Flight 75: DC to Moscow

by Mitya Yakushkin

After Russia’s heartbreaking quarterfinal loss to Canada in the Olympic Ice-Hockey Tournament, the nation needed some sort of consolation. CSKA Moscow soccer team making it to the quarterfinals of the Champions League almost got the job done, but to make sure sports folk completely recovered, God sent some of the world’s most notorious dunkers to put on a show in Moscow.

The event was the Russian Cup Final Four, where CSKA Moscow (yes, them again) dethroned defending champs Uniks of Kazan. But the slam dunk contest in between the third place game and the final completely overshadowed everything else.

Ever wonder what happened to James White? He of the two-handed-windmills-off-the-free-throw-line variety? How about Gerald Green? Blowing candles in midair and windmilling with no shoes on just to become one of many victims of the Little Guy Craze?… Was it all a dream?

Well, it may be pictures on your wall (hope y’all get the Biggie reference here), but they are still very real, and still play ball out here in Russia. As a matter of fact, James helped Spartak St. Petersburg clinch third place just before the contest (SPOILER: playing major minutes didn’t hurt his chances at all).

There were three more contestants of course: CSKA’s Pops Mensah-Bonsu, a 6-8 English born swingman, who caught some action in the NBA before moving back to Europe last year. And let me tell you, the dude can flat out jump out the gym; he doesn’t get much playing time in deep CSKA rotation behind Europe’s own Paul Pierce AKA Ramunas Shishkauskas, but every time he does play, a highlight is guaranteed. So Pops was considered the main challenger to the legendary globetrotters, so to speak. The second challenger was Igor Tkachenko of Uniks, an undersized four-man, who had won several outdoor contests. The third one was the shortest man in the field, a little-known young guard of Khimki with a name straight outta Enemy At The Gate — Slava Zaitsev. Green actually flew in just for the event, as his squad, Lokomotiv Kuban didn’t take part in the Final Four.

In the first round, each contestant was given two attempts with a 60-second limit.

Gerald Green was up first and started off strong with a perfect windmill off the shot-clock, following with a baseline one-handed leaner off the side of the clock that truly got the crowd and the judges amped for the first perfect score of the night. White was also solid; he didn’t wanna show off too much too early, going for an off-hand windmill and then, his own version of the East Bay Funk (but we all know he does that on fast breaks). When Khimki’s youngster came out on the floor, everybody felt kind off embarrassed for the kid, as a totally basic reverse two-hander took about five tries to complete. But he did go out with a bang using a teammate’s assistance in doing his best Rudy Gay/Fernandez impression. Pops told me he hadn’t practiced or even thought of anything the day before, but he seemed pretty focused from the start, opening with an elbow-in-the-rim a-la Vince Carter and following with a with a nice windmill over a cheerleader.

But even though Pops represented the home crowd, it was Tkachenko who emerged as the crowd favorite. First of all, he was the only one to incorporate the all-important artistic element into what he did (think Dwight’s Superman cape), sporting a throw-back USSR warm-up. And had the dunks to back that big name up, too. Before he even got started, he quickly repeated Pops’ elbow-in-the-rim just for the hell of it, and then kept it within the Vinsanity repertoire with one-step-from-behind-the-baseline windmill before another windmill over a standing teammate.

After some confusion over tie-breakers it went down to a three-man final. Green was basically out after he failed to complete an off-the-floor between the legs stuff, while Tkachenko and Pops didn’t seem to have much left in their tanks either.

But really, all of that didn’t matter; it was White’s trophy for the taking to begin with, because let me tell you: seeing this man take off from the free-throw line is just otherwordly. He did it twice to clinch the title — a one-hander, and a two-handed windmill, which, I’m sure, were easily the two greatest dunks ever performed at the CSKA’s Universal Sports Hall. After it was all done, he tried to go between the legs twice just to please the fans, but I guess tired legs and age (27 already) got even to him.

So James White, as expected, left home with the crown, making sure his squad took something positive from the tournament after the loss in the third-place game.

Mitya Yakushkin is a sports broadcast journalist at Russia Today. Just like The Governor from He Got Game, Yakushkin’s a fanatical basketball fan.