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What Is the Best Worst Movie Dunk?

From superheroes to animals to Joe Pesci, rating the most ridiculously serious slam dunkers in film

(Sony Pictures/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration)

A question: What dunk that happened in a movie is the Best Worst Movie Dunk?

A 3,600-word answer: This shouldn’t be complicated, but it is because the best worst movie dunk is a bunch of things all at once. It needs to look like there’s no way on earth it could have happened, but also look like there’s maybe a way that it could happen. It has to look magical without being magical, but it also has to contain zero ounces of irony or eye-winking, which is very hard to pull off. And it’s a dunk that has to be ridiculous but take itself seriously, and also it has to expect for the audience to take it completely seriously, too.

There are an almost uncountable number of Decent Worst Movie Dunks that we can erase from contention immediately. For example, there’s the one in 1997’s Flubber where the guy dunks himself through the rim from 70 feet away to win a game. And there’s the flying flip dunk in 1991’s Hook. (In a weird coincidence, both of those movies star Robin Williams.) And there’s even a whole movie called Ernest Slams Dunks, which is about as good as it sounds. You could go on and on. Really, though, there are only 22 Good Worst Movie Dunks that are in contention for the Best Worst Movie Dunk title. They are:

  • John Tucker’s flip dunk in John Tucker Must Die: He does a front flip while dunking one day during basketball practice. Also: He’s wearing a woman’s thong while doing so.
  • Derek Vinyard’s two-handed reverse in American History X: He does it to win a whites vs. blacks pickup game at a beach court.
  • Catwoman’s dunk in Catwoman: She jumps off both feet from just inside the 3-point line and dunks it on Benjamin Bratt during a game of one-on-one. She’s so high up that really she just throws it down through the rim rather than actually dunks it. (She’s the Blake Griffin of this group, as it were.)
  • Spider-Man’s super-hyper dunk in The Amazing Spider-Man: He does so as a way to embarrass a bully during gym class.
  • O’s gravity defier during the slam-dunk contest in O: It’s a pretty regular dunk, but he does it with so much force that it shatters the backboard. Then he throws the ball through the backboard to break the rest of it. Then he cusses out a little kid. Then he holds up the rim like a warrior holding up a decapitated head.
  • Air Bud on the poster for Air Bud: He dunks it on the poster but not actually during the movie. He’s allowed to participate here today, though, because he’s a good boy.
  • The first dunk Scott Howard does as a werewolf in Teen Wolf: He turns into a werewolf during a scrum for a loose ball. (The ref really swallowed his whistle here. He let, like, eight kids fight for the ball for several seconds.) Then he runs, jumps, and throws down a two-handed atomic bomb.
  • Billy Hoyle’s alley-oop in White Men Can’t Jump: He catches an alley-oop from Sidney to win the final game of the movie and also dunk for the first time ever.
  • Bugaloo’s two-hander in Above the Rim: Bugaloo is kind of goof and a loser. He dunks it during a practice session with Kyle, the star of the movie.
  • Lola Bunny’s dunk in Space Jam: She dunks it a couple of times, but since we can choose only one per dunker, let’s go with her first dunk. That’s the one where she crosses up Bugs Bunny and then yams it home. (This is a better movie dunk than Jordan’s stretch dunk at the end of the movie because Lola is a cartoon bunny and Jordan is not a cartoon bunny.)
  • Rocky’s rim-attack dunk in 3 Ninjas: Similar to Peter Parker’s dunk, Rocky dunks it as a way to embarrass a couple of bullies.
  • Kenny Tyler’s dunk in The Sixth Man: He catches an alley-oop from the ghost of his dead brother to win a college basketball game.
  • Calvin Cambridge’s monster dunk in Like Mike: He dunks during a halftime promotion where he gets to play one-on-one with the star of his city’s pro team.
  • Brian Newell’s first dunk in Thunderstruck: He dunks in his driveway during the part of the movie where he’s first figuring out that he’s absorbed some magic into his bones.
  • Chip Douglas’s up-the-back dunk in The Cable Guy: He runs up the back of some poor schmuck standing in the lane during a game of pickup basketball at a local gym.
  • Saleh’s game-winning dunk in The Air Up There: He performs the Jimmy Dolan Shake and Bake move on his nemesis, then jumps a trillion feet into the sky and dunks it at the buzzer.
  • Louie Kritski’s dunk in The Super: Joe Pesci, who is about 3 feet tall, dunks it during a pickup game.
  • John Bender’s dunk in The Breakfast Club: This one probably shouldn’t even count. He dunks it on a 9-foot rim in a high school gym. There are no special effects or anything. He just jumps up and dunks it for real. It’s a real dunk. Let’s go ahead and eliminate this one right now.
  • Juwanna Mann’s backboard destruction in Juwanna Mann: He dunks it on a fastbreak. It shatters the backboard.
  • Elliot Richards’s 3-point-line dunk in Bedazzled: He dunks it from well past the 3-point line. It happens during a game where he scores over 100 points.
  • Quincy McCall’s one-on-one dunk at the end of Love & Basketball: This one happens at the end the movie when Quincy and Monica (his love interest) play one-on-one. He dunks on her to win the game. He loves her a lot.
  • Lewis Scott’s dunk in Celtic Pride: He dunks it during a Celtics game.

