Governor’s hoops tale is a slam-dunk

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From the Chicago Sun-Times
Governor’s hoops tale is a slam-dunk
Mark Brown | April 10, 2011

Pat Quinn has been called many names during his long political career, but never Dr. Dunkenstein or The Dunkmeister.

We may need to consider adding those to the list.

During a photo op in his Springfield office this past week with a Downstate college basketball player who was recently crowned the nation’s slam-dunk contest champion, the governor made a most surprising claim.

Quinn told the young man, Jacob Tucker of Illinois College in Jacksonville, that he — Gov. Pat Quinn — had dunked a basketball himself. Twice.

Having played a few pickup games with Quinn many years ago at Fenwick High School where his brother is the varsity basketball coach, I found this claim quite amazing — nearly as amazing as the YouTube videos of the 5-foot-10 Tucker soaring through the air with rim-rattling dunks that topped even the guys from the biggest NCAA schools.

While Tucker has a 50-inch vertical leap, however, my recollection is that the governor’s game was, shall we say, much more down to earth. As you might expect, Quinn was a scrappy defender and a tough rebounder, but that was on the basis of good positioning and active elbows, not hang time.

Of course, Quinn, now 62, was probably in his early 40s at the time, and practically everyone has lost their hops by then. So before I make any accusations about Quinn cooking up a tall tale to burnish his own Land of Lincoln legacy, I asked his press secretary if he could supply me with details of this alleged feat.

If you don’t already know this, dunking a basketball is one of those things that many if not most young guys secretly yearn to do. OK, old guys, too. It’s not easy, even if you’re tall. In addition to jumping ability, it takes strong hands and coordination. If you’re tall and play basketball, you’re almost embarrassed if you can’t dunk. Dunking, therefore, even once or twice, is a memory that would last.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself on the other end of the line a short time later with the governor. He seemed a tad grumpy at first (could it be something I’ve written?) but he slowly warmed to the subject.

It was in April of 1968, this very time of year, Quinn said, when he dunked a basketball for the first and last times. He was a freshman at Georgetown University back here on spring break. He and his buddies had gone to the asphalt basketball courts at Spring Rock Park in Western Springs, where they regularly played under the lights on summer nights.

Quinn hadn’t played basketball for his high school team at Fenwick, where he captained the cross-country team. But he said he played a lot of playground ball, including against La Grange stars Marcus Washington and Owen Brown at the Spring Rock Park courts, and against inner-city players at Hilliard Homes and Stateway Gardens through friends he met on his summer job.

“My hero was Jerry Sloan, No. 4, a ferocious defender,” said Quinn, whose pickup ball philosophy is: “No fatality, no foul.”

“I was a pretty good jumper,” said the 6-foot-1 Quinn, who wore ankle weights to class in those days to strengthen his legs. “And my hands were just big enough.”

On that April day as he and his friends were shooting around, Quinn was feeling especially strong and decided he would try to dunk. He drove to the basket, and to the surprise of his friends, he made it.

“You better do it again,” the friends told him, “to make sure it wasn’t a dream,” Quinn said, and he did. But that was it. He never could do it before or since.

“It was just this day. This magic day,” Quinn said.

I must say, I’m impressed — and a little jealous. There was a brief time when I was at the very peak of my conditioning as a high school hoopster that I could get half my forearm above the rim. You might think that would be high enough to allow a person to dunk, but no.

There was this one night after practice when my legs were feeling strong — as I imagine it was for Quinn — and I dunked a dodge ball — one of those easy-to-grip red multipurpose balls used in gym class. But I’ve always known in my heart that doesn’t count. And try as I might, I never could do it again.

I stand below a regulation basketball rim these days and look up in disbelief that it is only 10 feet off the ground. Surely, it’s a trick.

Quinn said he took his two grown sons back to Spring Rock Park not long ago to show them the scene of his great feat. In short order, his boys each were slamming down dunks with either hand, he said. Now Gov. Dunk doesn’t even hold the Quinn family record.