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Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 at 5:42 pm  |  25 responses

The Ballad of Flight White

Putting James White’s Dunk Contest loss in perspective.

by Mike Piellucci / @mikelikessports

Technically speaking, the legend of James “Flight” White died during Saturday night’s Dunk Contest.

It’s impossible to pinpoint when, exactly, but it took place sometime between him trotting out a gaggle of costumed stewardesses and the last of his seven botched dunk attempts. Performing in front of the largest conflux of attention he’s ever known, White’s mystique went down in a blaze of flashbulbs and exasperated sighs, human heartbreak reflected against the specter of Carmelo’s Anthony’s bug-eyed shades.

Yet in actuality, the funeral had been scheduled since the day he agreed to enter the contest. That was the moment James White became real.

White has always existed, of course, but our knowledge of him has arrived almost exclusively in a 21st-century manner of second-hand sight. As a 30-year-old with not even 400 career NBA minutes to his name, there are no eyewitness accounts of James White’s exploits but thanks to the wonders of YouTube, we’ve received transmissions from him in far-flung outposts like Turkey and Russia, and as far back as his days as a McDonald’s All American. With rare exception, they always involve him dunking a basketball. That is how we know him and how we’ve consumed him ever since he was a teenager, elapsed time measured by the evolution of his dunks—then, half-court bursts; now, full-court bounds—instead of pages on the calendar.

Because that lens is so precise and his stage often so distant, White was, until Saturday, less a person in our eyes than an idea. Those who knew about him embraced him as a cult hero by ignoring what he wasn’t—for starters, a particularly good basketball player—and instead romanticizing him as a dunking vagabond entering and winning contests two continents away and half a world over, a traveling circus unto himself. That it had yet to be commoditized by the NBA machine only made the allure more powerful. It didn’t matter that it was a decision mandated by White’s limited skill set, or that his one-man barnstorming tour represented nothing beyond a way of making ends meet. James White had something we all wanted to see; only we couldn’t, which just made us want to see it even more.

For a very long time, however, it seemed as though we never would have the opportunity to watch him dunk during All Star Weekend, an outcome that was simultaneously White’s best- and worst-case scenario. Had that happened, White would have had to come to terms once and for all with his own basketball mortality; that, like generations of ball players before him, he had failed to achieve his grand ambitions. But in so doing, he would have been remembered—not in the fashion or scope that he once aspired to, but remembered nonetheless. Flight White would have lived forever as a paean to potential, a hypothetical undamaged by time because there wouldn’t be anything concrete to weigh against him. If they never gave him the chance to compete, there was no way he could lose.

But then they did and, as is so often the case, realism fell exceedingly short of imagination. It was destined to be that way no matter where he finished, though, because nothing White could do in person would ever measure up to years of allegory. The YouTube compilations don’t show the missed dunks, after all, or how winded he could get from sprinting the length of the court to set up those perfect finishes; all of that went straight to the cutting room floor, discarded along with any other proof that exposed him as anything short of invincible. For so long, White played Superman to fawning dunk aficionados; that he was cast to begin with is a credit to the unique way he soars through the air, buoyed by the boost his nomadic career gave him as a man apart. But his longevity in the role owed itself to them never finding evidence to indicate he was something else.

White was occasionally super on Saturday but he was perpetually man, flesh and blood and fallibility—and, for all the hype and Vegas money lines in his favor, an ignominious last-place finish. It was the movie we weren’t supposed to see, because fairytales don’t end that way. Flight White was fated to be the winner, his overdue redemption for years of wandering through the desert with no end in sight and our feel-good program of the year by rewarding our collective faith.

Instead, we got the director’s cut, replete with midair flubs and balls clanging off the rim; when the buzzer rang at the end of his second-round attempt, he stood hunched over, gulping for enough air to make one last run down court. And when that, too, drew iron, he shuffled dejectedly to the sideline, the night over before it began. Superman’s kryptonite, as it turned out, was reality.

In truth, White may not have been remembered even if he won the competition. The dunk contest deals more in sheen than substance, an event that burnishes resumes more than it sustains them. It’s a stepping stone beyond than anything else, a spectacle most noted for its capacity to birth stars (Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Vince Carter) or compelling burnouts (JR Rider, Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner, Kenny “Sky” Walker), along with the occasional vertically challenged dynamo (Spud Webb, Nate Robinson) to boot. The commonality among all three groups, though, is that all of them could play at a reasonably high level. Those who can’t, like Fred Jones and, soon, Jeremy Evans, become nothing more than footnotes.