To answer the original question, let’s work backward and just eliminate dunks from the list until we have only one left.

‘Juwanna Mann’ (New Line Cinema)
‘Juwanna Mann’ (New Line Cinema)

Prerequisite 1: The best worst movie dunk can’t come from a movie that was considered acceptable at the time but would be seen as wildly problematic if it was made today.

In Juwanna Mann, a man gets kicked out of the movie’s version of the NBA for conduct unbecoming of a player. He loses his contract money and his endorsements, and so his life falls all the way apart. He decides to dress up as a woman and try out for the movie’s version of the WNBA to generate some income. After making a team, he spends the entirety of one game grabbing and squeezing his teammates’ butts. There’s also a scene where he showers with his teammates after a game (he leaves his jersey on; everyone else is naked). Those two things combined (or either one of those things, actually) mean he’s definitely a sex offender, so let’s go ahead and cut him from the list for that.

(The dunk in the movie is very doofy, and also the way Juwanna Mann’s cover is blown: He dunks it so hard that not only does she destroy the backboard, but also her wig comes off. That’s how people figure out he’s a man.)

Dunks remaining: John Tucker’s flip dunk in John Tucker Must Die, Derek Vinyard’s two-handed reverse in American History X, Catwoman’s dunk in Catwoman, Spider-Man’s super-hyper dunk in The Amazing Spider-Man, O’s gravity-defier during the slam dunk contest in O, Air Bud on the poster for Air Bud, the first dunk Scott Howard does as a werewolf in Teen Wolf, Billy Hoyle’s alley-oop at the end of White Men Can’t Jump, Bugaloo’s two-hander in Above the Rim, Lola Bunny’s dunk in Space Jam, Rocky’s rim-attack dunk in 3 Ninjas, Kenny Tyler’s alley-oop dunk in The Sixth Man, Calvin Cambridge’s monster dunk in Like Mike, Brian Newell’s first dunk in Thunderstruck, Chip Douglas’s up-the-back dunk in The Cable Guy, Saleh’s game-winning dunk in The Air Up There, Louie Kritski’s dunk in The Super, Elliot Richards’ 3-point line dunk in Bedazzled, Quincy McCall’s one-on-one dunk at the end of Love & Basketball, and Lewis Scott’s dunk in Celtic Pride.

‘American History X’ (New Line Cinema)
‘American History X’ (New Line Cinema)

Prerequisite 2: Since we’re getting rid of dunks from sex offenders, let’s also get rid of dunks from anyone who’s ever murdered someone, be that person a Nazi or not.

Derek Vinyard’s dunk in American History X is out. I’m sad about this one getting cut so early. It was a very good worst movie dunk. You’ve got (1) the camera cutaway, (2) the upward angle shot so you can’t see whatever it was that he was jumping off of to get to the rim, and (3) the improbability factor. (Edward Norton is listed at 6-foot. That means Derek Vinyard is 6-foot. That’s the same height as Allen Iverson. It takes all of about five seconds of seeing Vinyard play to realize that he doesn’t possess the same sort of explosiveness as Iverson.) (Also, can you even imagine all of the horrible things Vinyard would’ve said to Iverson if Iverson was at that game.) (I can.) (And it’s horrible.) (I changed my mind: I’m not sad that this one is getting cut so early.)

