“Man Resolves to Slam Dunk a Basketball This Year” reads more like a headline from The Onion than the premise of a thoughtful memoir, but author Asher Price does just that in his new book, “The Year of the Dunk: A Modest Defiance of Gravity.”
The memoir chronicles Price’s year-long mission at age 34 to dunk a basketball. Price, a reporter for the Austin American Statesman and a cancer survivor, used the sum of his experiences to explore the science, history and spirit of the slam dunk. Released by Crown Publishing Group in May, the book has already made “must read lists” throughout the country.
Price recalls one of his earliest childhood memories, spent watching the 1986 NBA Slam Dunk Contest on TV. He remembers how Spud Webb, who stood at 5’6?, spectacularly defeated champion-dunker Dominique Wilkins, a certified 6’8? all-star small forward. He was inspired by Webb’s performance and short stature, and Webb was just a few inches taller than Price at the time.
“I thought that was the most exciting thing I could imagine, rising up like a bird and throwing the ball down,” Price said. “(The slam dunk is) one of the most exciting moves in sports, either you can do it or you can’t. But it’s something that I never really tried doing, I never really got into shape; I always had other priorities. By my mid-30s, it felt like certain windows were closing, and you wonder what talents are you leaving behind.”
Price recently visited San Antonio for a book reading hosted by his longtime friend Hugh Daschbach, the culinary concierge at the new Hotel Emma. The pair played Ultimate Frisbee together during their college years.
“We were athletes together, so to see him do something like this is really fun,” Daschbach said. “You find yourself thinking at times, ‘Well if I could just quit my job and that was all I had to do, well, of course, I could do that one thing,’ but he did it while working and having a life too, which is really cool.”
Price’s slam dunk idea appealed to publishers, and a book advance allowed him to take a seven-month leave of absence from the Statesman. Price took that time to train with San Marcos resident and Olympic winning high jumper Charles Austin, study professional dunkers like Dr. J, and work with scientists throughout the country to understand the biology of why some people can slam dunk, while others cannot.
“I was first just trying to dunk a basketball, it just started as a lark,” Price admitted. “At six-feet and a half, I’m vaguely tall and vaguely athletic. At the beginning I could barely touch the rim, but the more I tried to dunk, the more I thought it was a rich subject. The dunk is a great metaphor – could we be great ballerinas or mathematicians if we only tried?”
The sports metaphor extends to American culture, race and even the parallels between Price’s own battle with cancer and his slam dunk quest.
“As an athlete, you’re trying to figure out who the frontiers of human potential are, and suddenly my potential was circumscribed, and looked like it would be shut down,” Price said of finding out he had testicular cancer.
He happened to sit next to athlete and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong on a flight, shortly after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2006. Armstrong helped him get an emergency appointment with Dr. Eichhorn, who also helped Armstrong beat cancer. A year later, Price was cancer-free and participating in his first Livestrong Challenge.
Price’s article about the experience, “Me and Lance Armstrong: a caring touch in an hour of need,” was published by the Statesman in August 2012.
“Lance Armstrong also plays a role in the book. He had enormous talents, but he also stretched those talents using drugs through blood doping, so in the way he’s kind of a foil for me in the book because I didn’t use drugs to dunk,” Price said. “At the end of the day, I am enormously grateful to him for getting me to see our doctor, who is also a character in the book.”
So…Can he dunk?
Price demonstrated his basketball skills for San Antonio readers after the Southtown book signing on Thursday, but set the hoop below regulation height and evaded questions when asked if he had been able to reach his slam dunk goals.
“You gotta read the book, my publisher would shoot me if I told you,” Price said, half-jokingly. “I’m happy to tell you that I got higher than I ever thought possible, I improved my vertical and got into the greatest shape of my life, although I despise working out and going to the gym.”
Price has returned to newspaper reporting since completing the book, but he is interested in writing more “pop-science” book projects in the future.
“For better or worse I am not a scientist by training, but I am interested in the scientific reasons behind why we can do what we do at 25 that we can’t at 35,” Price said. “I’d love to do another book down the line that questions human biology. ”
Asher Price has served as the environment reporter for the Austin American-Statesman since 2006. A New York native, he studied English at Yale, and has graduate degrees in public policy and journalism from Oxford and Columbia. His second book, “Year of the Dunk” can be purchased from major online vendors, or locally at The Twig Book Shop. Price previously co-authored the book “The Great Texas Wind Rush.”
*Featured/top image: Author Asher Price introduces his memoir “The Year of the Dunk”at a local Twig Book Shop signing. Photo by Lea Thompson.