Long before Pat Connaughton was wowing Trail Blazers’ crowds with dunks, there was a seminal moment during his youth that spurred moments like Wednesday, when his three soaring dunks highlighted the Blazers’ latest win.
He was in 7th grade in Arlington, Mass., and he read a Sports Illustrated For Kids article on Vince Carter, one of the NBA’s greatest dunkers. In the article, Carter said he first dunked in 8th grade.
For Connaughton, then a 5-foot-11 teenager, an obsession was hatched.
“I thought: ‘I want to be able to dunk’ … I just really wanted to do it,’’ Connaughton remembered.
His dad bought him a weighted vest, and throughout the summer between 7th and 8th grade Connaughton would jump up two steps and back down while wearing the vest, doing three sets of 20 repetitions.
In the winter of 8th grade, he finally dunked.
“Then, I was addicted,’’ Connaughton said.
Today, Connaughton is 6-foot-5, and his childhood addiction has served as a base for his NBA breakout season, where he is averaging 6.6 points in 20 minutes while shooting 36.8 percent from three-point range.
Behind explosive athleticism, accurate shooting, and reliable court savvy, Connaughton has become not only a key rotational player for the Blazers, but also one of their more highlight-worthy players. He is fourth on the team in dunks with 15, and most of them are in spectacular fashion.
Never was that more evident than Wednesday night, when Connaughton had three dunks during one of the Blazers’ more dominant and entertaining victories of the season, a 123-114 rout of Minnesota. Two of the dunks were ally-oops – including one where he had to twist in mid-air and finish with a reverse – and the other a blow-by drive that he flushed by going under the basket and over the rim.
“I always wonder what the other team is thinking,’’ teammate Damian Lillard said afterward. “They are like, ‘This white dude is up here …’ because I’m sure on the scouting report he is a shooter, a hard-right driver. But I always wonder what they think when he is catching lobs. He is one of our most explosive players. It’s impressive; fun to watch.’’
Connaughton chuckled when Lillard’s ‘white dude’ comment was relayed back to him, because he knows the stereotype lives beyond the movie “White Men Can’t Jump.”
“I get it quite a bit,’’ Connaughton said. “It’s something I’ve tried to disprove – that stereotype – since I was a kid. I never wanted to be -- for lack of a better term -- a slow, white kid who could shoot. I wanted to have athleticism and use it. That’s what drew me to basketball.’’
So in his youth, with the help of a personal trainer, he started working with elastic, resistance bands. Did jumping drills. And weight-training that focused on what he calls “explosive” muscles.
For many, leaping ability is genetic, and Connaughton said his dad often credits Pat’s mother for his athletic ability. But today, with a vertical leap that Connaughton says is over 40, he can’t help remembering back to the 7th grade summer, with the weighted vest and countless leaping exercises.
“A little bit of hard work went into it,’’ Connaughton said.