When James White signed a one-year deal with the New York Knicks last offseason, he told reporters in Las Vegas, where he was competing on the team's summer league squad, that he wanted to be known as a complete player in the NBA.
"Anybody who knows the game and actually has seen me play before knows that I'm actually a good player, and not just a dunker," the 6-foot-7 forward said at the time.
But here's the thing: White is not just a dunker; he's arguably the best dunker on the planet. You may have never heard of the 30-year-old because he averages 1.8 points per game for the Knicks, in his third season in the league since 2006. During the other years, he played mostly overseas in Russia and Italy.
"A lot of people haven't seen James," his Knicks teammate Carmelo Anthony said. "He's the best-kept secret."
That will likely change on Feb. 16 in Houston, when White could take the biggest stage of his life -- the All-Star Dunk Contest. Dwyane Wade, the captain of the Eastern Conference All-Star team, has reportedly already recommended that White be in it. On Thursday, the league will make the official announcement, including all of the participants for All-Star Saturday Night.
The campaign for White to be in the All-Star Dunk Contest started last December. That's when rapper Wale – who, like White, is a Washington, D.C. native – tweeted to his 2.5 million followers: "Tell David stern to let my man James white compete In the dunk contest. If u from the DMV u know." ("DMV" stands for D.C., Maryland and Virginia.) That prompted Kevin Durant, who's also from D.C., to reply to the rapper's message with three simple words: "Best dunker ever."
"I saw James when I was probably like 10, 11 years old," Durant said. "That was the first time I saw him play, in D.C. He was just flying. He jumped from the free throw line, dunked between the legs before anybody I've seen do it. He was like the most athletic guy ever. Hopefully he gets in the dunk contest."
Durant, in fact, said White was "very inspirational" throughout his basketball upbringing.
"Just seeing him go through college, become a McDonald's All-American, be drafted, win a championship with the Spurs [in 2007]," he said. "Coming from my area, not too many people did what he did, so he was a real source of motivation and somebody I can look at."
Most recently, more and more players around the league have been giving White shout-outs on Twitter. Even opposing players during games have come up to White to ask him if he's going to be competing in Houston.
"[Boston Celtics'] Jeff Green and Courtney Lee were like, 'Are you going to do the dunk contest?'" he said. "People definitely want to see me in it."
In addition, KnicksNow.com and K1X, the German-based apparel and footwear company that endorses White, have released promotional videos highlighting White's dunking exploits, which all started when he was about 12 years old.
"I remember the first time I got in an AAU game -- I think I was going into the ninth grade -- I got a dunk in the game," he said. "It was a breakaway and I got like a little one-handed boom. It was like the [Allen] Iverson one-handed dunk to the side. It was big time. Everybody was going crazy because nobody was dunking like that. I was probably like 6-2 or something like that."
A couple of years later, when White was a freshman or sophomore in high school, White earned the nickname "Flight" from a local newspaper for his jumping ability, which was more than 45 inches. His measurement was so high that his hand could go about a foot above the top of the backboard.
Soon, he became one of the top players in the nation after transferring to the ultra-competitive Hargrave Military Academy (Chatham, Va.), and was selected to the 2001 McDonald's All-American Game, in which he played with eventual Knicks teammate Tyson Chandler. That helped White land a spot in the popular "Ball Above All" DVD, and his status as a dunking god swept across the country among hardcore hoops enthusiasts. Some of his inspiration came from his favorite dunkers -- Vince Carter, Shawn Kemp and Chris Webber -- but no other player, then or now, was dunking beyond the foul line and pulling off mid-air tricks at the same time.
And so the dunk-offs began.
"There's always somebody that challenges you," he said. "I remember one time I was at a high school tournament in Columbus, Ohio. We just finished playing and this guy comes out of the stands like, 'Yo, you can't beat me in a dunk contest.' The game's over. I just finished the game. I was like, "You don't wanna see me.' He does this little dunk and I just jumped from the foul line right after the game. Boom, it's over. Stuff like that."
