"Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to see something special," says the baritone PA announcer in Spanish. The crowd at the Prince Felipe Pavilion falls silent. A 19-year old kid from the Congo stands just past mid-court, clapping his hands overhead until the 7,500 fans join in. Long and lean, he starts dribbling to the rhythm, sprints toward the basket, plants his left foot at the foul line and launches toward the rim, knees tucked for style. The crowd roars as Serge Ibaka dunks it home. The judges award him a perfect 50.
Fifteen years ago, it was hard to distinguish Spain's ACB league from the Bob Cousy Celtics. They dribbled with stiff hips, picked-and-rolled constantly and wore crazy-short shorts. They had fast guards, but nobody knew what the top of the rim looked like. Today, the ACB is the toughest league outside the NBA, and likely the most athletic. Judging by this preseason slam dunk competition, they're also as committed to gimmicks.
The show started when Pops Mensah-Bonsu (yep, from GW!) called the TV cameraman over to the top of the key. Mensah-Bonsu, a Brit of Ghanian descent who played a few contests with the Mavericks had recently signed to play with DKV Joventut, alongside Ricky Rubio. He had the cameraman crouch in front of the basket, ran straight at him, then leaped , arm cocked, knees bent. I don't know how to say DAAAAAYUM! in Spanish, but I'm pretty sure that's what people were thinking when he put it down. Score: 50.
After a forgettable ploy by Pablo Aguiar—the 19-year old from Granada dunked off an assist from a really short friend, who straddled the rim and spun the ball on his finger—NBA prospect Victor Claver climbed a ladder to stick a Nerf-sized mini-hoop halfway up the glass, to the right of the rim. He took a standard approach, but dunked the regulation ball with his left hand and a mini-ball with his right. Cute. Still, he scored a 50.
Who was judging this thing, anyway? I checked. Four names I didn't recognize and…Wally Sczerbiak? Seriously.
I didn't drive to Zaragoza at 170 km/hr to backseat-judge a dunk competition. I came for one reason. (Okay, two reasons. After a week fighting traffic and soccer club bureaucracies in Barcelona, I was stoked to rent a Citroen C5 and hit the road. But it took 45 minutes to rent the car and Zaragoza was about 60km further than I was led to believe. So I had to rush a bit.) No, I came to see the kind of hops that legends are made of—legends like Serge Ibaka.
Ibaka cemented his status in Spain when he threw down from the free-throw line. Nobody had ever attempted that in ACB, and now a rookie had made it look easy—more like a long step than Jordan's giant leap for mankind. Ibaka came to Spain in 2007, heard his agent got him signed with a second-tier pro team in a Barcelona suburb and ended up dragging him around the U.S. camp circuit. From one event to the next, his reputation spread, with nuggets like DraftExpress.com's report that Ibaka's vertical was too high for the measuring device at Adidas Nations in New Orleans. After a round of NBA tryouts, Ibaka was picked 24th in the first round by the Team Formerly Known as the Supersonics. At the Garden that night, I watched Kevin Durant make the same slack-jawed who-the-hell-is-that-guy face that I did.
I was about to make that face again. In the final round—in which each judge could award up to 10.5 points—Ibaka asked the TV camera crane to move aside, then stood by the stands behind the basket and got the fans clapping again. He sprinted toward the court, as a teammate bounced the ball off the back of the glass. Ibaka jumped just outside the end line, grabbed the rebound and dipped the ball under the backboard, twisting to his left to face the rim and jam the ball home with two-handed authority. Score: 52.5.
Then he ran to the judges' table, turned his back, and pointed both thumbs at the name on his Ricoh Manresa jersey (Ibaka's new first-division team).
The contest was over. Aguiar had already missed his attempt. Claver would follow with a decent alley oop to himself off the glass. And Mensah-Bonsu impressed with another high-kneed leap, this time over the ball rack from the three-point competition.
But, Ibaka's slam was All-World and everybody knew it.
By the time Ibaka emerged from the showers, the hallway was empty except for two guys from a Spanish TV program. They asked for permission to shoot him, then sent him back to emerge from the locker room for the cameras, acting surprised to see them. He was just as surprised to see a reporter from ESPN.
Was that last dunk inspired by Dwight Howard? "Yes, more or less," Ibaka said, then explained in choppy Spanish why his was slightly more difficult. "He jumped with two feet, closer to the basket. I jumped with one foot, further from the basket." How long did it take you to perfect? "This morning," he said. "I was in a big hurry."
I asked how he developed his vertical leap and he talked for about 30 seconds. I didn't understand a word, except the last line: "It's just natural." Still, I insisted. Didn't you do anything back home that required lots of jumping? "With my sisters when we were small, we played this game where two people stand holding two ropes, and spin them in contrary directions, and you have to stand in the middle and jump."
Jump rope? Hmmm. If only I'd known that 20 years ago.
I told him he made the jump from the free-throw line look easy. "Hopefully next year I can do it with two hands." On that note, he said goodbye and rushed out the door. Serge Ibaka is going places.