Commentary

Mother of dunk finally getting due

Twenty-five years later, first women's NCAA dunk finally is unearthed

Originally Published: July 22, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

DUBLIN, Ohio -- Still spidery-thin at 6 feet, 6¾ inches, Georgeann Wells couldn't possibly have lost a step since her playing days at West Virginia.

She coaches four different AAU basketball teams, tends to three children -- in order of appearance: Curtis, Maddison and Kasey -- and, with her husband Myron Blackwell, runs a teeming summer adventure camp.

The secret of Wells' seemingly endless reservoir of energy might lie on the sunlit counter of her kitchen: three coffeemakers, including a high-test espresso machine. Brown eyes blazing, cornrows swinging, she ricochets from venue to venue, positively amped and in good humor.

"We've got a lot going on," she said, waving toward the cable guy, who has entered the airy foyer. "It gets crazy sometimes."

In 1983, she blocked 17 shots against Marshall -- still the West Virginia single-game record -- and finished her career with 1,484 points, 1,075 rebounds and 436 blocked shots. Wells, a member of the West Virginia Athletic Hall of Fame, toured briefly with the Harlem Globetrotters and played professionally in Japan, Spain, Italy and France from 1986 to 2003.

These are all impressive résumé items, but Wells has an even greater claim on history. Twenty-five years ago, she did something no woman had ever done: She threw one down in an NCAA game.

Yes, she dunked.

Sherry Winn played for the University of Charleston, the team Wells slammed on.

"For so long, women played below the rim," Winn said recently. "We weren't as fast, and we didn't have the same dribble moves as men did.

"For women's basketball, it was a great event. It was a mark of something else to come."

If it had occurred in this day of ubiquitous global interconnectedness, of cell-phone photographs, YouTube and instant video gratification, that great event would be all over "SportsCenter," replayed over and over and over. But Wells' remarkable achievement went virtually unnoticed.

"It was really on word of mouth," she said. "People were just like, 'Yeah, right, you didn't really slam-dunk if you can't show me proof.'"

Said Winn: "Because there was no photograph, there was no tape, no reporter in the stands … it was a myth for people outside of the game. The players on both teams, the coaches, we all knew it happened.

"It was real for everybody that was there."

And now, thanks to an enterprising reporter from The Wall Street Journal who unearthed the rare frame-by-frame artifact, Wells' historic dunk is real for everybody who wasn't there.

'It's going to happen'

The Randolph County Armory in Elkins, W.Va., does not immediately strike you as a historic venue.

There's a tank outside and an American flag, as befits a National Guard facility. It is a drab, nondescript structure; you would never know there is a full-length basketball court inside. There's a stage at one end, like an elementary school gymnasium, and pull-out bleachers. The only games played these days are shirts-versus-skins pickup contests.

And yet nearly 25 years ago -- on Dec. 21, 1984 -- Georgeann Wells found herself here, on the threshold of uncharted territory.

She grew up in Columbus, Ohio, one of nine children. Wells was extraordinarily tall, but she was far from a graceful athlete. Her height was her chief asset, and Kittie Blakemore and her assistant coaches at West Virginia were determined to maximize this gift; after each day's practice, Wells worked on her dunking for 10 or 15 minutes.

"From Day 1, as a freshman," she said, "they're like, 'You're 6-7, you are going to slam-dunk. We are going to get this done. It's going to happen.'

"And I'm like, 'OK, I can't do this.'"

Contact with the rim -- when she managed to reach it -- tore up her hands. But with a running start, she could sometimes get the ball high enough to send it through. The coaches designed an inbounds play from guard Lisa Ribble.

Bud Francis, the feisty University of Charleston coach, saw it coming. He warned his team before its holiday tournament game with West Virginia that Wells, a foot taller than most of his players, might dunk.

"Bud's pregame speech?" said Sherry Winn. "It was pretty short: 'I don't care what you have to do, don't get slam-dunked on. If you have to grab her, if you have to tackle her … take her down.'"

