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Former NBA Player Tests Himself With Annual Birthday Challenge

Marques Johnson's dunk videos continue to garner millions of views

Marques Johnson

PETER YANG

Before my senior year at UCLA, the NCAA brought the slam dunk back after a 10-year ban. My trainer, Malek, told me, “Since people haven't seen it for a while, we're going to work all summer on dunking.” We did drills where he had me dunking over and over. My senior year, I had 63 dunks! I won the first John Wooden Award partly because of the dunk — a shot that Coach Wooden didn't care for. My friend, former UCLA player Larry Farmer, used to dunk on his birthday. He was able to do so until his late 40s. That was impressive to me.

When I was in my early 50s, I decided to dunk on my birthday in February, just to see if I could still do it. The first time I did it, my son Josiah made a video and put it online. It got a lot of views, and we've been doing it every year since.

This is the only time of year that I dunk. So it's always a question of: Do I have one more in me? I'm as surprised as anyone when I succeed. It's a happy kind of revelation: Oh, OK, I'm not done yet.


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The annual challenge motivates me to keep fit all year long. I dealt with drug abuse in my past, and I've been sober for a number of years now. Staying in shape helps keep me on course. Spiritually, mentally, physically, psychologically — it all works together.

This year I turned 65, and I can still dunk. I know sooner or later I won't be able to. Whenever I discover that I can't dunk anymore, it will be a bit of a letdown. But I'll also feel gratitude that I was able to do it this long.

My video last year went viral — 6.6 million impressions on Twitter. This year it got 5.6 million. It's a thrill to know I'm reaching so many people. Even guys that played in the NBA have said, “Man, you inspired me to get in shape and see if I can still do it.”

— As told to Pete Croatto

Marques Johnson, 65, a TV analyst for the Milwaukee Bucks and a five-time NBA All-Star small forward, lives in Los Angeles. 

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