March 19, 2021, is the 15-year anniversary of the first dunk ever recorded in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. Early in a tournament game against Army, Tennessee’s Candace Parker leaked out to receive a long outlet pass, broke free from the pack, and threw down with one hand. The Rewinder episode we made about the lead-up to the event attempts to explain its place in history.
Parker’s dunk was a first for that particular tournament, and a big deal, but that’s an oversimplification. Just like their male counterparts, the tallest, bounciest girls and women had been dunking for decades before Parker’s tourney moment, and they’d have been doing so sooner if a variety of sexist, racist, and homophobic sports power structures didn’t spend over a century actively discouraging the growth of the women’s game. Women’s basketball history is full of players who absolutely possessed the physical tools to stuff their way to two points, but without the appropriate encouragement, training, and competitive opportunities, that potential went unfulfilled.
The dunk wasn’t particularly important to Parker herself. The 6′4″ star had been slamming and/or jamming since childhood, and she’d won a whole dunk contest, so March Madness represented just one more venue in which to utilize one of the many moves in her repertoire. During this era of firsts, Parker expressed hope that she would be known as much more than a dunker, and I’d say she got her wish: Parker is an MVP, a champion, a gold medalist, an award-winning defender, a versatile scorer and elite rebounder ... and yeah, sure, she’ll dunk if it’s time to dunk.
The same goes for the high-flying players to follow Parker: Between college and the pros, we see more and more dunks each year, and players like Brittney Griner who’ve made it an important part of their arsenal. Fran Belibi is only 6′1″, but if you lose her in transition, a rim’s gonna get rocked. None of these players is defined by the dunk, it’s just one cool thing among many. That could have and should have always been the case. You’ve gotta have some special attributes to dunk a basketball, but as long as the opportunities are equal, maleness isn’t one of them. People like Parker made that clear.
For more on this topic, I highly recommend Natalie Weiner’s appearance on the Spinsters podcast with Jordan Ligons and Haley O’Shaughnessy, as well as her piece about dunks going viral.