One of Stanley Kubrick’s favorite films, White Men Can’t Jump, is turning 25. It can now legally rent a car. And unlike most millennial-aged things, even the grumpiest old codgers can’t really find anything bad to say about this movie. White Men Can’t Jump might be one of the best basketball films ever made, even if it’s about so much more than just basketball. It’s a celebration of warped humanity, a psalm to the addiction of the hustle, an anthemic chorus to the no-man’s-land between uneasy partnership and uncertain friendship. Anchored by Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson during a period of mutual ascendance, this is a film that is far better than it should be on paper. Although to be fair, an elevator pitch of “dopey white guy hustles a cool black guy and then they hustle some other guys, and also sometimes they argue about Jimi Hendrix” is pretty good.
Ultimately, it’s a buddy comedy about Sidney Deane (Snipes) and Billy Hoyle (Harrelson), a pair of codependent quasi-scumbags playing hoops for money, and how their compulsion to commit acts of righteous swindling incurs the well-earned wrath of their much stronger female counterparts. It’s a film about stewing racial divides, honor among hucksters, the gaps on the perimeter where desperate Americans are forced to toil. But most of all, it’s about one doofy, not-very-tall white guy’s quest to prove he can jump high enough to put an orange ball through a hoop with his hands. However, while this is a great film, a classic even, we must ask: How the fuck did Billy Hoyle dunk?
Billy Hoyle’s a doughy white man in his thirties, one that stands no taller than 5’10”, and more likely a very solid 5’9”. He looks more likely to dunk a donut than a basketball. Here are a couple theories for how he pulled off the impossible:
Theory #1: Magic Sneakers. There is as of yet no textual evidence to support this theory, though it’s hard to imagine every character that witnessed said dunk not having this in the back of their minds.
Theory #2: Magic Genie. It is possible that in a deleted scene Billy Hoyle finds a magic lamp and wastes one of his three wishes on being able to leap an extra few inches. Again, no evidence supports this theory, but he is the type.
Since it’s likely that neither of the above theories will explain Hoyle’s titular dunk, we had some experts weigh in.
But first, for the uninitiated, let’s recount that legendary dunk (25-year-old spoilers ahead!). For a film titled White Men Can’t Jump, the central question of whether white men can or cannot jump isn’t raised until fairly deep into the film’s running time, around 70 minutes into an 110-minute film.
“You know what? I can jam, man,” Billy stubbornly, almost petulantly, declares as they are driving home, at a moment when you’d think they’d be satisfied with the Homeric victory they’ve just achieved on the court. Instead, Billy—who by the way, is passionately addicted to gambling—can’t stop betting against the house even after he’s made off with the house’s money. He’s going to show Sidney that he can dunk, and he’s going to bet his half of the winnings on it. You might scream at your television and say such things as, “Hey, Woody, I mean Billy, why don’t you just show him you can dunk without betting $2500 on it? Or, how about you just admit that you can’t dunk? It’s really no big deal!” Except it actually is a huge deal. Everything has been leading up to this moment. This is thin-skinned machismo run amok, pride and honor forcing rushed outcomes, an outdoor dick-measuring contest! Billy tries to dunk thrice as Sidney watches, his face conveying both pity and a mood best summarized as “Yes, I will take this idiot’s money if he wants to give it away.”
First dunk attempt: failure. Billy takes off his sweater to reveal a shirt bedecked with dolphins. He looks at the hoop suspiciously and asks, “Is this shit regulation?”
Second dunk attempt: failure. He loses control of the ball on his way up. “Fuck me!” he screams. He sheds another layer, slipping off his sweats. He will face the rim in shorts, white knees exposed, as the gods intended. Sidney quite unhelpfully pumps up Billy’s shoes, then utters the titular line: “White men can’t jump!”
Third dunk attempt: Billy kisses his necklace and breaks into a run. He rises up one handed and achieves decent air, but it’s another failure. As a result of putting his winnings on the line to prove something to his quasi-buddy, Billy’s already mostly unraveled life unravels further, and Gloria (played by Rosie Perez at the height of her powers) leaves him.
A few scenes later, Billy’s a new man. His successful dunk finally occurs in the film’s last game with a tournament championship and thousands of dollars on the line. On the last possession, Sidney sweatily dribbles the ball at the top of the key. Billy shakes loose of his defender and cuts towards the basket with a goofy white man stumble-run. Sidney hurls a whirling dervish of an alley-oop, Billy leaps for it, and slams it down for the win.
But how did he manage to dunk when he so obviously couldn’t just a few scenes previous? And how can a guy of Billy’s height and stature dunk in the first place?
