dunk contests of the late 80s, someone at Foot Locker had the bright idea to open up a dunk contest and invite celebrities and offer $50,000 to the champion (and for good measure they got Dick Vitale to inject his madness into the proceedings). Given that dunking does take a certain amount of athleticism that discounts your usual doughy comedian, the contests involved athletic stars from outside the NBA, such as Deion Sanders, Mark Henry, Ken Griffey Jr. and Olympic swimmer Matt Biondi.
All those guys I just named are at least a few inches above six feet. That's acceptable for dunking, because dunking generally is an act that requires a measure of height to go with athletic ability, no matter what your resident YMCA trooper tells you. Barry Sanders stands somewhere between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-8 - which is not nearly as optimal for this act. Barry Sanders was closer to my height than he was to any of these other athletes that participated.
You think that mattered one little damn to Barry? Hell naw.
Barry Sanders mastered two dimensions on the football field, but he got 3D when taking to the court. He took on Matt Biondi here -- nearly a foot taller than Sanders -- and took him to school. He didn't stand a chance.
Sanders followed it up that year by going on and pulling some insane moves on basketball/baseball star Kenny Lofton:
Let's reiterate what's going on here: Barry's getting enough height while going reverse and double-pumping to slam this home. He's getting an entire hand above the rim against Matt Biondi. The cosmic powers that be threw everything at Sanders when it came to stature and that didn't stop him for a hot second.
There was one nemesis for Barry Sanders: Olympic long jumper Mike Powell. Standing at 6-foot-2 and possessing legs of gold, Powell would make a dunk from the free throw line in 1993. However, in the '91 contest Barry Sanders took the freak athlete to the edge, missing what could have been the final blow by half an inch on the rim.
Contrary to belief, the internet doesn't keep everything safe, and there's plenty more that have been lost to the archives. I know of a few tales, including one first-hand from a witness at Oklahoma State, that involve Barry Sanders dunking flat-footed just beneath the rim. While I can neither confirm nor deny these reports, it would not surprise me at all.
Barry Sanders, you are an inspiration to every short man out there and damn can you dunk.
Chris Lemieux | prideofdetroit.com | May 12, 2016