MHERST - Slam Magazine called him "the best dunker in the world that you've never heard of," but that might not be true anymore, at least not in the Pioneer Valley.
Jameel Pugh may, in fact, be the best dunker in the world that University of Massachusetts basketball fans have heard of, as the incoming freshman swingman from Sacramento has gotten considerable attention for his monster leaping ability.
When tonight becomes tomorrow, Minutemen fans will see whether Pugh can live up to the hype, as basketball practice begins nationwide at the traditional Midnight Madness.
The slam-dunk contest will be the highlight of the event at the Mullins Center, with Pugh as its featured participant. As of Tuesday, he hadn't decided which he dunks he was going to attempt.
"I don't really think about it until 20 minutes before," he explained at media day. "It's whatever pops into my head. If I get some crazy idea, I might try it."
Pugh will be joined by forwards Willie Jenkins, Jackie Rogers and Raheim Lamb as Minutemen who will be formally announced to the home crowd for the first time.
The Mullins Center main arena opens its doors at 10:30, but there is an open-to-the-public hockey scrimmage at the practice rink next door.
The actual basketball event begins at 11 p.m., with several contests for students. A free spring-break trip to Florida headlines several prizes being given away.
The wide variety of UMass dance/funk/flava teams that seem to multiply every year also will perform.
WLZX (formerly WHMP) morning disc jockeys Quinn and Canterra, will play host to the early part of the event. Channel 40 will televise the event beginning at 11:35.
Mullins public address announcer Jack O'Neill will do the player introductions, which will have a WWF-type flavor to them.
"It will be a little more fun and student-oriented this year," said UMass administrative assistant Brian Gorman.
Participants in the dunk and 3-point contests haven't been finalized.
The team will participate in a brief full-court scrimmage to finish the event.
As usual, the event will feature very little in the way of actual practicing.
"It's Midnight Madness," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "We'll just go up and down and have some fun."
MHERST - For the past four years, Mike Babul reigned as the University of Massachusetts dunking champion at Midnight Madness, but if Babul were to return tonight as an alumni entrant, he'd likely be the underdog.
Before breaking a sweat at an official Minuteman practice, Jameel Pugh of Sacramento, Calif., comes to the Mullins Center with a dunking reputation that has evoked memories of Julius Erving, the greatest UMass dunker of them all.
"That's high expectations," said Pugh, a 6-foot-5 freshman who will make his UMass debut at Midnight Madness tonight. "Dr. J was the best ever to play here and one of the best ever to play the game. But there's a whole new group of people now, asking me about dunking."
Pugh's reputation precedes him, helped by a vertical jump that has reached 43 inches. A shooting guard who can also play small forward, he was named one of the World's Best Dunkers by Slam Magazine, giving his a bit of status as a playground great at 18.
"Everybody in Sacramento was saying for us to go the park because they didn't believe (the dunking stories)," said Pugh, who describes his specialty not in braggart's terms, but as an excited teen-ager enjoying the thrill of it all. "It was an 'I-dare-you' kind of thing. Sometimes you get tired of it, but sometimes it's fun."
Tonight's opening of practice will include introductions of players and a brief scrimmage. It's a fan-friendly event far more than a practice, and admission is free. Doors open at 10:30, and the event has traditionally wrapped up well before 1 a.m.
Pugh is one of three eligible newcomers who will debut tonight. Willie Jenkins, a 6-6 small forward from Memphis, Tenn., could compete with Pugh for playing time and has already impressed coach Bruiser Flint.
Jackie Rogers, a 6-8 power forward from Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kan., left school early this week because of a death in the family, but is expected to participate. And Eric Williams, a 6-8 transfer from Syracuse who sat out last year, will make his uniformed debut.
But since Midnight Madness is little more than Showtime, the spotlight could be on Pugh, whose dunking has received so much publicity that his actual playing skills — which were good enough to make him a McDonald's All-America nominee — have sometimes been overlooked.