Knowing full well that Billy is an average white man with no particularly special physical skills, it was time to turn to science. But I don’t know anything about science, so I reached out to the distinguished Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Peder J. Estrup, who taught physics and chemistry at Brown University and has published pieces with titles such as “The Geometry of Surface Layers” and “Influence of Surface Phase Transition on Desorption Kinetics: The Compensation Effect.”
Unfortunately, when pressed about Billy Hoyle and the idea of white men jumping, Dr. Estrup could not shed much light on the matter.
“I have never seen a basketball game,” Estrup said, “What is dunking?”
Undeterred, I tracked down Jim Scheidhauer, a hoops enthusiast and physics lecturer at DePaul University. I asked him to create an equation that would explain how a 5’9” man like Woody/Billy Hoyle could dunk.
Scheidhauer explains: “The equation starts simple: F=ma. This is Newton's second law stating that the force acting on our object (Woody) is equal to Woody's mass times his acceleration. The goal when dunking is to have a large acceleration upward. To do this, a large force needs to act on the body. Woody would also want [to have] a small mass to optimize his acceleration for the given force.”
So where does that force come from?
Scheidhauer says that the force “comes from the basketball court surface. It applies a reaction force to the force Woody's body applies to it. This is Newton's third law. This gets complicated quickly, because we have to talk about how the muscles apply this force. Additionally, the force is related to something called impulse, which involves the amount of time the shoe is in contact with the court just before lift-off. This would be different for a two-footed windmill vs. a free-throw-line dunk, for example.”
As I ventured further down this heart of darkness, I pondered: If jumping was so complicated, maybe it was not such a wonder that white men couldn’t do it—but that anyone could.
Scheidhauer continues: “Modeling the force is difficult even in the simplest terms. If we're going to get into angular momentum, we'll need to change our sphere model of Woody to an actual human person holding a basketball. The equation for conservation of angular momentum is again pretty simple: L (initial) = L (final), where L stands for angular momentum. The angular momentum is found by multiplying something called the moment of inertia times the angular velocity. The angular velocity is simply the velocity of Woody as he rotates. The moment of inertia is trickier. It accounts for how Woody's mass is distributed through space. So when Woody is spread out, his moment of inertia is larger than if his limbs and the ball are tucked in. A figure skater, for example, has the same angular momentum throughout a spin, but she'll have a faster angular speed when her body is tucked in, as her moment of inertia is larger.”
So as the Dude from The Big Lebowski might say, there are a lot of “ins and outs and what-have-yous” when it comes to dunking a basketball. In fact, any search on YouTube of “slam dunk physics” will lead you down a rabbit hole replete with confounding equations and variables. Basically, we must understand the idea of force, have some concept of mass, and we must have some cursory knowledge of Newton (the apple guy) and his laws, all Billy Hoyle really had to do was create enough force to rise just high enough before gravity becomes a killjoy. Simple! Who needs all those fancy numbers?
But to create that gravity-defying forcet, there’s gotta be a modicum of fitness involved, right? Long Lam, Head Athletic Trainer for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State’s D-League affiliate, says that a human being, even one who looks like Woody Harrelson, can occasionally conquer gravity with good old-fashioned physical practice. “Tons and tons of squats and box jumps,” Lam says.
Josh Corbeil, Head Athletic Trainer for the Indiana Pacers, insists strength is the key factor. “The typical quickness drills aren’t effective without a good baseline of core and lower extremity strength.”
Luke Bonner—a sports writer and retired basketball player who played professionally in Lithuania, Hungary, and the NBA D-League— knows exactly what advice he would have given Billy Hoyle to get the strength needed for that extra bit of hang-time: Jumpsoles. Jumpsoles are clunky sandal-looking platforms you slip onto your shoes which make it impossible for your heel to touch the ground, thus strengthening your calves. They were briefly all the rage. Bonner says, “In hindsight, it wouldn't surprise me if those things do more harm than good, but in the 90s Jumpsoles were the go-to for anyone looking to increase their jumping ability.” (As of 2017, Jumpsoles have as of yet failed to help any would-be jumper make it to the NBA.)
Mike Ryan, a physical therapist who often works with rehabbing athletes, thinks explosiveness is the key for dunking, and contends the best drills to increase it are plyometric. “You need to increase your power with quick explosive movements such as squat jumps, single leg hurdle jumps and box jumps. You can also work on Olympic lifts such as snatch and clean and jerk.”
Corbeil agrees that plyometric drills are important, but only when you’ve reached the point in your training when it can be safely done. “People like to skip steps and jump to this type of training, which can lead to injury because you aren’t strong enough to execute it safely.”