Also, Bugaloo’s dunk from Above the Rim is out. (He shoots and kills Birdie at the end of the movie.)

Dunks remaining: John Tucker’s flip dunk in John Tucker Must Die, Catwoman’s dunk in Catwoman, Spider-Man’s super-hyper dunk in The Amazing Spider-Man, O’s gravity-defier during the slam dunk contest in O, Air Bud on the poster for Air Bud, the first dunk Scott Howard does as a werewolf in Teen Wolf, Billy Hoyle’s alley-oop at the end of White Men Can’t Jump, Lola Bunny’s dunk in Space Jam, Rocky’s rim-attack dunk in 3 Ninjas, Kenny Tyler’s alley-oop dunk in The Sixth Man, Calvin Cambridge’s monster dunk in Like Mike, Brian Newell’s first dunk in Thunderstruck, Chip Douglas’s up-the-back dunk in The Cable Guy, Saleh’s game-winning dunk in The Air Up There, Louie Kritski’s dunk in The Super, Elliot Richards’ 3-point line dunk in Bedazzled, Quincy McCall’s one-on-one dunk at the end of Love & Basketball, and Lewis Scott’s dunk in Celtic Pride.

‘Like Mike’ (20th Century Fox)
‘Like Mike’ (20th Century Fox)

Prerequisite 3: The best worst movie dunk can’t be one that was assisted by any version of magic.

This is a simple and obvious rule because a magic-assisted dunk cannot, by definition, be considered an unreasonable dunk, given that the entire point of magic in movies is to make unreasonable things seem reasonable. That means we’re losing Calvin Cambridge’s monster dunk in Like Mike, Brian Newell’s dunk in Thunderstruck, and Elliot Richards’s 3-point line dunk in Bedazzled. One thing about each of those:

  • The Like Mike dunk: The first time we see Calvin dunk comes during a one-on-one game he plays with Tracy Reynolds, the star player of that movie’s main team. They play at halftime of a game because Calvin won some ticket drawing. I always wondered what sort of financial trouble Tracy must’ve been in to agree to participate in that promotion.
  • The Thunderstruck dunk: This is the most thematically believable surprise movie dunk because Brian, previously an uncoordinated klutz, has a total freakout when he realizes he all of a sudden has the ability to dunk on a regulation-size hoop. It’s the only time we ever get to see someone truly grapple with the idea of what’s happening.
  • The Bedazzled dunk: Satan (played by Elizabeth Hurley) starts granting Elliot’s wishes (in exchange for his soul) because he wants a better life so he can win over the girl he’s in love with. (That’s how he ends up as a basketball superstar.) The gnarliest of his wishes is that, as a piece of one of them, he asks for Satan to give him a very big penis.

Dunks remaining: John Tucker’s flip dunk in John Tucker Must Die, Catwoman’s dunk in Catwoman, Spider-Man’s super-hyper dunk in The Amazing Spider-Man, O’s gravity-defier during the slam dunk contest in O, Air Bud on the poster for Air Bud, the first dunk Scott Howard does as a werewolf in Teen Wolf, Billy Hoyle’s alley-oop at the end of White Men Can’t Jump, Lola Bunny’s dunk in Space Jam, Rocky’s rim-attack dunk in 3 Ninjas, Kenny Tyler’s alley-oop dunk in The Sixth Man, Chip Douglas’s up-the-back dunk in The Cable Guy, Saleh’s game-winning dunk in The Air Up There, Louie Kritski’s dunk in The Super, Quincy McCall’s one-on-one dunk at the end of Love & Basketball, and Lewis Scott’s dunk in Celtic Pride.

‘Catwoman’ (Warner Bros.)
‘Catwoman’ (Warner Bros.)

Prerequisite 4: The best worst movie dunk can’t be one that was assisted by any version of a superpower.

These dunks get cut from here for the same reason as the magic dunks, because, I mean, for example, if Spider-Man jumps so high during a dunk that literally his entire body is above the rim (which is what happens during The Amazing Spider-Man) you can just be like, "Well, duh. He’s Spider-Man." So he’s out. So is Catwoman.