Once, a big name in the streetball scene wanted to battle him. White tells the story of how his nickname changed to "Flight 75" for a day -- and he even amazed himself:
"I was playing in an AND1 game in Cincinnati and the guy [nicknamed] '50' was challenging me," he said. "We were going back and forth, and I was killing him, just playing in the game. So he's mouthing off, 'This guy, he can't beat me in no dunk contest.' So at halftime, they're like, 'Clear it out, we're going to have a dunk contest.' He did the one where he throws it off the shot clock and dunks it. I forgot what I did, but I killed him. I shut it down, so the announcer was like, 'If he's 50, this guy is 75.' That's where I got that from."
While White is in full control of his dunking abilities, he can’t control what happens in the aftermath of one of his ridiculous dunks.
"I've had some crazy moments," he said. "Matter of fact, [former NBA player] Jerome Williams is from the same area. So he took me, when he was playing for Toronto, to Caribana weekend. He took me up there for a dunk contest. The AND1 guys were there, too. There's like Kevin Garnett, a whole bunch of NBA guys there. So I shut it down. It was the first time I ever did the windmill from the free throw line, and the first time I ever did between the legs. I just tried it and the fans, everybody -- it was at a college -- just ran the court and went crazy. Like everybody. People that were in the league. It was nuts. It happens all the time."
Overall, White said he's been in about 15 official dunk contests from high school until now -- including overseas -- and more than 30 unofficial competitions against fans and opposing players. White is not afraid to admit he has lost a couple of times.
White's style is one-foot dunking, which he developed during his teenage years through repetition. In fact, he was a star 200-meter runner and long jumper, and he actually qualified for the Olympic trials while in college at Cincinnati.
"I was probably better in track than I am in basketball," he said. "I believe how I got to jump so high is I kept doing it so much -- the running, developing the steps. My legs got so used to it that it developed over time, like how I jumped. It helped my jumping ability. I jump way higher off one leg. It's not even close."
White's top two distances at the time were 26'9" and 27'3". To put that into perspective, the latter was the same measurement Great Britain's Greg Rutherford jumped in London last summer to win the Olympic gold medal. White played many other sports, including football, and he particularly enjoyed wide receiver, but he said he was too skinny back then to continue in pads.
White said he can do some "nice" dunks off two feet, but nothing "special." According to White, the best two-foot dunker in the game today is Indiana Pacers guard Gerald Green, who many fans are hoping is the other top contestant in Houston. Green hoisted the trophy at the 2007 All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas.
"To me, Gerald Green has the most hops in the league, hands down," White said. "It's not even close."
While White respects Green, he doesn't believe anyone can bring to the table what he can.
"Whatever I do is going to be new. It's not going to be seen in the NBA dunk contest," he said. "You've seen it maybe on YouTube, but you haven't seen it on the NBA stage. You've seen windmills. Everything they do has to be with gimmicks, which is what's making it corny."
White said he doesn't practice any of his dunks for two main reasons: He's getting older and he likes to feel out each contest first to decide what he's going to do. But he always saves one "last dunk just in case." In the case of this year's All-Star Weekend, he already has that special one in his back pocket, but he's keeping it a secret. The dunk he said he's had the most difficulty with is through the legs from the foul line, because of the control and timing of it, as well as his smaller hands -- but he wouldn't say if that's the one.
"I have a dream of doing something, but I can't tell you what it is," he said. "I told some guys and they were like, 'Nah, you can't do that.' Then somebody else brought up another one, and that's a good idea. The dunk I'm talking about is crazy. I don't think nobody thought of that. If they did, they wouldn't think they can do it. It's not too difficult, but it's crazy. Somebody actually has to help on that one."
While White knows he's welcomed in Houston, he's also excited about some of the new things that may come his way -- besides getting $100,000 if he finishes in first place.
"If I get in it, I think it's going to change a lot of stuff for me," he said. "It will be different."
He also knows the dunk contest presents a great opportunity for many of his foreign fans, who may not have had access to Knicks games all season, to see him live on the court again.
"There are going to be a lot of people watching there," he said. "I'm like Melo overseas."
After many years away from the NBA trying to prove he's a complete player, he could be a couple of weeks away from proving to the world what got him there in the first place.