The same thing very likely could have happened to White, although perhaps it would have gone differently this time. He, unlike so many others, didn’t need to use this contest as a springboard because we had already made him into something bigger than the event itself well beforehand. Our fanaticism for Flight White was never really about him; it was about us. We had invested in him and were eager to see growth; how could we cast him when he proved us right? It would have been our triumph, not his; we knew about him first, we were correct, we showed you.

And when he bombed, we flipped the script the way fans so often do with athletes. We weren’t the ones dunking the ball; he was. We didn’t fail; he did. We weren’t stupid for talking him up and thinking he’d win; if you saw the tape of his mesmerizing between the legs dunk from the foul line, you’d know that no one else can do what he can. It’s not our fault he didn’t show up in the biggest moment of his career.

We’ll forget about it, the way people do when our ideas don’t reach fruition. James White might not, though. He told ESPN’s Justin Verrier before the competition that his dream was for “everybody to see what he was capable of;” on Saturday, he couldn’t show us, and so we’ll never revere Flight White quite the same way again. He—and we—passed the point of no return.

That won’t stop him from trying to change that. As he said to Verrier, “this”—dunking for people’s amazement—“is kind of what [he does].” Whether it’s in the NBA or Turkey or Russia or somewhere else entirely, he will dunk until his legs run out of spring because that has become his lot in life. Like most high flyers, we will not see him age gracefully. Toward the end, it may even become sad, and the mystique of Flight White will chip away like an old coat of paint on a rusted automobile. But James White will keep on dunking anyway, because you can’t pay the bills with an idea. All you can do is put them on credit.

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  • ALLROUNDMAGIC

    I love this article. Even if he couldn’t win it, I know he still can fly high. Soar again, Flight White!

  • Dean27

    Amen. Great article here.

  • theDankerNuggets

    awesome article!

  • T-man

    Great writing. Bravo!

  • Sam Riches

    This was dope! Awesome read.

  • 23

    This guy was on a Tebow, Lin type of hype. Everybody I know kept tellin me the NBA needed him in the contest. That he would amaze us. His performance stunk. Yes he has impressive athleticism. Astonishing athleticism, but he put on a poor performance.

  • robb

    Thanks for the article. It loved it.

  • http://twitter.com/BEdotwater Orlando Coolridge

    This was a dope ass article.

  • davidR

    if only he wasn’t 30…

  • davidR

    mike, this was a great article. hope you write more!

    the way he used the flight attendants as his props was great

  • Nigel

    Great read man.

  • JOMAY

    BEST DAMN ARTICLE IN YEARS! HANDS DOWN! GOOD JOB, MIKE!

  • nick

    This was almost as bad as kwame brown being drafted 1st =( amazing write up…..

  • i_ball

    When you try to dunk from the free throw line even if you fail you know you have crazy hops:) Great article!

  • SirVal

    Yep. Unfortunately he isn’t really a dunker by nature, he is a long-jumper and high jumper who plays basketball. He is still doing the same dunks he was doing in DC Assault lay-up lines back in 1998. He went through his legs at midnight madness in 2000 or 2001. So, 12, 13, 14, 15 years later, he is still dunking which is great, but his dunks are more “I’ll just jump from a long ways out and do something”. I hate it. I have known James since those lay-up line days back in 1998-1999 and he’s not a bad dude, but when I heard he was in this years dunk contest I knew it was too late for him. Oh well, props for being 30 and still trying, when LeBron has been saying he is too old since he was 25. Good luck James – told your @$$ to go to DeMatha! Morgan would have had you RIGHT!

  • Ugh

    Dear Mike.

    This article is pretentious, ignorant and insulting, passed off as insightful writing.

    Apparently there are no witnesses to James White because he’s played in Turkey and Russia? Between these two nations there are 210 million people, and these places aren’t far-flung outposts. Three quarters of a million Americans alone visit Turkey each year. Turks and Russians enjoy basketball and are particularly basketball savvy, they know who James White is and many of them have actually seen him play. Apparently they don’t count as ‘eyewitnesses’. The Americentrism displayed is insulting, sure, but considering the global popularity of the NBA and the global reach of the internet – meaning plenty of people who aren’t Americans read this site – it’s also stupidly anachronistic to write something like that. It isn’t 1950 and those places aren’t behind the Iron Curtain.

