Obscure Dunker

Times Staff Writer

Terence Stansbury never won anything. He scored only 1,200 points in his three-year NBA career, and his most memorable shots didn’t count for any of them.

Either you remember him or you don’t. He was a brief comet that flashed through the NBA’s celestial gatherings many years ago, an asterisk to All-Star weekend.

Terence Stansbury? The name is put to Shaquille O’Neal. He starts singing.

“We don’t have to take our clothes off.”


“Oh,” he says. “That was Terrence Trent D’Arby.”

Actually, that cheesy ‘80s song came from Jermaine Stewart.

O’Neal keeps going.

“Dr. Dunk ... uh, the Statue of Liberty, right?”



Terence Stansbury is the pro basketball version of a playground legend. He had this way of appearing, almost out of nowhere, every year at the dunk contest from 1985 to 1987, usually wearing the uniform of the home team. He dueled with Michael Jordan, gave new meaning to dunking over people, and introduced the “Statue of Liberty” dunk to the basketball world.

Do you remember Terence Stansbury, Magic Johnson?

“Oh my goodness,” Johnson says. “Do I remember? Man, they were all talking about him. We couldn’t believe somebody was getting up that high.”


The legend still lives, the name still evokes memories. Even now, 17 years after he last wore an NBA jersey. Even halfway across the world, where he’s coaching in Finland.

“A young kid who I just saw the other day, said, ‘I have your dunk contest from ’86,’ ” Stansbury says. “A Finnish kid.”

The kid had seen Stansbury’s glory days more recently than Stansbury himself. The tapes are at his brother’s house, and he hasn’t watched them in six years. But every year around this time the phone starts ringing, with the past on the other end of the line.

“The dunk contest is the most flamboyant thing,” Stansbury said. “People still equate the NBA to slam dunks.


“When they see me [they say], ‘Weren’t you that guy?’ Yeah, that was me.”

He was a skinny rookie from Temple with the Indiana Pacers in 1985, and he wasn’t even supposed to be a dunk contest participant. But Charles Barkley backed out of the event, and Stansbury was called as a replacement. At least All-Star weekend was in Indianapolis that year.

Stansbury had only one dunk prepared, the Statue of Liberty.

He came down the middle of the court, jumped off one foot from the bottom of the dotted circle, held the ball high in his right hand like Lady Liberty’s torch, spun all the way around and slammed it home. What made it so visually stunning was that he didn’t jump off two feet and dunk with two hands, as was usually the case on a 360-degree dunk.


His signature move was something he developed by accident one day as a 16-year-old in a gym in Los Angeles.

“I was trying to do the Julius Erving reverse dunk and kept turning,” Stansbury says. “I stayed in the gym an hour, kept doing the same dunk over and over and perfected it.”

His friend Steven Martin named it.

It earned him a perfect score of 50 at the dunk contest and won him a spot in slam-dunk lore. He also improvised with an assortment of moves, tossing the ball to himself, kicking out his legs.


But it wasn’t enough to win a title. After the first round there was a single dunk-off between Stansbury and Jordan to determine who would advance to the next round. Jordan floated past the rim and wound the ball back across his body for a 40-point dunk. Stansbury ran down to the opposite baseline for a quick consultation with his brother Lawrence and Martin, then took their advice, ran back, rocked the ball by his waist and threw down a reverse slam. A 46.

But the judges cited an, ahem, computer malfunction and decided to let both players advance.

Even though Jordan was only a rookie, he already got the calls.

“Come on, it’s Mike,” Stansbury said. “He’s great. They changed the rules.


“That’s OK. I was one of the three best dunkers in the world, coming from Wilmington [Del.]

“There’s always some politics involved ... they wanted to see some young guys dunk and they wanted to see what Mike could do. I guess it was a shock that I would be there in a position to take Mike out.”

He couldn’t get past Jordan and Dominique Wilkins in the semifinals, and Wilkins went on to win the contest.

At the 1986 dunk contest in Dallas, Stansbury wowed ‘em when he dragged his brother onto the court, sat him in a chair in the middle of the lane, then leaped over him and dunked. But he finished third again, behind Wilkins and the winner, 5-foot-7 Spud Webb.


Stansbury’s last stand came at the 1987 All-Star Weekend in Seattle. He was on the SuperSonics then, so he had the hometown advantage again. But he didn’t have a new repertoire of dunks, and he finished third once again behind Jordan and Jerome Kersey.

That turned out to be his last dunk contest and his last season in the NBA. He was injured, and then he was released a week before the start of the next season.

In some ways he thinks his career was a casualty of the athleticism that made him a star in the dunk contest. He relied on it too much instead of using his mind. He got caught up in trying to please the fans, who wanted him to duplicate his dunk contest moves in the game.

“I got to the NBA because I was a consistent player playing tough defense, not throwing the ball away,” Stansbury says. “Playing in the NBA, everybody behind the bench wants you to dunk. That’s not how I got there. I didn’t get to the NBA because I could jump.”


Stansbury played in the Continental Basketball Assn. for a few weeks. Then he went to Europe, where played in Holland and then France for most of the last 10 years, right until 2003. He accepted an offer to coach the BC Jyvaskylan team in Finland this season.

Stansbury doesn’t look back at his career with regrets. He’s the type of guy who can be grateful that the temperature in Finland on this day is 23 degrees, instead of the predicted minus-4.

And he doesn’t even mind that he never won the dunk contest.

“On the list ... if you look at the perfect scores ... I’m there,” Stansbury says. “Every year around this time, someone like yourself, they remember the creativity and the athleticism and of course the unique dunk.


“I guess I’m forever there with the dunk contest with the Statue of Liberty 360. That’s just as good as winning it for me.”