Ann Casey, a Clinic Director who holds a doctorate in physical therapy, says she doubts Woody actually dunked, but it may be possible because “he has fairly big hands and is always in shape.” What else could help a schlub like Billy Hoyle get even somewhat close to dunking? Proprioception, a 12-dollar word for our unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation. As Casey explains, “Agility training, dynamic balance and ladder drills help with proprioception—your body's ability to know where it is in space. The better the proprioception, the quicker your body will be able to quickly change speed and explode.”
But not so fast. Ryan says genetics are a huge factor too, and that training can only do so much. His prognosis is grim for all of you average-sized adults with dreams of posterizing an enemy. “In order to jump you need to have a large amount of type 2 or fast-twitch muscle fibers. We are all born with a certain amount of type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers. You can try to increase those muscle fibers with the exercises that I already stated however, that only can take you so far and will most likely only help you gain an inch or two with your vertical.”
Corbeil concurs. “Chances are if you have fast-twitch fibers, you’d already know it.”
Ryan, who admits he’s never seen White Men Can’t Jump, seems dubious that a man of Harrelson’s stature could dunk a basketball unassisted, though he concedes, “It may be possible if he had a trampoline or some Reebok Pumps. But without assistance? No way.”
Casey is more optimistic: “The timetable would be more related to muscle fiber type, strength, coordination, and the dedication that this average human has to the goal of dunking a basketball. I'd give it a solid year of dedicated drills for an adult.”
There’s only one problem with that when it comes to White Men Can’t Jump: There was no “Eye of the Tiger”–themed dunk training montage in the interim! Hoyle’s successful dunk seemingly came pretty shortly—days, weeks, a few months at best—after his failed attempts.
Bonner, who is also the brother of two-time NBA champion and cult hero Matt Bonner, suggests an intriguing alternate theory: “I've found that outdoor hoops tend to have more variation in terms of the height of the hoop. It's entirely possible that the hoop Billy Hoyle dunked on was more like 9'10" instead of 10'. And you'd be surprised how much of a difference those couple inches can make.”
This is valid, but let’s assume there wasn’t any hoop height chicanery.
There’s another fascinating possibility, one that the movie seems to encourage: That Billy finally dunked because the pressure was on and he really really wanted to win. In other words, his mind got him those few extra inches. Jeff Wise, author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, explains that fear could have played a role in the seemingly quick turnaround between Billy’s dunking failure and his dunking redemption: “With fine motor skills, the key concept is the Yerkes-Dodson curve, the idea that there’s a level of arousal (mental arousal, not sexual arousal, you pervs) that generates optimal performance.” The Yerkes-Dodson Law was developed in the early 20th-century by two psychologists (Yerkes and Dodson, of course) attempting to understand the relationship between arousal and performance. Simply put, arousal is something you want when performing a strenuous task—but you don’t want too much of it.
Wise continues, “If you’re too mellow, you won’t do too well. And likewise if you’re scared witless, you won’t be able to function well—that’s when choking happens. You need to be under pressure, but not too much.”
Billy Hoyle’s failed attempts to dunk with only Sidney’s gaze neutering him, and thousands of dollars on the line, was in a certain way, a higher-pressure situation than an actual game. Billy was just too aroused to optimize his performance.
Indeed, there just doesn’t seem to be nearly as much pressure at all during the film’s climactic game. It pits two mentioned but heretofore unseen characters, Eddie “The King” Farouk and Duck Johnson, against our heroes. The desperate and recently burglarized Sidney has convinced Billy to help him out, you know, for old time’s sake. It should feel good, for friendship reasons and redemption and all that, but Billy’s lust for the next big rush permanently drives Gloria away. She rollerblades out of his life with great dignity—or as much dignity as one can maintain whilst rollerblading. Who cares about winning a two-on-two basketball game when you’ve lost the woman you love? The answer is Billy Hoyle. He’s the one who cares.
It’s a good moment, but we knew it was coming. Perhaps if Werner Herzog or David Cronenberg had directed this film, Billy might have failed again, his wax wings perpetually melting as he attempted to dunk too close to the sun. Or perhaps a bear would have eaten him. Needless to say, Billy Hoyle dunked. White men can jump.
So what did we learn? How did Billy Hoyle dunk? Well, the sad truth is that Billy Hoyle was a fictional character played by Woody Harrelson, and when Woody was in his trailer they lowered the rim, director Ron Shelton revealed to Grantland in 2012. That’s the answer. Woody Harrelson cheated, perhaps unknowingly.
But that’s not important. What’s important is we have had 25 years to ponder this question, which ranks just below “If a tree falls in the forest…” and “Who really killed JFK?” when it comes to mysteries that have stumped generations. black-ish creator Kenya Barris and NBA star Blake Griffin (who can jump really high!) are set to re-make White Men Can’t Jump. We can only hope they have the courage to really get into the nitty-gritty science of Billy Hoyle’s miracle dunk and not leave another lost generation seeking answers for 25 years.