With West Virginia holding a comfortable lead, Charleston scored with less than 12 minutes remaining. Ribble, spotting Wells ahead of the defense, hit her with a perfect lead pass at midcourt. And …

"I threw it down pretty good," Wells said, laughing. "It was a powerful one, because I was all by myself. I had the speed, I had the endurance to get it up there.

"It was awesome."

A total of about 100 people, players included, witnessed the event.

West Virginia had left its cumbersome videotaping equipment at home, but Charleston caught the dunk on film. When West Virginia's coaches asked for a copy, Francis, embarrassed, said no.

The dunk generated national headlines, but without the videotape there was no conclusive proof. Three games later, Wells dunked against Xavier, and this time a videographer captured the moment.

But that wasn't the first time. And it wasn't history.

History, unearthed

Ford Francis, the son of Bud Francis, is a lawyer in Charleston, W.Va. In January, he received a call from Reed Albergotti, a sports reporter from The Wall Street Journal. Albergotti was working on a feature about the 25-year anniversary of Wells' dunk, and he was wondering if Ford had seen the tape.

"There's no way I have this tape -- why would I have the tape?" Francis told him. "And when he said 'tournament, Elkins, 1984,' a light went off in my head about that, because I remembered I had this basket of tapes."

Bud had kept the tape in his basketball office over the years, but when he retired to raise horses it made the journey with him. When Bud died in 1999, Francis and his stepmother sold Bud's barn and stables to a neighbor. The neighbor found a box of tapes in a storage room in the barn and gave them to Francis. He put them in a wicker basket next to the couch in his family room and, for the next decade, didn't give them another thought.

Albergotti's calls, however, eventually piqued his curiosity. Forty-five minutes after the last one, he had the tape in his hand. Excited, he found the dunk and called Albergotti in New York.

After dozens of calls and e-mails and hours of work, the tape finally had surfaced nearly a quarter-century after the fact.

"So I got on a plane, just shot down there," Albergotti remembered. "He's got this big-screen TV and he pops the thing in, he's got it cued up, and there's the dunk.

"I was completely excited. For me, my emotion as a reporter, I found a piece of history."

Soon, after another protracted series of calls, Albergotti was on his way to Ohio.

He had copied the tape to a disk and played the dunk for Wells on a laptop in her dining room.

"It was weird, because the shorts were too short," Wells said. "It was a really fuzzy picture, but you can see what actually happened. I was just like, 'Wow, that was me 25 years ago slam-dunking, the very first dunk in my life.'

"It was amazing."

Winn, for one, was thrilled for Wells.

"I just think it's wonderful now after all these years," Winn said, "that it can really be verified."

Does the tape, on some small level, complete Wells?

"Yes," Wells said. "It's out there. It's visible now."

The funny thing? She never dunked again.

Picking up the torch

Today, dunking -- even in high school -- is a more common phenomenon. Brittney Griner, who will be a freshman at Baylor, is 6-8 and weighs 200 pounds. You can readily find her resounding dunks playing for Nimitz (Houston) High School on YouTube. In 2006, Tennessee's Candace Parker became the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game, and the first woman to dunk twice in one game.

But the thing that separates them from Georgeann Wells is more than mere time and space. While the NCAA introduced the smaller women's ball in 1984, with its circumference of 28.5 inches and weight of 20 ounces, Wells apparently dunked with an old-school men's ball, one inch larger in circumference and two ounces heavier.

That single inch makes an enormous difference.

Nera White, who played for Nashville Business College, is the first women's dunker on record, but she played at a time when the women's game was sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union. In those days, players enjoyed unlimited eligibility; White won 10 national championships at Nashville and played from 1955-69.

Today, Wells cannot come close to dunking. Her hands are too soft to grip the ball, and her French-manicured nails get in the way. But Wells' 13-year-old daughter, Maddison, hopes to follow in her historic footsteps. At 5-11, she is expected to grow as tall as her mother.

And because of Title IX and achievements like Georgeann Wells', Maddison's hoop dreams don't sound so far-fetched.

"I think I can beat you," Maddison said as she watched a tape of the dunk with her mother. "I think I can top that."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.