Pugh averaged 17 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots as a high school senior, even though he played much of the season out of his natural position and in the low post.
Pugh has been known to soar from the foul line to dunk. He became a UMass fan when he watched the 1996 team go to the Final Four. His favorite player on that team, perhaps surprisingly, was point guard Edgar Padilla.
"I didn't have much in common with Marcus Camby, because I was only about 5-11 when I was 15," Pugh said. "But Padilla was one of my favorites."
UMass has never been considered one of America's great dunking teams, but a handful of high-flying slammers have come through Amherst. Will Herndon and Andre Burks were among them, though Burks' career was brief and unsuccessful because of injuries and off-court problems.
Erving remains the person by whom others are measured, 29 years after finishing his UMass career — which came when dunking was not legal in games.
"I knew about Dr. J playing at UMass," Pugh said. "That sort of thing gets around in the recruiting process."
In addition to the newcomers, UMass fans will greet some familiar faces. Monty Mack, Jonathan DePina, Winston Smith, Kitwana Rhymer and walk-on Dwayne Early (a Central High School graduate) will participate.
This year, Smith will become the only player to appear in games in each of Flint's first five years. As a sophomore in 1997-98, he played three games before a knee injury forced him to take a medical redshirt, but he's back as a fifth-year senior this season.
MHERST - The hoop junkies have been buying the preview magazines and counting the days.
Dick Vitale has been slowly awakening from his summer-long hibernation/voice recovery, and Duke fans are already coming up with new chants.
College hoop season has been right around the corner for some time now, and Friday night/Saturday morning it arrived at the front door.
Midnight Madness is here, and with it college hoop practice as everybody nationwide - Hokies, Hoyas, Banana Slugs, Orangemen et al. - began preparing for a regular season that for most will begin anywhere from early to mid-November.
In Amherst, where UMass prepared for Bruiser Flint's fifth season at the Minuteman helm, people were anxious to begin the season. Even the distractions caused by Monty Mack's legal troubles and freshman Anthony Anderson's ineligibility couldn't dampen the players' enthusiasm for starting a season they have high hopes for.
Sophomore Micah Brand set the bar high at Tuesday's media day.
"We see ourselves winning the Atlantic 10 and making a pretty good run in the A-10 tournament," Brand said. "Everybody here is ready to do the same thing. We know what we can do."
While veterans try to downplay any enthusiasm for the Madness, freshmen tend to be a little more hyped up. Willie Jenkins certainly was. The rookie swingman from Memphis was ready for his first introduction.
"Yes sir. I'm excited," said the 6-foot-5 player bred with Southern politeness. "I want to see how it feels. I always dreamed of playing D-I; now I'm here."
He is here, and so are fellow freshmen Jameel Pugh and Raheim Lamb, who were set to dip their toes in the college hoops pond for the first time. Junior college transfer Jackie Rogers has experienced a Midnight Madness before as a freshman at West Virginia, but he was ready for his first one in Amherst.
After about an hour of student dance teams and prizes, it was time for the main event.
Shortly before midnight, public address announcer Jack O'Neill began introducing the players as the indoor fireworks went off.
Pow. Crackle. Bang.
Hoop season arrived.
MHERST - The crowd at the Mullins Center leaned forward expectantly as Jameel Pugh casually bounced the ball at mid-court.
As he contemplated his second attempt in Friday night's Midnight Madness slam-dunk contest, he displayed a showman's smirk as he surveyed the crowd of more than 6,000 pairs of eyes weighing on him.
This was the moment fans had been waiting for. Pugh knew it and appeared to being enjoying it.
Midnight Madness historically has done pretty well attendance-wise in Amherst, but the early Saturday morning event had extra appeal this year because the player Slam Magazine hyped as the "Best Dunker in the World" on the front of its January issue would be putting that title on display.
Pugh exploded toward the net and took off. Jaws went down as Pugh went up. But as the ball went though the hoop and headed toward the ground, Pugh didn't come down with it. Not right away.
