by Lang Whitaker

Every year, SLAM produces a special Streetball issue. A few years ago, as we were working on an issue, I stumbled across a kid named Jesse Dunn. This story ran in SLAM presents Streetball back in 2005. There’s nothing I can add to the saga after the way it ends, only that Jesse’s still floating around somewhere out there…

Too Good To Be True
Jesse Dunn is the best streetball player you’ve never heard of. Believe that.

by Lang Whitaker

The secret cannot be kept much longer. Even as you read this, it’s leaking out, as it has for the last two years. First word of mouth, then e-mails and message boards, and after this magazine drops, you can bet the rest of the media will be all over it.

Out in L.A., he is known as “Neo.” At Rucker they call him “Legal Tender.” At Mosswood it’s “Shaman.” At The Dome in B-More, they tagged him “Mute” because he had them drowning out the go-go music. In Atlanta, they just called him “Damn.”

I saw it last fall, late one night at Run ’N Shoot in Atlanta. The gym was mostly empty, save for a bunch of Atlanta-based NBA players and their regular pickup game. Training camp was starting in a few days, and these guys were trying to ease into shape. I was there with then-Hawks star Shareef Abdur-Rahim, following him around for a profile in SLAM.

The pros were halfway through their first game when he walked in. He paid his $7 entrance fee with change, plopping down a handful of quarters, dimes and nickels on the counter, then strolled over to an empty court on the side. I remember thinking he was homeless.

“Of course I remember that night!” recalls Spurs veteran and former Hawk Kevin Willis. “First of all, he was wearing a t-shirt and these dirty-ass blue jeans, and before he went out there he took his shoes and socks off. Who the hell plays barefoot?”

The pros kept playing, but I wandered around their court to get a better look at this guy. He wasn’t really tall, but he wasn’t short, either, and his physique was somewhere in between skinny and fit. To warm up, he walked on his hands the length of the court and back. His balance was perfect. Then he did a bunch of somersaults, maybe five or six. He then walked over and, standing flat-footed, jumped up and grabbed the rim, swinging there for a few seconds. He dropped down and picked up a basketball and instead of spinning it on his finger, he simply balanced it there, the ball motionless, effortlessly floating atop his digit.

He walked to the free-throw line, toed the stripe, dribbled twice, then cocked the ball back and heaved it, one-handed, at the basket — the basket at the other end of the court. Swish.

The ball fell to floor and rolled toward me, so I picked it up and threw it back to him. He did it again. Swish. And again. And again.

After the sixth consecutive make, the pros took notice. “I’m serious, it was at least 20 straight,” says Shareef. “He wasn’t shooting jump shots, either! He was throwing it, like a baseball or like a football. Someone asked if he was Mike Vick.”

Vick is actually a pretty good comparison, because he wasn’t just tossing it up near the basket. He was aiming, with a football-like follow-through and everything. After 10 from the free-throw line, he started moving around a bit, never taking a shot any closer than halfcourt, and never missing, either.

“Hey, young fella!” The bass voice of Dale Davis echoed through the gym. I turned around to notice the pros had stopped, and were all paying attention. “You wanna run with us?”

The guy looked right at Dale, spun the ball in his hands, then reared back and fired the ball high into the air, where it sailed over everyone’s heads, nearly skimming the ceiling and then ripping through the net on the court where the pros were playing. It was at least 150 feet away.

The run ended 90 minutes later, heads shaking all around. He had missed four shots over six games, making 35 (I kept track). All 39 shots he attempted were from beyond halfcourt, and none of the attempts were conventional jump shots. Instead, they came off the dribble: he’d take the inbounds pass, yo-yo the ball, run to his left or right and then pull back and fire. Three. No dummies, the NBA guys started doubling him in the backcourt, and he would simply dribble backward, drawing the two guys closer, then lob it up the court, where his teammates had a four-on-three break. The defense then decided to show a double-team but refused to commit, which would leave him with enough room to flick it up over the top. He was unguardable. He never celebrated, never spoke a word on the court. He just scored.

