It has been more than 40 years since Wilt Chamberlain validated Herb White as Georgia’s leaping legend of the hardwood.
“There was a white boy who played for Atlanta,’’ Chamberlain once said, “and he could dunk better than anyone I’ve ever seen.’’
Nicknamed the Elevator from Decatur, White was nominated more than any player by readers, coaches and fans, who were asked to help The Atlanta Journal-Constitution select the best dunkers in GHSA history. More than 250 players were nominated.
White was selected for the AJC’s final Top 10, along with latter-day Atlanta Hawks player Josh Smith, formerly of McEachern.
White, an executive with Georgia Public Broadcasting, figures his vertical leap as a 6-foot-2 high school player in the mid-1960s was 40 to 42 inches. It was 46 inches during his one NBA season.
“I wouldn’t compare the way I jumped in high school to Darrin Hancock or Shaq Johnson,’’ White said, naming two others on our all-time Top 10. “I’m the only guy I ever saw dunk in a high school game. It was a different era. I saw some guys [dunk] growing up at other schools, but I don’t remember anybody dunking on us at Decatur.’’
In 1967, Beach High of Savannah won the first integrated GHSA state tournament at Georgia Tech. Almost every Beach player could dunk, and stars such as Andrew Knowles and future Harlem Globetrotter Larry “Gator’’ Rivers flaunted it during warm-ups. Beach won by 39 points in the championship game.
“Back then, I think the attitude of most people was, ‘Let’s see the talent,’ ” Rivers once told the Savannah Morning News. “In warmups, we’d put on a dunking exhibition. Guys would be throwing it down all sorts of ways.”
But the National Federation of High School Associations and the NCAA outlawed the dunk the next season and didn’t bring it back until 1976-77. Georgia basketball legends such as Al Wood of Jones County or Tree Rollins of Crisp County didn’t make our list because they never legally dunked in a high school game.
When the dunk returned, it took no time to exploit it. Terry Fair’s leaping ability and power dunks were a indelible part of Southwest Macon’s national championship team of 1979.
A few years later, another Middle Georgia phenom, Kenny Walker of Crawford County, took dunking to another level before going to Kentucky and the NBA, where he won the league’s Slam Dunk Contest in 1989.
“When they called him ‘Sky’ Walker, they called him that for a reason,’’ said Stephen Gordon, a freshman at Crawford County in 1982, when Walker was a senior. “He could jump and place a quarter on top of the backboard in practice. When he played, the entire county was at the gym, standing-room-only. It was always to see him put on a show.’’
Chris Morris came a couple of years later. He shattered a backboard in the NBA, but years before, he was throwing down dunks in his Atlanta hometown while leading Douglass High to a state title.
“Chris gets a rebound, looks for an outlet, can’t find him, so he dribbles to midcourt,’’ said Athens Christian coach Ron Link, who recalled a game against Douglass when he coached at Lakeside. “We’ve got a point guard about 5-11 at the foul line. Chris went up over him and his shoe drags across his head as he’s dunking.’’
In the late 1980s, Grffin High’s gymnasium was sold out regularly with thrill-seekers who chanted, “Who rock? Who rock? Han-cock! Han-cock!’’
“Everybody knew who Darrin Hancock was,’’ Savannah coach Tim Jordan said. “He was doing stuff that Michael Jordan was doing before Jordan was doing it, things that I’d never seen high school kids do. It looked like he was coming from the top of the key he stayed in the air so long.’’
Throughout the 1990s, many of the best dunkers came from Southwest Georgia, where Dougherty, Westover, Mitchell-Baker and Seminole County won state titles and waged legendary games. Dunks were weapons, and some of the more skilled at it were Jumaine Jones, Al Pinkins and Oscar Harvey of Mitchell-Baker, Greg Tinch and Dontonio Wingfield of Westover and Randolph-Clay’s Donnell Harvey, who beat out Carlos Boozer to win the dunk contest at the McDonald’s All-Star game in 1999.
“It counts only two points, but sometimes an outstanding dunk, especially one over a defender, will totally destroy another team’s confidence,’’ said Rufus McDuffie, head coach of five Mitchell-Baker state champions.
In more recent years, dunkers such as Isma’il Muhammad of W.D. Mohammed, DeQuan Jones of Wheeler and Shaquille Johnson at various times were called the state’s best dunker and gained national attention.
White has seen most of the best in recent years during GPS’s coverage of the state finals.
“As far as how high over the basket, the best I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot, was Shaq Johnson, the kid from Milton,’’ White said. “It looked like to me he jumped off two feet most of the time, which I used to do, like Dominique Wilkins used to do. He could explode to the rim after only one or two steps.’’
Johnson, now at Auburn, won dunk contests from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Venice Beach, Calif., and had seven dunks in the 2012 championship game victory against Savannah. Even rival coaches were impressed.
“He’s one that I loved watching,’’ said coach Doug Lipscomb of five-time state champion Wheeler. “I love the game, so when I see something impressive, I don’t care if it’s our kids or theirs. It’s like, ‘Wow!’ “