There are few high school basketball players I remember being in the presence of more vividly than Earl Smith Jr. He was truly enigmatic. Just as much 13 years ago as he is now, but without the body armor of tats and the muscle (he was a pretty skinny HS sophomore heading into his junior year at the time). But that swagger? The lack of scruples? That IDGAF-ness he exuberantly displays today?

Yep, still had plenty of that.
It was the summer of 2002 when my team played in the BET Pro-Am Tournament in Washington D.C., a prominent AAU tournament that saw some of the country's best talent, at the time, square up against each other. Nationally ranked teams like the DC Assault and the Boo Williams and NJ Tim Thomas Playaz were there, as well as NBA-level talent like Charlie Villanueva, Joey Dorsey, Tre Kelly and, of course, the gawd J.R. Elite talent that I once thought I was a part of; like a secret society where all they asked was trust and bounce by the ounce. That was, until I actually got to this tournament and realized just how much a garbage pile of a basketball player I truly was. 

you may remember that in 2004, I dunked on Gilbert Arenas and subsequently sharted myself.

I won’t lie. My team got fist-blasted. And yes, the pain still sears in my under-carriage. But 13 years ago, I could dunk pretty good and that’s all that mattered to me. The operative word here is “pretty.” You may remember that in 2004, I dunked on Gilbert Arenas and subsequently sharted myself, but that was an in-game dunk. That’s what I was. An in-game dunker who wanted to shit on you and maybe then myself.  But, nonetheless, my dunking prowess landed me in the dunk contest. No biggie, right? Wrong, bitch. BIGGIE. Post-7th-place game loss. Sore. Tired. Probably fiendin’ for a McChicken. Not in the mood. Usually my anger took my game to higher levels, but I was gas-faced when I saw that I was facing high-flyers Isaiah Swann (former Florida State standout), Round Mound of Rebound Jr. Joey Dorsey and a very spry J.R. Smith who was rested after a big win over the indomitable Baltimore Select (he would eventually win the tournament MVP).

Joey Dorsey, present day. Image via USA TODAY Sports / Troy Taormina

“Fuck this shit, man. Who signed me up for this? Mom, did you do this?”

Haven’t spoken to her since. 

I body-roll out of the stands onto the court and get ready to muster up as much energy as I possibly can to perform and stunt. I must’ve looked like I was going to lose off top because the bitch-ass announcer made me go first. Was it because I looked the corniest? The most swagless? Whatever it was, they wanted me all the way out of there. So, I obliged. I missed all three of my dunk attempts, my closest a two-handed 360. Boos ensued. I sobbed internally. “Take a seat, you lil’ bitch” is what I imagine then-incoming Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony said while he sat and watched some of his future teammates from the stands.

“Yes, Melo.” I said.

The next three contestants had the crowd hootin’ and hollerin’ all in their own unique ways. Isaiah Swann had a quick, tenacious bounce that made people jump back as if they were frightened, but he failed to complete enough of his dunks to advance to the finals. He shares my pain. But, as everyone expected, it was down to Dorsey and J.R. There were so many boners in the gym that day, holy smokes. Basketboners, if you will. While they both completed safe, yet spectacular yammies the first round, their NBA Jam-style finale was just sickening. Do you remember when J.R. Smith teabagged Gary Neal and pulled up on the rim like the street-rat we all know and love? I’m pretty sure he invented that dunk in this contest. His first dunk saw him take off right in front of the free throw line with two hands while completing the same pull-up. I wouldn’t be surprised if he impregnated some ladies in the gym off that dunk alone. He gave his patented “Ayo, I’m dusted, y’all” look to the crowd and we may or may not have locked eyes for a second. I don’t know. It was a weird time for me. I didn’t think anything could beat that. No fucking way, Joey Dorsey. Take your second place medallion and hit the road. 

I faint. I don’t wake up until September. The gym is shut down for fumigation because everyone is gassed out of their minds.

But then, he done did it. A fucking 18-year old puts a goddamn four-tier basketball rack about five feet away from the bottom of the rim, backs away a few steps to half court, takes three, maybe four dribbles forward and threw-the-legs-jumping-over-a-ball-rack delivers the baby Jesus of high school dunk contest dunks. I faint. I don’t wake up until September. The gym is shut down for fumigation because everyone is gassed out of their minds. J.R., Joey and Isaiah all celebrate together in the middle of the court while I stand on the outside of their circle just hugging everyone from the back and repeating, “I love you guys, man. THIS IS AWESOOOOME!” Seems really weird now but it felt very right at the moment, you know?

My proverbial dunk contest participation cherry had been popped and it was unsatisfying and awkward for me but, Lord, did those guys have a good go at it. What really needs to be stated may not be obvious, but it’s pure, unadulterated fact: J.R. Smith and I were both losers at the same time. No ifs, ands or buts about it. We were both failures at achieving first place and, at that moment, were equals. So what if those guys are now off playing professional ball and making buttloads of money while I live a miserable, depreciating life filled with visceral hatred for anyone I come in contact with? Anytime I'm feeling down, all I have to do is dial my internal clock back to 2002 and remember how J.R. Smith and I both lost a dunk contest together. And shared some awkward hugs from the back.