An ode to the Ja Morant Panini Luminance rookie card, ‘The Dunk’

I have a little area on my nightstand with room to display a few sports cards at a time. My bedroom also doubles as my office during the pandemic, so I spend a lot of time facing this little display. I like to change the cards out periodically, but certain favorites have really resisted being put away.

Whenever I look at this particular card, the Ja Morant rookie from the 2019-20 Panini Luminance set, I smile. How is he that high in the air? He’s 6-foot-3, and the man he’s ascending like a small mountain, Kevin Love, is about 6-foot-10. Look at how far he is from the rim, still. Is he at the peak of his jump, or is he still rising? What athleticism, what audacity!

Of course, in real life, on Dec. 20, 2019, in Cleveland, in the 29th game of Ja’s rookie season, he didn’t make the dunk.

He made the jump, mostly, but he was too far away from the cup when he made contact with Love, and had to lean way over to attempt a thrunk (throwing dunk). The thrunk attempt clanged off the back iron of the rim, and both players involved to the scene fell to earth.

It was nearly an NBA recreation of Vince Carter’s famous “The Dunk” over 7-foot-tall Frenchman Frederic Weis in the 2000 Olympics. I remember that dunk because I had just moved on campus before my first year of college, and I was hanging out with one of my friends from high school, who luckily was also moving in early. This was before broadband Internet really took hold and streaming was almost unheard of, but he heard about the dunk online somehow and we saw a photo of it first, and thanks to the university’s higher-than-normal Internet speeds, we eventually tracked down a clip to watch and rewatch.

Somehow the commentary is better in French. The disbelief, the amusement, the “he thought he was going to stop Vince Carter? I don’t think so” all comes through whether you speak the language or not.

That dunk has been held up as the greatest in-competition dunk of all time by many basketball fans. Vince Carter, one of the greatest dunkers of all time with no argument, is 6-foot-7, and he was able to get TO the rim in mid-air, grabbing it for stability almost as much as emphasis as he slammed the ball home. He also cleanly cleared the head of Weis, a New York Knicks draftee, in his jump.

So Ja attempting and nearly completing an almost identical dunk despite being about four inches shorter than Carter, and having to jump from farther back (you can see in the videos that Love is at least a couple of feet farther from the rim than Weis was, courtesy of the NBA’s charging circle … and speaking of which, how did Ja NOT get called for a charge on that play?) is pretty amazing, regardless of the outcome.

But the photo remains, despite the outcome of the play. And the card’s nickname among hobbyists, “The Dunk,” remains, too. I’ve noticed in my years of sports card collecting that certain cards become iconic because of their photos. Will this one be one of those enduring, iconic cards? Will the real-world outcome of the play captured on the front of this card become a bit of trivia throughout the years as NBA fans continue to collect and trade it?

When I look at this card, I don’t think of the fact that he couldn’t complete this play, I think of all the amazing things he’s capable of. I think of how Kevin Love, a player I have a lot of time for, must have felt as that play unfolded and then afterwards. I think of how, if Grizzlies center Jonas Valančiūnas was standing a little closer to the action, one of those illuminated rings up on the concourse in the background would float over his head like an angel (as it is, he kind of looks like a figure from a Renaissance painting). I think of what animal instincts triggered in Ja’s head as he ran toward the paint. I look at that amazing, majestic frame capturing a raw moment of basketball confrontation. I think of how fun sports can be, sometimes.

And I smile.

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