Lane humbled by legacy of The Dunk

AKRON, Ohio — There are maybe 200 people in the gym at Firestone High School on a snowy Friday night.

Even those just there for the cheerleaders or a little friendly conversation recognize the best player on the court. He’s the biggest guy on the floor, probably standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 225 pounds, but he jumps into passing lanes like a 5-10 guard.

His braided hair flops from side to side as he runs the floor, and on this night the overmatched opponent is especially in trouble when he dips his broad shoulder into the lane. He’s part-bull, part-bully out there, a fully-grown man nearing the end of his high school career.

He’s a little like his dad was, but the player who goes by J.T. Lane insists he’s better. Jerome Lane Sr. laughs at that thought.

“J.T. can’t jump half as high as I could,” Lane said.

Twenty-five years ago Friday, Jerome Lane made the play of his life, a play so good it’s come to be known as The Dunk. Then a junior at Pitt, Lane made the highlight play of his life when he caught a pass from then-Pitt point guard and now-Arizona head coach Sean Miller and went up for what became a tomahawk dunk.

The rim came down with Lane. The backboard shattered. Color commentator Bill Raftery made an emphatic and now infamous call of “Send it in, Jerome!”

A couple hours before taking his usual seat as assistant coach for J.T.’s Firestone team Friday night, Lane shrugged his shoulders while discussing not just of the anniversary, but The Dunk’s shelf life.

“It must have been a spectacular dunk if people are still talking about it,” Lane said. “I dunked the ball a lot of times, in a lot of different ways, but I don’t think there’s one better than that one. There was obviously some force behind it, but I think it was the angle, too.

“It was the beginning of the (use of the) collapsible rim. I came down, and the rim came down with me, and I’m just thinking the screws came out. Don’t get me wrong, I felt like a muscle man, but at the time it all happened so fast.

“Then I felt some glass in my back. It was in my hair, everywhere. The glass was all over the floor. And the poor guy (from Providence) I dunked on, he was on the floor and had glass all over him.

“They hadn’t quite mastered the collapsing backboard. If I helped them figure that out, that’s pretty cool.”

Jerome Lane Jr. has his own first name, but he’s never had trouble mimicking his father’s game or following his legacy. A decorated football recruit and starter on the Firestone basketball team since his sophomore season, J.T. Lane plans to sign with the University of Akron’s football program next month and then also walk on to the basketball team.

“It’s an honor for me to have a dad that played in the NBA and that everybody remembers,” J.T. said. “He doesn’t talk about his career much. He gets on me, but I know I’m better than he was. I can dunk better.

“I always feel somebody’s watching me. I know I have big shoes to fill. I have to come out and bust my butt every time I play.”

Asked specifically about The Dunk, J.T. said he’s seen it “hundreds” of times. With a half-smile, he didn’t back down from his claim that he’s capable of similar.

“I think he went up with his strong leg, the backboard was weak and the rest is pretty good history,” J.T. said. “He got lucky.”

During that 1987-88 season Jerome Lane was listed at 6-6, 230 pounds. He’s 46 now and not exactly in playing shape, but he still looks strong and fit enough to grab a rebound or two if called upon. He’s built solid, and on many nights the two most intimidating guys in the gym when Firestone is playing are both named Lane.

When he stands to yell at his son, cheeks red and shirt untucked, it’s because he holds J.T. to very high standards.

“There was a time, not too long ago, that I would have said J.T. is just a decent player,” Jerome said. “He’s really changing his game. He can handle the ball. He’s improved his court awareness. I’m proud of how he’s worked at it.”

The senior Lane said the other Firestone players know him simply as coach Lane, not as someone who made one of the most memorable plays in college basketball history.

“I’m fine with that,” he said. “I’m just Jerome. When I was done playing (he played five NBA seasons, then in Europe), I came home to Akron hoping to live a regular life. I can walk the streets in Akron, have fun, talk to people … I like it that way. I don’t like a lot of attention.

“People don’t even know that I played in the NBA. They just know about The Dunk, and I’m cool with that. I can think of a whole lot of players who get forgotten. And it’s a real shame, but kids right now don’t know Larry Nance, and Larry Nance had a way better career than Jerome Lane. I was his teammate 20 years ago, and I was in awe of Larry Nance.

“That’s just one example, but one thing I’ve found is people know about The Dunk. The young kids can see it on YouTube. Older people, they see me and that’s the first thing they bring up. I had a guy tell me around Christmas he hasn’t forgotten that play for 20-some years, and I guess now it’s 25. People keep it alive. It’s an honor for me.”
A few of the Firestone players saw The Dunk for the first time on Friday’s anniversary; Firestone head coach Dave Milo made sure of it.

“I showed some of the kids today in a computer class,” Milo said. “They were in amazement, like, ‘That’s coach ‘Rome? He looks a lot like J.T.’ And he does. J.T. has some pretty good genes.

“I wish more kids today understood the history of the game. Here in Akron, Jerome is a big part of that. And that dunk, that’s college basketball history anywhere. I tell the kids about Jerome, and not just that play. I want them to know.

“The first time I saw the highlight, my jaw dropped. I’d seen Gus Johnson dunk like that. I’d seen Darryl Dawkins do it. But Jerome was so strong. It was amazing.”

Jerome helps run the Summit Lake Community Center in Akron. He’s been an assistant coach at different Akron City Series high schools since 2001. He’s been coaching J.T. in football and basketball “since Little League” and has helped coach his AAU teams in recent summers.

He has a pretty good scouting report on the guy with whom he shares a name — and he’s not afraid to share it.

“He’s turning up his game,” Jerome said. “But he’s not as good as his dad.”