Brian Rohleder was perhaps the last player expected to have an effect on Kansas State’s opening game of the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
But before the game even began, Rohleder, a walk-on sophomore at Kansas State who had scored 2 points in 31 minutes that season, forged a bond with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who from 1966 to 1969, while known as Lew Alcindor, had scored 2,325 points for UCLA.
As Kansas State’s players warmed up to take on Kentucky, one of Rohleder’s teammates threw down a one-handed dunk. A few seconds later, with 19 minutes 58 seconds to go before tipoff, Rohleder himself dunked with two hands, his arms reaching just high enough to complete the attempt.
As Rohleder walked back toward midcourt, a referee approached him and asked what he was doing. Rohleder was confused.
“He said, ‘That wasn’t smart,’” Rohleder said. “I said, ‘Excuse me, sir?’ He said, ‘I have to give you guys a technical.’ I thought he was joking at first.”
The violation had its roots with Abdul-Jabbar, who was such a proficient dunker that he helped inspire an NCAA rule that banned dunks from 1967 to 1976. As dunking became more prominent, the NCAA also created Rule 10-4.1, which prohibited dunks less than 20 minutes before the start of a game to prevent backboards from being broken. An infraction would result in a technical foul that gave opponents two free throws.
The ban had some supporters when it was instituted. Bob Boyd, then the coach at Southern California, told The New York Times in 1971 that the vaudeville of dunking did not belong in warm-ups.
But with the rule now largely considered outdated, the NCAA’s rules committee announced in June that the regulation would be removed. As a result, dunks have begun to proliferate in warm-ups, turning layup lines into jam sessions.
At the first college basketball game of the season, Columbia forward Jeff Coby unleashed several skillful dunks, much to the delight of an audience composed mostly of schoolchildren. Coby said recently that being able to include dunks into his pregame repertory had given a boost to his confidence and his team’s energy.
In previous years, the Lions occasionally took the court early to get their dunking fix before the referees came onto the floor. And if officials were closely watching for players breaking the rule, Coby said, the players would elevate as if they were going to dunk but would instead drop the ball in.
Even though the rule was rarely enforced, programs did not overlook its potential effect. At Columbia, Coby said, it was the duty of seniors to keep underclassmen cognizant of such rule-book intricacies.
Tennessee Tech coach Steve Payne said that during warm-ups, the team’s coaches would make sure the players were aware of the rule.
“We’ve had it called on us,” Payne said. “Young guys, you don’t quite know what they’re thinking at times. We do our best to educate on the rules and monitor during warm-ups.”
Before each season, North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll often reminded his players of the pregame dunking rule, he said. And if they wanted to dunk before the 20-minute countdown, Driscoll cautioned against showy dunks, hoping to prevent injuries.
“I once saw a guy, caught his front tooth in the net, and it ripped out,” he said. “We were very proactive on the front end about the rule.”
So it came as a surprise when, in December 2014, North Florida’s Romelo Banks was caught breaking the rule before a game against Tennessee Tech. Torrance Rowe made both of the free throws that the technical foul produced, and Tennessee Tech eventually won 82-80.
Driscoll said his team’s squandering a 9-point halftime lead had more of an effect on the result than Rowe’s free throws, but the violation nonetheless received widespread coverage online and became the tipping point in changing Rule 10-4.1.
Reggie Minton, the chairman of the NCAA rules committee from 1998 to 2000, said that some obscure rules were probably often overlooked.
“When the rule first went in, I think it was for safety, and that was installed at the right time,” said Minton, now the deputy executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
“Once the breakaway rims became workable and everybody had them, it was probably overdue, but at least we got it done,” he added, referring to the removal of the rule.
Minton began coaching as an assistant at Air Force in 1969, when the rule banning dunking in games was still enforced. He remembers that Cliff Parsons, a valuable frontcourt player, struggled to adapt his low-post offensive game.
“I think the rule was obviously put in because of Kareem, and it was to penalize him,” Minton said. “And it probably penalized him less than others. He has a great skyhook. Other guys could drop-step and dunk; they had to come up with other parts to their arsenal to get it done.”
Current players have had no difficulty adjusting to the change in the pregame dunking rule.
At Michigan, pregame dunk shows by the sophomore Aubrey Dawkins have become must-see exhibitions, as has Tennessee’s pregame ritual. Programs like Utah; the University of California, Irvine; and Eastern Kentucky have posted highlights from their warm-up lines on social media throughout the season.
In addition to providing an artistic release, the rule change has allowed previous offenders like Rohleder a bit of redemption.
When the ruling was announced during the offseason, members of Kansas State’s basketball program teased Rohleder for being a trailblazer. But the embarrassing experience of appearing in a box score solely because of a pregame technical foul also changed Rohleder’s career for the better. Before this season, he was awarded an athletic scholarship for his contributions to the team.
“I think it was in the back of my mind — I didn’t want my legacy to be the kid who dunked the ball and got the technical,” Rohleder said. “A walk-on, you’ve got to know your role and do your hard work and have that mentality. I don’t think anything changed there, but it made me continue working hard to help our team win more and have a better memory or legacy to leave.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.