And he did all this barefoot, in blue jeans and a plain white t-shirt.

Now, I must stop here to admit that even I realize this story probably sounds too good to be true. The thing is, it WAS too good to be true. “Never seen anything like it,” co-signs Shareef. “We were all just like…Damn!”

They started calling him Damn that night, about halfway through the games. When they finished, he went over and grabbed his shoes, a tattered pair of Hakeem Olajuwon signature model Spaldings, sat on the floor and laced them up. The NBA guys, halfway between disgusted and amazed, just stared at him.

I immediately hustled over.

“What’s up, man?” I held out my hand and helped him to his feet. He was maybe 6-1, 175 pounds. “My name is Lang and I’m a writer at SLAM.”

“SLAM?” he asked. I expected him to continue with something like I hear from most ballplayers when I say I’m from SLAM, something like, “I love SLAM! Can I get in SLAM?”

Instead, he said, “Hmm. Never heard of it.”

He turned and started walking toward the door. I ran after him.

“Hey, hey man, what’s your name?”

“Why?”

“Because you just dominated a game full of NBA players. I’ve watched basketball my whole life and what you just did was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. Ever. Better than Jordan, better than Wilt’s 100. No one has ever shot the ball that well.”

He kept walking. So did I, for selfish reasons: This could be the greatest basketball discovery of all time, and I’d certainly never heard of him before now. Imagine him in the NBA! His handle was decent enough, equally solid with both hands, and he never, ever had to look at the ball. Defensively, his balance and timing and footwork were…perfect, pretty much, and he seemed to know where his man was going before his man did. But that shot — if he played 48 minutes and shot this well every night, he might average 100 points per game.

I decided to try a different attack, sidling up next to him and lowering my voice slightly.

“Look, you can walk out of here and disappear, and I can’t stop you, but please just tell me one thing: Why aren’t you in the NBA? You could be famous. You could be rich.”

He slowed slightly and turned and faced me. Walking backward, he said: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” There was a slight country drawl to his voice.

“Sartre,” I said. He was quoting the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. (My father-in-law is a psychology professor, and he’d recently lent me Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness.)

For the first time, he stopped walking. He smiled.

“You wanna get something to eat?” he asked.

“You like Waffle House?”

Jesse Dunn was born on April 1, 1976, in Montevallo, Alabama, a small town with a population of about 5,000, located nearly 30 miles south of Birmingham. He lived with his father, also named Jesse, and never knew his mother.

He grew quickly, was 5-10 by the time he was in fourth grade, and since he could pass for an adult, Jesse dropped out of school in the fifth grade to work with his Dad in the steel mills up the road in Birmingham. His life changed forever when he was 16 years old. “Me and Daddy were driving to work, going up I-65. He was driving, I was asleep in the passenger seat — Daddy always drove to work, I always drove home.

“Anyways, I heard a noise, loudest bang I ever heard, heard it really before I even woke up. I just remember opening my eyes and seeing this BMW flying through the air right at us.”

A rig transporting cars to a dealership had jack-knifed and flipped, sending its payload spraying across the highway. One vehicle went through the Dunn’s windshield. Jesse Sr. was killed instantly. Jesse Jr. didn’t get a scratch.

“It really freaked me out,” he recalled. “Why did I get to live and why did he have to die? It made me totally re-think my life and the consequences of living.”

It sounds harsh, but in a sense, losing his father gave Jesse life. A few months after the accident, Jesse got a settlement check from a law firm. He was 17 years old, basically alone in the world, with a fifth-grade education and $400,000 in the bank.

Jesse quit the mill and started searching. He went to the library, checked out every book they had on life, death and all things in between. For almost two years, he sat at home and read all day and night. No TV, no music, nothing but knowledge. Eventually he got around to Sartre. “He wrote that being isn’t existence, but being is what it is, in itself,” Jesse said. “That was the only thing that really made sense to me, that resonated in my mind.”

