Contrary to popular opinion, LeBron James was not responsible for putting the city of Akron, Ohio on the basketball map. When I first starting hearing about the young phenom during his freshman year at Saint Vincent-Saint Mary High School in 2000, my response was, “Oh! That’s where Jerome Lane went to school.”
Lane was one of those unique talents that a true hoops observer could never forget. I became familiar with his name and game due to his appearance in the 1985 McDonald’s All American Game.
Back then, without Youtube and websites solely dedicated to prep player rankings and scouting reports on the nation’s best high school players, hoops junkies like myself read Street and Smith’s Magazine and were plugged into the grapevine of what kids from around the country were killing it at the prestigious Five-Star Basketball Camp.
I remember that 1985 class vividly because that was my ninth grade year, and my prep school played against a monster crew from Governor-Dummer Academy up in Massachusetts that was headlined by a 6-foot-6 guard/forward from London who was ranked among the nation’s best, Steve Bucknall.
Bucknall mesmerized me that day, and all anyone could talk about was how he’d soon be playing his college ball for the North Carolina Tar Heels. I payed particular attention to those guys that Bucknall played with on that ’85 McDonald’s All-American team, and remember how hyped we were to see some of these players that we’d heard about, like Lane, Tony Kimbro, Sean Elliott, Pervis Ellison, Jeff Lebo, Roy Marble, Tom Hammonds, Tito Horford and the player from Philly who everyone said was going to be the next great college point guard, Pooh Richardson.
I’d never really paid much attention to the University of Pittsburgh’s hoops program until Lane went there. By his sophomore year, I was referring to him as the next coming of Charles Barkley, a 6-foot-6 rebounding machine and absolute rim-wrecker in transition. As a sophomore, Lane averaged 13.5 rebounds per game, making him the first 6-foot-6 player or shorter to lead the country in rebounds since the late 1950’s.
So, why am I talking about Jerome Lane? Because today, January 25th, he made an indelible impression on the college basketball landscape. In 1988, against Providence, he delivered a dunk that will forever go down in history as the most memorable in Pitt program and ESPN broadcast history.
You have to remember that college hoops was not ubiquitous across the television landscape at the time. You could not flip through ten different channels to find a game. ESPN’s Big Monday was the grand stage, with the eyes of the bball loving nation tuned in, at a time when the Big East was at the crescendo of its power and elite stature.
Pitt’s freshman floor general, Sean Miller, who is now the head coach at the University of Arizona, corralled a loose ball with a little more than 15 minutes remaining, motored down court, and zipped a pass on a 3-on-2 break to Lane as he sprinted to the tin.
And then it happened, a tomahawk dunk for the ages.
“I didn’t realize anything until I looked at Demetreus (Gore),” Lane told ESPN.com in 2011. “His mouth was open. Then I saw glass on the floor. It came down like snow.”
A cool sidebar is also the coaches who sat on the respective benches. Providence’s head man was Rick Pitino and Jeff Van Gundy was one of his assistants. Pitt had an ambitious young assistant coach named John Calipari.
Lane was the first player to shatter the backboard of a breakaway rim. And what made it timeless was the great color commentator Bill Raftery’s spontaneous verbal eruption – after pausing for a few seconds to mentally process what he’d just seen – of “Send it in, Jerome!”
If you saw it live, it’s something that you’ll never forget, and every replay, even all these years later, conjures up the same giddiness it did back in 1988.
Most people simply remember the dunk, but I also recall that Lane finished with 17 points and 17 rebounds that night. The dunk halted the game for close to an hour, but even today, it’s a frozen moment in time that remains a cherished memory.
If you ask me what of historical significance happened on January 25th, I’ll tell you that Blue Ribbon Sports, which later became Nike, was founded on this day. It’s also the day that Al Capone died. But nothing tops the greatest dunk I ever saw, with advanced apologies to all of you Jordan, Kobe, ‘Nique and Vinsanity riders.
Single greatest dunk ever? To me, it’s Jerome Lane’s joint against Providence. Hands down!
And I’m not the only one that feels that way.
“It was something either you couldn’t do or haven’t seen it before first-hand,” Bill Raftery once said in recalling that night at the Fitzgerald Field House. “Later, I saw Shaq take the glass and backboard down at the Meadowlands. It wasn’t as impressive. I was like, ‘I’ve seen this before. Big deal.'”
Whenever this day rolls around, January 25th, I start my day off by saying, “Send it in Jerome!”
And the rest of the day is all gravy from there.