Few players in college basketball rain down fire on rim like Arkansas junior Michael Qualls, the self-proclaimed @Mr_WalkOnAir and author of 12 SportsCenter Top 10 appearances. Last year, the 6-6 wing flushed home a last-second dunk to win an overtime thriller against a ranked Kentucky team. This year, of course, the No. 1 Wildcats are back with a vengeance and off to the best start in program history. But the 22-5 Razorbacks have improved a lot, too, boasting that program’s best start in 17 years.
Qualls, the SEC’s eighth-leading scorer, is a major of part of No. 18 Arkansas’ plans to knock off No. 1 Kentucky on the road this Saturday. SLAM recently sat down with the dunk lord to talk about the big game, growing up in a single-father household in Shreveport, LA, and his friendship with a certain Dallas Cowboys cornerback.
SLAM: Let’s get right to it. Is there a specific type in-game dunk that you’ve done that is your most favorite?
Michael Qualls: Probably every one. My high school favorite dunk used to be the windmill, and I used to have a little back dunk where I brought it down between my legs off two feet. Now that we’re in SEC big boy basketball, my favorite dunk is just any dunk putting somebody in the rim—just me going up against them.
SLAM: Are some of your dunks planned and some of them purely instinctive—like the put-back dunks? Tell me what’s going through your mind.
MQ: All of my dunks are instinctual. Every time I drive, I have it on my mind. So if I have a crease or if the ball goes off the rim and no one boxes me out, I’m gonna run and am gonna try to put it back. That’s every time. But most of the time, due to the film other teams have on me, they don’t lose me too much. When the ball’s going up, they put bodies on me and they find me. But every time I catch somebody sleeping and not boxing me out, guaranteed I’m gonna go in there.
SLAM: Are people sleeping less now that your dunks have been on SportsCenter so many times these last two seasons?
MQ: Yeah, you know, it’s hard. I try to be a player that can move without the basketball and play without the basketball—back cutting and that type of stuff. That’ll free me up, too. Like in the Alabama game, I’m cutting through and the shot goes up—bam, I’m right there. [See the 2:15 mark in the vid below]
SLAM: About that Alabama game. The second highlight dunk you did is a little Mailman style [see the 2:25 mark in this vid], no? Was that a homage to Karl Malone, also a north Louisiana native?
MQ: Actually, I did that dunk back at home in a rival game versus a rival team named Fair Park. It was just in the spare of the moment. I just wanted to make a statement because I just missed a free throw. So I just wanted to come down and make a punctualization on the game, and that’s what I did. They told me it was Karl Malone’s dunk, but I didn’t even have a clue.
SLAM: Other times, you’re flexing and kissing your biceps after a dunk. That’s not a la Karl Malone either?
MQ: [Shaking head, laughing] That’s crazy, I guess it’s just a lineage growing. Because I do what I do at the spur of the moment. If I feel I made a strong physical play, I give them a kiss or flash them.
SLAM: Looking ahead to Kentucky, do you think Arkansas performs better against Calipari-led Kentucky teams than most other SEC schools?
MQ: You know, I just feel for the most part we step up to the occasion. We don’t like people sleeping on us, so of course Kentucky is a big game for us, like for everybody. Everybody who has a chance to play them, I am pretty sure likes to step up to the occasion. [Against Kentucky] we come with that edge every year. Since I have been here, we haven’t lost to them. So to us, we’re the better team. We’re the top dogs. Not to shy away from what they do, because they are one of the best basketball teams in the country every year.
SLAM: Of course, it’s a different UK team this year with many different players. How do you expect you will perform? How do you expect the team will perform on the road in this game?
MQ: I am sure we are going to come out and play with our hearts, just like we do every game. I feel that our young guys will follow our leads. I think Bobby Portis is going to come, he is going to play big, like he’s played all season. I know we will step up to the occasion.