No, Pugh was still far off the ground, his entire right forearm draped through the basket. He hung there grinning as the crowd erupted with applause for the contest winner.
No urban legend, Pugh was as good as advertised.
UM's history of big dunkers
It's not as though Pugh was the first acclaimed dunker to wear a UMass uniform. The school has a history of high-rising finishers.
At Midnight Madness, Julius Erving's No. 32 hung on the wall behind the 10-foot canvas where Pugh was creating his latest dunk art. Will Herndon hung out on the sideline.
Dr. J's place among the dunking elite is legendary. Although dunking was illegal during his UMass career, his slams in the ABA and NBA still are prominently featured on highlight reels.
Herndon was more of a cult hero as a 6-foot-3 power forward on the 1991-92 team that made a surprise run to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen.
He was the slam-dunk champion at the first UMass Midnight Madness in 1989, and in the two after that.
His dunking was practical, too. Herndon's shooting percentage in his senior year was an eye-popping .720, mostly because his shooting range could be measured in inches instead of feet while he averaged 10.3 points per game.
Fans remember watching Herndon elevate from a sea of bodies under the basket to dunk back rebounds or finishing countless alley-oops in front of a sold-out Curry Hicks Cage crowd.
Its been nine years since Herndon took part in a Midnight Madness. He currently works at the Amherst Shelter and is still a regular at home games.
He was at the Mullins Center Friday to take in the Midnight Madness hoopla and check out Pugh for the first time.
As Pugh hung with his arm dangling through the hoop, it was clear that Herndon was ready to give Pugh a key to the mythical UMass Legendary Dunkers Clubhouse.
"I'm impressed," said Herndon, whose wide-eyed facial expression revealed more than his words. "That's the first time I've seen him. He can really dunk. He's going to be a crowd favorite."
After Pugh's final dunk, the freshman forward sat down on the bench, where a tall blonde approached him and asked to have her picture taken with him.
Herndon shook his head, smiled, and amended his previous declaration.
"He's a crowd favorite already," he said.
Leaping skills come early
Pugh's been a crowd favorite wherever he's been, beginning in eighth grade when he first slammed one home.
"I was running down in a summer-league game and the ball bounced off the rim," Pugh recalled. "I was only, like, 5-10. I jumped up there and I just grabbed the ball, and instead of tipping it, I just grabbed my hand on top of it and hung on the rim. I was so excited, my coach had to call time out to calm me down."
After the first one, Pugh got creative. At a summer tournament in Fresno, he dunked from the free-throw line. At a contest in France, he switched hands between his legs before finishing with a windmill. That's the dunk that was captured by Slam.
"I've literally seen him jump over people in his way on a fast break," West Coast hoops guru Carl Foster told HoopsTV.com.
Videos of Pugh's dunks began surfacing on the Internet. His legend was growing, as was his list of college suitors, with Michigan and Kentucky joining UMass in the woo derby.
UM recruiters take notice
"I first saw him at the Nike camp and he was finishing a few alley-oops and people were like, wow," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "I just watched him for the rest of the week and any time anyone put the ball anywhere near the rim, he went up and got it." Lucky for Flint, Pugh, who had yet to dunk a basketball, was rooting for the 1996 Final-Four Minutemen in the NCAA Tournament.
"Edgar Padilla was one of my favorite players," Pugh recalled about the UMass guard. "I loved the way he played. I couldn't have too much in common with Marcus Camby because he was 6-11 and I was 5-10 at the time, so Edgar was my favorite."
He remembered Padilla and the 1996 Minutemen when Flint and assistant coach Tony Barbee began pursuing him last summer.
"I followed the program and I studied up on the school to see if it was what I wanted academically." Pugh said. "It was."
More than just a dunker?
When you hype your vertical leap as 50 inches and call yourself Superman, as Pugh does, it's hard to be recognized for more than your dunking ability, but this is what he aspires to:
More than just a dunker, more than just a basketball player.