    To suggest that White’s life is reducible to being a dunker is likewise insulting and simultaneously stupid. The man has his own life to lead and business to mind and, by golly, probably has interests and goals outside the limited exposure you’ve had into his life, which as far as I can workout are YouTube and ESPN. You’ve given no indication that you know the man, or have ever even met him. This article, therefore, isn’t a character portrait – we know nothing about White from reading this, we only know what you think of White, how you imagine him to be and what his future holds from this blinkered perspective. This article is about you.

    You want White to be something irrespective of what he is or wants himself. You belittle him here – saying his future is sad, comparing his performance in the dunk contest to a funeral, both of which are particularly cliched sports metaphors, I might add – because he’s never lived up to what you wanted him to be. You don’t even seem to know if he should be an untouched legend, which is totally untrue (see: people actually live in Turkey and Russia and watch basketball) who dies like James Dean, unable to to make a bad film, or if you want him to emerge from obscurity and take his rightful place where he belongs (i.e, not the wastelands of outside America where nobody lives or watches basketball).

    All you know is that he isn’t what you want. This article is about how you’re dissatisfied with White’s career, and the long, pretentious and winding crap about ‘allegory’ (which you should check the appropriate usage of before misusing) is simply an attempt to write around that simple fact. You’re a demanding consumer, unhappy that the pre-prepared narrative constantly regurgitated to you of the underdog’s success has once again failed to deliver, as it almost always does. Rather than offer an insight on how the simplistic, unrepresentative and exploitative narrative we’re constantly exposed to by sports media, you simply capitulate to it and offer this lazy piece of rubbish that comes at James White’s expense.

    Your expectations of what White should have been are what have crumbled, not White himself. You demand more of him for no other reason than to compensate for your own inabilities to compete at the level he’s reached.

    This is schadenfraude. You kick White when he’s down as a scapegoat to avoid kicking yourself. This article is not about White, it’s not about putting his loss in perspective (considering what you could have written here that title is painfully overreaching) it’s about you. It’s narcissism. And it’s everything wrong with armchair journalism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tuotila1 Tuomas Uotila

    ^This comment is better than the actual article, I’m afraid.

  • mike, NOT the writer

    agreed. This comment was better than the article… the article was to long an uninteresting, i did not even care to finish it… and like UGH said…seemingly pretentious and ignorant . props to UGH… id rather read intelligent commentary like this

  • TBRK

    thank you. Nothing at all insightful or really true about the article at all. Surprised Slam allowed it. Dude has the nerve to call dunking his lot in life……like dog who are you to judge that??? lol. James white was averaging around almost 30 ppg in the D League before his call up a few years back. Fringe NBA player, thats fine, but don’t disrespect the man just because he didn’t entertain you lol. And everybody chiming in with the “such a good article” just proves how much we as humans are influenced by the mob mentality, cuz I’m certain not all of them read the whole thing

  • Gregg Shorthand

    Hammer meet nail.

  • analfissures

    Silk Road? Lol.

  • robb

    you’re overreacting. Chill out.

  • jama

    i don’t give a f*ck, he’s one of the all time best dunk artists

  • deej

    I think you missed his main point despite mentioning it in your response;
    “This article is about you.”

    Mike:
    “Our fanaticism for Flight White was never really about him; it was about us.”

    If you still can’t make the connection, I can’t help you. He’s not addressing James White the human being, to which you’re trying argue that he is… He’s merely speaking of the tale of Flight White. You didn’t want James White in the dunk contest because he’s like to shoot hoops with kids in the park or because he likes orange shoes, you championed him for his dunking ability. Let’s be honest here, most of us who knew James White from the beginning, mainly knew him because we were from the DMV area or watched him in Ball Above All. Anything after that, he garnered through dunk contests.

    So please, stop trying to make this article out to be some sort of thesis or essay on human introspection. It’s not. Find an article on Gandhi to complain about.

  • burnt_chicken

    I’m with Ugh completely. And think the main reason I’m upset is that clearly you are a smart, talented writer who chooses to be an articulate idiot–more inspired to keep his mind closed than one who uses his gifts to inspire others to open theirs.

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