One Giant Leap for Mankind

Twenty years ago this coming month, America peaked.

We didn’t know it at the time, but our entire history as a nation, its advances and its setbacks, its triumphs and its shames, had all been leading up to a single moment. The declaration in 1776 that minted the United States as a fresh alternative to the old-world European powers. The sins of racism that would funnel generations of Black Americans into urban poverty and the infrastructure decisions that would lead to basketball becoming the sport of choice among the urban poor. The rise of an American-dominated global mass media and corporate capitalist system that could turn a 29-year-old Michael Jordan into an avatar of post-Cold War hegemony in Barcelona in 1992. This is not all a pretty history. But it converged on Sept. 25, 2000, when a rough and messy world led to something fantastic and beautiful: something that didn’t justify all that had happened but, at least for a moment, managed to transcend it.

That day Team USA’s Vince Carter jumped clear over a seven-foot, two-inch French center named Frédéric Weis to dunk a basketball during the 2000 Summer Olympics.

This sounds like I’m kidding, but have you seen it lately? When I watch the dunk from all the available angles, I’m overcome by the same feeling of awe that I get contemplating the moon landing: of seeing what humankind is capable of in our greatest moments, when we set tremendous challenges for ourselves and then rise to meet them. It is inspirational, motivational. If you turned it into a poster, I would buy it: “ELEVATION: We choose to dunk over seven-foot Frenchmen not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

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Vince Carter’s dunk springs out of basketball chaos, a microcosm of the post-Jordan era. Here’s how it happens. Five French players hang out below the free-throw line, watching Team USA guard Gary Payton dribble past Frenchman Yann Bonato. Payton’s drive is disrupted by an outstretched French hand; he retains possession only to throw up one of 2000’s ugliest layups. The rebound tips off three sets of hands before Bonato beats Kevin Garnett to it by a step near the free-throw line. Perhaps to avoid the possibility of having to dribble past Garnett, he spins and attempts a spectacularly ill-advised one-handed no-look behind-the-back pass to start the fast break. It’s as though the guiding hand of fate knew that in order for what was about to happen to happen, Bonato would have to briefly be hypnotized into thinking he was Magic Johnson.

He was not Magic Johnson. Carter scoops the ball off the bounce and surges past four Frenchmen with one step. The fifth, Weis, slides between Carter and the basket, hands pulled into his chest like a man preparing to take a trust fall.

Did you ever hear that children’s song, “Going on a Bear Hunt,” where the singer encounters all sorts of obstacles while performing the titular activity and lists the decision tree involved in conquering each one: “Can’t go around it, can’t go under it, have to go through it,” etc? Vince Carter apparently has not heard that song. Everyone in the world who is not Vince Carter would have looked at Weis and thought, “Can’t go over it.”

But Carter gathers the ball, leans forward into his jump, and takes off with what I can only assume was a deafening, jet-engine roar that somehow wasn’t picked up by any of the broadcast microphones. He’s so confident that he’s going to make the shot that he cocks back his ball before he’s even a foot off the ground. His free hand catches Weis with a more-violent-than-it-looks-at-first-glance open-hand chop to the face, ducking the big guy’s head a crucial inch and pogoing Carter higher as he splays his legs. His thigh is still on Weis’ head as he slams the ball home, but he has, for all intents and purposes, cleared the big man. Citius, altius, fortius, but mostly altius.

In the aftermath, Carter swings himself back to the ground, where he reacts like he’s inadvertently summoned too much power and is in danger of throwing off the delicate balance between Half Man and Half Amazing. He disperses that surplus energy through his arms and his legs and his scream at the heavens, culminating in a triumphant overhand punch that nearly lays out Garnett, who’s arriving at his side to celebrate.

You couldn’t have picked a better Buzz Aldrin for the moment. From the way Garnett raises his hands, as if in suggestion, to receive a pass that doesn’t come to the flicker of confusion screwing up his face when he realizes why he’s not going to get the ball. He converts his dropped jaw into his own primal scream. He matches the Carter’s aggression and mirrors his celebratory arm-pumping. Meanwhile, USA forward Vin Baker was perhaps the first person to recognize that a man’s spirit has been murdered on international television, and does a cartoonishly exaggerated “I didn’t see anything” that would be a meme if a better-quality clip of it existed. No one was there to catch Weis. He collapsed in on himself like an imploding building.

It is, in sum, the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

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It’s not just that there are easier ways to get two points; it’s that every other method of scoring two points in the history of basketball has been easier than the one Carter chose. Payton and Garnett are right there, meaning Carter has two of the year 2000’s greatest living basketball players (and Vin Baker) standing five feet away from him, wide-open and with clear paths to the rim. He decides instead that he’s going to do it himself, giant Frenchman be damned. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps so hard that he cleared a seven-footer.

Listen. I really don’t mean here to be celebrating bootstraps. In most situations, the perfect blend of a daredevil’s cocksure “I got this” and a toddler’s impetuous “I do it!” on display here would seem like the problem with America, not anything to praise. Even Carter can’t believe his gambit worked. “It was just a case when the moon and the stars lined up just right for me at that moment,” he told ESPN in 2015. “I never would think to try to jump over a seven-footer. Figured I’d hurt myself.”

For Carter, successfully negotiating that risk created unspeakable beauty. In the summer of 2020, the country’s best basketball players, male and female, have once again eyed a high bar and decided it can be cleared. The collective action that brought most sports in the country to a halt last week was another leap of faith. The players’ ambitions are great, but so are their abilities. This time, they are not capping the arc of history, but using their power to bend it towards justice and, hopefully, taking us all with them to a higher place.

Eric Betts: Longtime advocate for Michael Jordan’s baseball career.