SLAM: When you get attention for the dunks, for the highlights, do you feel a little bit anxious that may be taking a lot of attention away from your teammates?
MQ: No, I really don’t, because most of those plays either came from a shot that they missed or a lob or alley play so they’re getting me involved. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have a lot of those plays. For the most part, it’s off a good assist or a good pass or a good defense that leads to them getting me the ball. They know I don’t hold any type of ego issues or nothing like that. We all have the utmost faith for each other.
SLAM: This whole theme of Arkansas returning to national prominence has gone on for years now. What do you think defines when Arkansas is back? How do you define that breakthrough?
MQ: When we have the respect that I feel we deserve. Because right now, it’s still not quite there. [Others say] we have a great duo, but they’ve got a better team. We are heading in a better direction. But then when everybody starts saying we are not heading in the right direction, but we are there. That’s when we’re gonna be there. When you say, without a doubt, that Arkansas is one of the best teams, that’s when we will be finally be there.
SLAM: In order for this team to take the next step, where do you have to improve the most?
MQ: I need to just be the guy. When everything goes down to the tip of the wire and it’s time to just man up. Who are we gonna need to bring this toughness, to bring whatever it is—whether it’s the game on the line, and you need the big shot, you need a big stop, you need a big block, you need to encourage someone? I think I am that guy to bring that passion to this team.
SLAM: Let’s talk about your past. Growing up, did you personally know or look up to any big-time basketball players in the area?
MQ: No. To be honest, we didn’t have too many positive role models coming up. Or I didn’t—especially in Shreveport. We had like Stromile Swift—he was one of the only basketball guys that went to a big time level, an SEC school, and made it to the next level. We had Morris Claiborne—he’s a friend of mine—but he played football.
SLAM: Are you and Morris communicating often?
MQ: Yeah, he’ll holler at me from time to time if I’m back at home and he’s not doing his profession. Yeah, we’ll meet up and talk.
SLAM: Ya’ll ball together back in Shreveport?
MQ: Yeah, he used to play basketball and football for Fair Park. Matter of fact, my freshman year, he had dunked on a guy on our team. It was crazy, I had never seen nothing like it. Morris, he’s a crazy athlete.
SLAM: You’ve got a 2-year-old-son, Michael Qualls Jr. How often are you able to talk to him during the season?
MQ: I talk to him every day. I try to get him. My child’s mother, she plays here (at the UA) so I either FaceTime him or call him. I don’t really get to see him [in person] that much ’cause I stay far away, but whenever my people can get him here I embrace that. He’ll come out and spend the weekend with me. But whenever we do spend time, it’s special. I understand I can’t be with him how I want to right now, but I try to keep my mind focused, and I try to use this as motivation to keep going.
SLAM: He stays with relatives in Shreveport?
MQ: He stays with my grandmother and my dad and her mother, alternating.
SLAM: And I know your dad was a single parent growing up. That’s different because it seems you hear a lot about basketball stars growing up with a single mother, but tell me your story.
MQ: There were issues…they gave custody to my father so I moved away from Georgia to Shreveport. You know, a lot of people don’t have their fathers—especially in black households in the South. But I was blessed to have mine, and he just taught me to be a man. There are a lot of times when he had to go work because he had to put food on the table, so Grandma used to watch me. And it’s ironic now because here I am now trying to put food on the table and my dad, he’s a grandfather, he is taking care of my son.
SLAM: The tattoos on your left shoulder look like they are about family. What do they say?
MQ: My life—this is Vera, my grandmother; Anthony, that’s my father, and Michael Jr—my son. And these are three people that I hold to the highest standards and these are the three people that am working for.
SLAM: Does your son come with you to gym and to practice here in Fayetteville?
MQ: Whenever my dad has the time to bring him up here, he’ll come here and he’ll just be running around in the stands. He’ll be with Mrs. Anderson, Coach’s A’s wife, and his mother just watching me practice.
No surprise here. Son—like father—prefers to see the game from above.