Jesse had played a little football growing up, but sports had taken a back seat when he started working. Once his existential epiphany was all worked out, Jesse wanted to get in shape; his body had recovered from years working in the mill, but he didn’t want it to fall apart.

On the morning of December 5, 1999, Jesse decided to go for a walk, get his blood pumping a little bit. It was winter, sure, but one of those crisp Southern mornings where the sun fights the cold air all day long. He’d gone a few miles when he found himself at the Brierfield Ironworks, a state park known mostly for hosting Civil War re-enactments. Jesse came across a cement basketball court, an indifferent rubber ball resting in the mud alongside.

“I still don’t know why, but I picked up that ball and threw it, just like you saw tonight.” Jesse turned and asked the waitress for another cup of coffee. “And it went right in. It felt like this was what I’d been born to do.”

After 21 years on this earth, Jesse had finally found something that felt perfect. He only took one shot that day, but he knew, just knew.

Tired of Alabama, his mind stirred from all his reading, he took his ATM card and hitchhiked out West. First New Orleans, then Houston, then Phoenix, then L.A. He stopped all along the way, to see the country and play ball—at parks, playgrounds, open gyms, wherever. When his clothes got dirty, he bought “new” clothes at second-hand stores (“I couldn’t see the use in buying more expensive stuff”). He swung north — San Francisco, Portland, Seattle — then across the top of the country over to New York, before working back down the Eastern seaboard.

According to Jesse, he played as well across the country as he had that night in Atlanta. “But basketball wasn’t why I was there. I was simply exploring the moment, attempting to connect experiences. I wanted to see things, experience things. Basketball was simply a way to stay in shape.”

I asked him if realized that he had been developing a legacy. Though he hadn’t stayed in a city for more than a month, even one single amazing performance of pickup ball is enough to cement anyone’s reputation for life. “Nah, not at the time,” he said. “But after a few months, I’d show up at places and after one game people would say they’d heard about me from their cousin or their nephew or whatnot.”

I asked him why he wasn’t playing basketball full-time, why he wasn’t playing professionally.

“I don’t…” he stopped and sighed. He stirred two spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee. He took a sip and began speaking slowly. “I understand that my shot, that thing I can do, that’s a gift. I mean, I never really practice it, I didn’t hone it, it’s just there. I think it’ll always be there.

“Now, am I obligated to share that gift on some larger stage? I don’t believe so. I’ve thought about it a lot. I know I could make a lot of money, but I don’t need money. Daddy gave me money. My shot might entertain people and might make other people lots of money, but I don’t think people should look up to me. Look within yourself, man.”

But imagine the platform you could have, I argued. Would it do more good to preach his philosophy to one person over a midnight chicken melt plate at the Waffle House or during a nationally televised press conference? He leaned over the table and looked me in the eyes.

“All I want in this life is meaning. I want everyone to be happy, but right now I’m focused on me. For me, basketball is just a game. I hope to find that meaning eventually. All I know is that right now, it’s not in basketball.”

I paid the tab and offered Jesse a ride. He wanted to go downtown to the Greyhound station, to head back to Birmingham. It had been nearly four years since he left, and he said he wanted to feel something familiar.

When we got to the station he gave me a pound and I asked for his number, you know, just in case. He laughed and I immediately felt guilty. But still, I didn’t want to just let possibly the greatest basketball player that’s ever lived walk away, just like that.

“Give me your number,” he said. “I’ll be in touch, I swear.”

I gave him my card and promised we’d talk Sartre again one day. He shut the door and I rolled down the window.

“One more thing,” I called after him. “Why did you take your shoes off?”

“They weren’t comfortable.”

Two weeks ago I got an email from Jesse.

Lang:
What’s up, man? Still in that moment? I’m in Amsterdam, heading for Paris next week. After Europe I’m gonna hit Asia, then back to the States next year or so. Been thinking a lot about hoops, maybe trying to play some pro ball. Nothing definite, just thinking — don’t get too excited! When I get back to the States, I’ll holler at you. Until then, be good…
JD