Also: I’m not sure how to play the Scott Howard dunk from Teen Wolf. Are we categorizing a person turning into a werewolf as either a version of magic or superpower? It feels like we have to, right? I think yes. So that means that dunk is out, too. That’s too bad. His was a really great worst dunk.

Another thing: I don’t think the young people of Beacon Town, Nebraska, ever got nearly enough credit for their open-mindedness. Scott Howard, a regular human, turned into a fucking werewolf during a basketball game, made two quick baskets, and then everyone on his team and in the stands was like, "Cool, I guess we have a werewolf playing point guard for us now," and that was that. That was the end of the strangeness of the situation. Not only did the existence of werewolves instantly become normal and assumed, but so too did the idea that, if given the opportunity, they could facilitate a devastating offensive attack. That’s honestly incredible and very commendable. I’d have guessed that a small town like that would’ve been far more conservative. Kudos to them.

Dunks remaining: John Tucker’s flip dunk in John Tucker Must Die, O’s gravity-defier during the slamdunk contest in O, Air Bud on the poster for Air Bud, Billy Hoyle’s alley-oop at the end of White Men Can’t Jump, Lola Bunny’s dunk in Space Jam, Rocky’s rim-attack dunk in 3 Ninjas, Kenny Tyler’s alley-oop dunk in The Sixth Man, Chip Douglas’s up-the-back dunk in The Cable Guy, Saleh’s game-winning dunk in The Air Up There, Louie Kritski’s dunk in The Super, Quincy McCall’s one-on-one dunk at the end of Love & Basketball, and Lewis Scott’s dunk in Celtic Pride.

‘3 Ninjas’ (Touchstone Pictures)
‘3 Ninjas’ (Touchstone Pictures)

Prerequisite 5: The dunk has to be by an adult human.

We’re losing Air Bud’s dunk on the poster for Air Bud, Lola Bunny’s dunk in Space Jam, and also Rocky’s dunk in 3 Ninjas. :(

Dunks remaining: John Tucker’s flip dunk in John Tucker Must Die, O’s gravity-defier during the slam dunk contest in O, Billy Hoyle’s alley-oop at the end of White Men Can’t Jump, Kenny Tyler’s alley-oop dunk in The Sixth Man, Chip Douglas’s up-the-back dunk in The Cable Guy, Saleh’s game-winning dunk in The Air Up There, Louie Kritski’s dunk in The Super, Quincy McCall’s one-on-one dunk at the end of Love & Basketball, and Lewis Scott’s dunk in Celtic Pride.

Prerequisite 6: The dunk has to contain at least one camera cutaway during either the set-up or the actual dunk, because a camera cutaway is absolutely essential to accidentally making supposed-to-be serious things look silly.

We lose Quincy McCall’s dunk here and also Billy Hoyle’s dunk. (Billy’s dunk, which happens on a rim that’s maaaaaaybe 8 feet high, is the best example of what happens when you don’t have any sort of camera trickery going on during a movie dunk by someone who can’t actually dunk. His feet are basically still on the ground when he gets to the rim.)

Dunks remaining: John Tucker’s flip dunk in John Tucker Must Die, O’s gravity-defier during the slam dunk contest in O, Kenny Tyler’s alley-oop dunk in The Sixth Man, Chip Douglas’s up-the-back dunk in The Cable Guy, Saleh’s game-winning dunk in The Air Up There, Louie Kritski’s dunk in The Super, and Lewis Scott’s dunk in Celtic Pride.

‘The Sixth Man’ (Buena Vista Pictures)
‘The Sixth Man’ (Buena Vista Pictures)

Prerequisite 7: No ghosts allowed.

We lose Kenny Tyler’s dunk.

Two things:

1. I know ghosts aren’t actually real, but I also know that ghosts are very fucking scary.

2. The Sixth Man is about a pair of brothers (Kenny and Antoine Tyler) who are hoping to be NBA stars together one day. They seem headed on their way toward doing so (they both play heavy minutes for the University of Washington), but then tragedy happens: Antoine (played by Kadeem Hardison) has a heart attack WHILE DUNKING during a game. His ghost sticks around on earth to help the team play their way into (and through) the NCAA tournament. And that’s a wonderful tale of devotion to family and goal-setting, but also I think it might be pretty blatant cheating as well. I’m sure the NCAA is going to be none too pleased when they find about this ghost conspiracy.