From a hoops standpoint, Pugh, a consensus top 75 high school player in Sacramento a year ago, figures into the mix for the vacant UMass small-forward spot.
"Right now I'm working to be more known as a complete player, fundamentally sound, a really good shooter," Pugh said. "Dunking isn't going to help us win games or earn me any more playing time. Bruiser will let me know what I need to do and I'll work hard on it. I'll work hard on my shooting, my dribbling or whatever so I can help the team."
Pugh isn't shy about his NBA aspirations. In fact, after playing with them at UCLA this summer, he lists Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber and Boston Celtics swingman Paul Pierce among his friends/mentors. But he says his interests spread beyond the court.
"School's probably on top of my list as far as fun things to do. I'm really enjoying my economics class and I'm thinking of majoring in business administration or economics," he said. "I'm doing really well in my English class. I'm taking five classes to make sure I can get it done in four years. Once you learn how to study, school becomes fun."
Flint believes his emphasis on academics during the recruiting process helped land Pugh.
"One of the reasons the kid said he picked us was because on the other visits he went on, nobody really talked about academics," Flint said. "He really liked that we had a game plan toward graduation."
Pugh said he believes that taking his education seriously will help him whether or not he joins pals Webber and Pierce in the NBA.
"The air has to come out of the ball some time and you have to have something to fall back on," Pugh said. "If you do make it to the (NBA), you need it even more - how to handle your money, how to make good investments and stuff like that."
Pugh's slam has NBA look
Slam Magazine may have called Pugh the world's best dunker, but most basketball enthusiasts would agree that since Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins retired, that title belongs to Toronto Raptor Vince Carter.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Pugh has been flattered by the master.
Carter's dunk that won the contest at the 2000 All-Star game was taken from the Jameel Pugh Collection.
"The issue of Slam showed me doing a dunk off two feet holding the ball between my legs," Pugh said. "The next month, Vince Carter came to Oakland for the NBA contest and did the same exact dunk. I saw it and said, 'Wait, he stole my dunk. I didn't get it confirmed until Barbee saw an article in New York Times that said Vince Carter saw the dunk in the magazine and tried to emulate it."
* * *
With his 16th straight dunk contest in the bag Friday, Pugh lined up for an encore, playing to the Mullins Center crowd again.
For his final number, Pugh went to his signature move. Leaping off two feet he gave the fans a live version of the dunk Slam Magazine photographed and Vince Carter copied.
"They are going to love him here."
MHERST - Leading up to Friday's Midnight Madness, there was some question as to how University of Massachusetts senior guard Monty Mack would be welcomed by the Mullins Center crowd after his arrest for shoplifting earlier this month.
The reception was overwhelmingly positive. Other than a scattering of "DVD" chants, in reference to movies he is said to have stolen, the senior guard got the most enthusiastic reception of any player introduced.
* * * The annual slam-dunk contest became a battle of two freshmen in the finals, with Jameel Pugh beating Raheim Lamb for the title.
* * *
The event ran behind schedule, causing cancellation of the 3-point contest and the televised portion of the event to miss the slam-dunk contest.
* * *
The annual poster that is given out yearly at Midnight Madness seems to highlight the school's affiliation with Nike. The players are featured sitting with their best tough-guy faces. The slogan underneath says, "Just Bring It," a close cousin to the sneaker company's popular "Just Do It" ad campaign.
* * *
With SAT's being administered Saturday morning, fewer recruits than usual made official or unofficial visits to schools for Midnight Madness nationwide. But UMass did have one prospect in the building. Cheshire (Conn.) Academy junior Francisco Garcia took in the festivities from the stands in the Mullins Center's northeast end zone.
All clips in MPEG format.
Ronell Blizzard throws down a feed. (file size = 120k)
Raheim Lamb goes up and over one of the Madness hosts. (168k)
Kit Rhymer shows what the big men can do. (120k)
Jameel Pugh warms up with a 360º slam. (176k)
Pugh takes it easy with a high flying show. (667k)
Pugh gives the fans just what they expected. (728k)