How dunking (and talking about dunking) affected women's hoops

Michael Smith and Jemele Hill debate whether women's basketball should lower the height of the rims in order to increase the sport's popularity.

Only a handful of women have ever dunked in a college or WNBA game, and yet the concept of dunking often overtakes the sport.

Just last month, former WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne suggested the league should consider lowering the rims, in part so that female players could dunk more, which might make the game more appealing to the masses. In response, star guard Diana Taurasi quipped, "Might as well put us in skirts and back in the kitchen." The exchange touched off a debate over the role of dunking in the women's game.

Discussing the role of dunking makes sense. The dunk is thrilling, it's exciting, it fills the nightly highlight reels. Here at ESPN, we even created a five-part series titled "Dunkumentaries" to tell a handful of interesting stories about the history of the jam.

One of those stories is about the first dunk in the women's game and how it almost never made a highlight reel because the tape of the moment was nearly lost to history. This particular story, about West Virginia's Georgeann Wells throwing down the first jam on the women's side in 1984, and about the subsequent pursuit of the lost game footage, is one in this five-part series.

That first dunk happened 32 years ago. And at that time, some believed Wells would be the first in hundreds of big-time dunkers on the women's side -- as the game, and its players, continued to evolve. Of course, this type of dunking explosion never quite came to fruition.

What came in its place were persistent questions about whether the WNBA, and women's basketball, would be more popular if dunking became a regular occurrence. A companion to that discussion: Is watching a female athlete dunk as exciting as watching a man dunk?

"I think it would bring a whole different aspect to the game and bring viewership as well and show the athleticism of our women," Delle Donne told USA Today about lowering the rims. "We do every single thing on that court that the men do, other than the dunking. And, obviously, there is a handful of athletes who can dunk."

In response to Delle Donne's proposal, numerous WNBA players offered their thoughts on the role of dunking in basketball and how much interest it legitimately sparks.

"People don't tune into the NBA for the sole purpose of watching dunks," wrote Indiana Fever guard Layshia Clarendon, in a response piece for espnW. "People watch because it's embedded in our culture to do so. Men's sports have such an immense platform for visibility that even the utility guy on the best teams is revered. They watch because it's the cool thing to do. We don't give women's sports the space to be cool."

And Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who dunked in her first WNBA game in 2013, offered Clarendon the following: "Lower the rims for what? For the critics, who then will say, 'Well of course she dunked it's a 9-foot rim'? And how would we do that in every gym and playground in the world? We don't need a lower rim and we don't need tighter uniforms! Those ideas are taking us in the wrong direction. We need equal treatment by the media and support from sponsors. That's real equality. Wake up people. This is a distraction!"

One thing is certain: From that first jam in 1984 that was almost lost to history, to the latest in 2016, the concept of dunking always jump-starts interesting conversations about the women's game.

The latest conversation took an additional step forward, as players and fans pondered what ornamental changes the WNBA could make that might spark interest: adding a WNBA player to the NBA's 3-point contest, adding events around the WNBA's own All-Star game, developing a fantasy league to generate more fan interest.

Assuming the rims are never lowered, and they likely won't be, it's fair to wonder whether, in the future, dunking will be a staple in the women's game the way it is in the men's, or whether it will always be a rarity -- an interesting conversation piece when it does happen.

Just hopefully, in the future, none of those dunks are lost to history, the way Wells' jam almost was.

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