The Ballad of Flight White

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.