The truth about dunking: It hurts


Wizards Guard John Wall is this season’s NBA dunk contest champion. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

by Dan Steinberg

As the NBA playoffs get underway, highlight packages will be filled with majestic dunks. What you won’t see are the bruises and pain that follow.

Frustrated by a missed dunk during a game nearly a decade ago, Drew Gooden vowed revenge on the offending rim. Later in the same game, Gooden (then a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers) took a pass, cocked the ball back with both hands and dunked as hard as he could. Then came the pain in his left wrist.

“I couldn’t lift anything,” said the 12-year veteran, now a Washington Wizard. “I knew it was my contract year, so I didn’t say anything. I just taped it up. Four years later, my left hand just shriveled up, and I had all this muscle atrophy going on.”

Gooden said the injury finally healed after about seven or eight years. That’s quite a legacy for one basket.

“I’ll never forget [it],” Gooden said with a laugh. “I was frustrated ... and I took it out on my ... wrist.”

There are plenty of tales like Gooden’s, freak injuries resulting from basketball’s most photogenic play. Players land awkwardly after dunks and injure their legs, or fall onto their heads.

More common, though, is the mundane, everyday pain that comes from hammering a wrist or forearm into an 18-inch-diameter metal ring. John Fontanella, professor emeritus of physics at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of “The Physics of Basketball,” estimated that the max force of the rim on the hand or wrist during a painful dunk could be up to 40 pounds.

“That’s enough to do some damage, particularly because it’s applied over a very small area,” he wrote.

“Oh, yeah, I’ve had a million bruises,” said Wizards center Marcin Gortat. “Just purple, blood underneath the skin. That’s the worst part.”

Eric Waters, the Wizards head athletic trainer, keeps an eye out for particularly fierce slams during games, wondering whether he’ll later see the dunk’s author in his training room.

“Invariably about once a month somebody will come in and have bruising and limited range of motion because they tomahawked, either during practice or a game,” Waters said. “And it’s almost always the day after, when it swells up and you can’t move your wrist very well.”

His treatment: compression and massage. Other players opt for ice.

There are other perils besides bruises. Wizards guard John Wall, the NBA’s dunk contest champion this season, said the most intense pain comes if you misjudge the distance of your jump, causing your fingertips to meet the rim.

“That really hurts bad,” said Wall, who recalled drawing blood under his fingernail after one such attempt.

Teammate Al Harrington showed off a knob on the bottom of his right thumb — perhaps an inch wide and just as long.

“It just got swollen and never went down,” said Harrington, who said the lump was the result of dunking. “It doesn’t hurt anymore. ... It’s better than a lot of players that have fingers in all kind of directions. I’ll take this over that any day.”

Gortat said that early in his pro career, before he learned how to dunk efficiently, he was afflicted by blisters on his fingers and hand. “It was awful,” he said.

How to avoid the pain of a dunk? Waters said he would recommend wristbands to anyone with a chronic swelling problem. Harrington noted that some high-fliers like LeBron James essentially throw the ball into the basket, avoiding contact. “But a lot of us don’t jump that high, a lot of us mere mortals,” he said.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

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Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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