Higher ground

With athleticism on the rise, women's players and their coaches are more willing than ever to play above the rim.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
Published November 25, 2007

GAINESVILLE - Aneika Henry was fooling around with friends at St. Petersburg College one afternoon when she thought, I wonder if I can dunk this basketball?

"We were just hanging out in open gym, playing around, and I said, 'Let me just see if I can dunk this ball,' and I went up and did it," said Henry, a junior in her first season at Florida. "It stunned me a little bit. I was like, 'Ooh, I didn't know I could get up that high.' And the crowd was like, 'Oh, do that again, do that again.' They said they wanted to put it up on YouTube."

Twenty-three years after West Virginia University's Georgeann Wells performed the first dunk in a Division I women's basketball game, it remains a feat so rare they want to put it on YouTube for the rest of the world to see.

But things are gradually changing.

Henry is one of a growing number of women across the nation who are gaining the confidence - and ability - to dunk.

LSU center Sylvia Fowles became the sixth woman to dunk in a collegiate game this month. On March 19, 2006, Tennessee's Candace Parker made history by becoming the first woman in an NCAA Tournament game, and the first woman to dunk twice in one game. Tennessee's Michelle Snow first dunked for the Vols in 2003 (she did it three times in games) and Charlotte Smith dunked for North Carolina during the 1994-95 season.

Beatrice Bofia, a 6-foot-7 center from Cameroon, has dunked in practice for her Arizona Wildcats but had knee surgery last season and has yet to do so in a game, and Auburn's DeWanna Bonner can also dunk but hasn't in a game.

WNBA star Lisa Leslie has performed dunks during league games.

And unlike a decade ago when it was generally frowned upon, today's coaches are actually telling players: If you've got it, go for it.

"The dunk is now cool," Florida coach Amanda Butler said. "I think we were further away (a few years ago) and then you had some people that have separated themselves and taken the expectation of our game to become a game that is played above the rim more so than it used to be. Candace certainly, Sylvia Fowles definitely has had an impact on that. Aneika is breaking ground for us, particularly in our program."

Unfortunately for the Gators, Henry prefers to stay out of the limelight. So she's reluctant to dunk in an actual game.

"She's a shy kid," Butler said. "We're getting her there. Maybe three or four years ago where there was a reluctance by women's coaches to let girls try things like that, it's something where we're not fighting but trying to get in her mind to the point that this is okay. It's okay to dunk. It's okay for you to practice dunks because I want you to do it in a game so you have to do it in practice."

"We tell her all the time, just do it," UF junior guard Sha Brooks said. "We keep telling her, if you do it, people will hear about it and they will come. They'll want to come see the team with the girl who can dunk."

And therein lies the biggest point. Although the women's game proudly distinguishes itself from the men's by excelling at playing below the rim and staying true to fundamentals, the dunk is a crowd-pleaser.

Parker's dunk during the tournament was one of the hottest replays on ESPN. She became legendary for winning the McDonald's All-American high school slam dunk contest.

"I don't know why coaches ever downplayed it. I never did," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "I think it's exciting to see women play above the rim. I'm not crazy about Candace Parker trying to dunk all the time when she's got people around her but actually I got excited watching her. When she did it last year, it just got people so excited, whether you're a Tennessee fan or not."

When Wells performed the first dunk on Dec. 21, 1984, during a Christmas tournament, the 6-foot-7 star did so with a regulation men's basketball, not the smaller ball Parker and players today use. Now Georgeann Wells-Blackwell, she recently told the Times West Virginian of Fairmont it was something she worked on over and over in practice.

"It was a planned deal," she said in the interview. "We knew it was going to happen eventually, we just didn't know when."

Wells-Blackwell attributes the athleticism of women today with the rise in players being able to dunk.

"Even the ones who were 6-7 (20 years ago) couldn't dunk, so awkward were women who reached that size two decades ago," she said.

It's improved athleticism that has led to more women being able to dunk, coaches say.

"I definitely think there are more players who are athletic in the game today," said former WNBA All-Star Cynthia Cooper, now coach at Prairie View A&M. "And here's the thing: Nowadays, women believe that they can dunk, women believe that they should dunk and they don't believe that it's so far outside of their imagination that they should not even attempt to dunk. Now you see ninth graders, 10th graders, 11th graders attempting to dunk and learning how to dunk. Whether it be with a small ball, tennis ball or regular-sized ball. And that's very, very exciting and that's how women's basketball has changed. Women's basketball has changed in the way that women now believe and have the confidence they are able to not only dunk, but be as athletic as any male counterpart, and that's exciting to watch."

Henry has promised that sometime soon, when the opportunity presents itself, she'll dunk for the Gators. If she does, no doubt it'll make big news. Many coaches say the day may come when it won't be such a big deal. But don't expect that it will one day be as common for the women as it is for the men.

"I think we'll see more women dunk but it's not going to be like the men's game," Summitt said. "We're not going to have people that can play above the rim like the guys do. But there will be some it, and it will be exciting."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.