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Adrian Branch had a long, swell run playing basketball. He was an all-timer on what is still the only Maryland team to ever have won an ACC title. And in the NBA, he earned a championship ring as part of what many consider to be the best team ever assembled. But when folks come up to talk hoops with the Seat Pleasant native, they’re as likely to bring up something he did in high school. They want to talk about a dunk. More specifically, they want to talk about The Dunk.
And so does he.
“It’s nice to be remembered at all after all these years,” says Branch, now 38. “And a lot of people remember me for The Dunk.”
The Dunk occurred in January 1981 at Bishop McNamara High School. Branch was a senior at DeMatha, whose Stags, then as now, were the New York Yankees of D.C. prep basketball, perennial city champions reloaded with superstars year after year. That season, the McNamara Mustangs, behind the play of All-Met Todd Bozeman, made a run for the Metro Conference title. The matchup with rival DeMatha and Branch was billed as the game that would decide the league champion. That’s why an overflow crowd came to the McNamara gym, along with crews from local television stations—this in an age when high school sports video had to be pretty special to make its way onto evening newscasts.
Early on, the contest lived up to its billing. Branch, though clearly the Man for DeMatha, was left on the bench by coach Morgan Wooten at tipoff because he’d arrived late to the gym. With Branch off the floor and Bozeman on it, the lead see-sawed back and forth for a half, much to the delight of the overwhelmingly pro-McNamara crowd.
But when Wooten decided that Branch and his squad had paid enough of a price for the player’s tardiness and put him in the lineup, the game turned in the Stags’ favor. In a very big way. By the fourth quarter, Branch had DeMatha up by 20.
“Adrian was the best player in the area,” remembers Bozeman, who would go on to a successful NCAA head-coaching career (which included mentoring New Jersey Nets star Jason Kidd during his days at Cal). “And I see now just how ahead of his time A.B. really was. These days, there are a lot of big guys who can handle the ball, pass, score, and rebound, but not back then. He was a 6-[foot]-8 guard who could do it all. And he was so creative.”
Branch put that creativity on display with two minutes left in the game. McNamara, just trying to keep the margin of defeat respectable, was pressing the Stags on an in-bounds play. Branch broke downcourt, and when a teammate got him the ball, he found himself at the top of the key with two defenders between him and the hoop. A basketball nerd such as Billy Packer might have pointed out that the Mustangs had “the numbers,” and advised Branch to pull back and wait for his teammates. Branch, however, read the situation differently.
He saw it as a chance to realize a dream.
“The whole summer before my senior year, I’d lie in bed at night and think up dunks,” Branch says. “And there was one dunk I really wanted to do: I wanted to throw the ball off the backboard and slam it. And I didn’t want to just do it in practice. That wouldn’t be showing anybody anything. I wanted to do that dunk in a game. I told myself all year that if the opportunity ever came up, I was going to go for it.”
The two defenders had never appeared in his nightly dunking brainstorms. But with the game and his senior season winding down, Branch decided to improvise a little. And out of that improvisation came basketball magic.
“I was on the bench because the game was out of hand,” Bozeman says, “so that gave me a perfect view of Adrian running right at our two guys toward the basket. At the top of the lane, he reached around the back of a defender with his left hand and threw it off the backboard, and when that guy went toward the ball that opened up a clear path to the hoop. And A.B. never broke stride, just went straight up and slammed it. It was our crowd, but everybody in the gym just jumped on their feet like, ‘What just happened?’ Remember, this wasn’t like a game of Horse or a dunk contest, where you’re prepared for a guy to do something special. This was a real game situation, and for a high school kid just to have the guts to do that—well, if you were there, you’d understand why the legend around that dunk has just grown and grown.”
Another reason the legend of The Dunk has lived on was the presence of local TV cameras. Video of Branch’s miraculous deed was picked up nationally. Not everybody was happy to see the slam get so much attention. McNamara’s coach, Marty Waters, for one.
“They had pulled away by then, so I was surprised that—how can I put this politely?—that Morgan would allow one of his players to make such a move,” says Waters, who last week was inducted into the McNamara Sports Hall of Fame. “DeMatha was always known for disciplined, fundamental basketball, and the game was way out of hand, and out of the clear blue sky, it’s like, ‘Wow!’ I had people all over the country calling me, saying they’d seen it on TV, asking me, ‘Was that McNamara on TV?’ And I had to tell them, ‘Yeah. That was us.’”
At season’s end, Branch was named MVP of the Capital Classic over a host of future hoops stars, including Michael Jordan. He then went on to become a four-year star at Maryland and left as the No. 2 scorer in school history, behind only Albert King. He’s since fallen to No. 4 on the career scoring list, with Juan Dixon and Len Bias moving into the top two slots. Maryland has, however, yet to retire Branch’s jersey. That slight seemed particularly glaring at the end of last season, when Steve Francis’ old shirt was hung from the rafters of Cole Field House. (Comparison: Career points—Branch 2,017, Francis 579; ACC Titles—Branch 1, Francis 0.)
“I’m not going to say my jersey should be retired at Maryland,” Branch says with a giggle. “I’m a happy man no matter what, and I mean that. But I’ll let my family say my jersey should be retired as much as they want.”
Branch thinks The Dunk and some off-court foibles—he was briefly suspended during his junior season at Maryland after being arrested with a minute quantity of marijuana, leading to infamous “High, Adrian!” placards from Duke fans—combined to brand him as something other than a team guy. The reputation, he says, hurt him early in his NBA career, when the Chicago Bulls drafted Branch but cut him after his first training camp, in 1985. He was picked up a year later by the Los Angeles Lakers, so he had a good seat for the Showtime team led by Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
He bounced around the NBA, from the Nets to the Trail Blazers to the Timberwolves, before heading overseas for stints in Spain, France, Israel, Turkey, and Australia. Since retiring, Branch has been earning his keep as a motivational speaker, mainly for youth groups. He also recently gave a broadcasting career a shot, when fellow Maryland alum and WUSA sportscaster Jess Atkinson brought Branch in to provide home-cooked commentary during the Terrapins’ title run.
Bozeman says he was glad to see his old rival get so much face time on the local airwaves again. Not that he’d ever forgotten about Branch. Bozeman took his family to this year’s NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia, a contest highlighted by Tracy McGrady’s second-half dunk; the Orlando phenom threw the ball off the backboard between two defenders, continued on to the basket, and slammed it home. As the First Union Center crowd roared, Bozeman leaned over to his son and said he’d seen that happen before, back in high school. —Dave McKenna