Dunks remaining: John Tucker’s flip dunk in John Tucker Must Die, O’s gravity-defier during the slam dunk contest in O, Chip Douglas’s up-the-back dunk in The Cable Guy, Saleh’s game-winning dunk in The Air Up There, Louie Kritski’s dunk in The Super, and Lewis Scott’s dunk in Celtic Pride.

‘The Air Up There’ (Buena Vista Pictures)
‘The Air Up There’ (Buena Vista Pictures)

Prerequisite 8: It can’t be a dunk where either (1) the actor was not the one who performed the dunk in the shot, (2) the actor played a professional athlete or a potential professional athlete in the movie, or (3) the actor did a dunk that has no real-world precedent.

Heavy round of cuts here. We lose O’s dunk in O (they used a stunt double to perform the dunk because Mekhi Phifer is only 5-foot-9), and we lose Lewis Scott’s dunk and Saleh’s dunk (Lewis was on the Jazz in Celtic Pride and Saleh was eventually headed to play college ball in The Air Up There), and we lose John Tucker’s flip dunk in John Tucker Must Die (nobody has ever come even anywhere close to pulling one off without using a trampoline).

That leaves us with just Chip Douglas’s up-the-back dunk in The Cable Guy vs. Louie Kritski’s dunk in The Super.

‘The Super’ (20th Century Fox)
‘The Super’ (20th Century Fox)

In The Cable Guy, Chip Douglas, a very lonely cable installation technician, shoehorns his way into a game that the guy he’s trying to turn into his friend is playing in. On what ends up being the final play of the game, Chip charges into the lane, plants his foot into the lower back of one of his opponents, launches himself way up into the air, and then thunderdunks it with so much power that the backboard busts into a million pieces.

In The Super, Louie Kritski, a very lonely (and semi-villainous) landlord, ends up playing in a game with some of his tenants. It all ends up being a hustle (turns out, they let Louie’s team win the first game, then pressure him into betting $200 on the second game so they can take his money), but the first game ends with Louie slam dunking in the final point, which is of course incredible being he’s played by Joe Pesci, who is a plumpy 5-foot-4.

Both of the dunks are improbable, but not impossible (there’s this guy named Porter Mayberry who’s 5-foot-5 and he does incredible real dunks, so Louie being just 5-foot-4 is fine here). And both of the dunks utilize different camera tricks to make everything look ridiculous in the most sincere way possible. (A cute little thing they do in The Super is they play that sound an airplane makes when it’s taking off as Louie is dunking.) But only one of them has a built-in "Wait, Hold On …" moment secretly built into it, and that’s The Cable Guy dunk.

‘The Cable Guy’ (Columbia Pictures)
‘The Cable Guy’ (Columbia Pictures)

Look:

(Columbia Pictures)
(Columbia Pictures)

That’s a shot of Chip as he’s on his way down to complete his dunk. See how high he is? He’s up somewhere near the top of the backboard, which means he got up somewhere near 14 feet. (The top of a backboard is 13 feet, which he was up past before he started his descent.) The reason that’s important to point out is because this is the guy he jumps off of:

(Columbia Pictures)
(Columbia Pictures)

If Chip had jumped off the lower back of a very tall person and gotten as high as he did, then that’d have made sense. But Chip didn’t jump off the lower back of a very tall person. He jumped off the lower back of Jack Black, who’s only 5-foot-6, meaning he only gave himself about a 33-inch boost. And if Chip was able to get up past the top of the backboard to 14 feet high with a 33-inch boost, then he absolutely possessed the fast-twitch leg strength necessary to dunk without jumping off of another human. Him using another person as a stepping stool when it was not necessary helps his dunk edge out Louie’s dunk in The Super as the Best Worst Movie Dunk.

An earlier version of this story misstated Lewis Scott’s team in Celtic Pride. He was on the Jazz, not the Celtics.