Nobody questions how Shaq could break a backboard.
The man stands at 7’1, and weighs 324 pounds. There have been taller players in the NBA — Gheorghe Mureșan was 7’7, same with Manute Bol — but nobody bigger. There was a time not too long ago where O’Neal catching the ball at the baseline represented one of the scariest things in all professional sports, and so, you can go on YouTube right now and watch compilations of Shaq obliterating gyms all across the country. In college, he yanked down the rim until it dangled from its hinges like a loose sock on a nightstand. In Phoenix, he brought down the entire rim apparatus, leading to a lengthy delay as the arena staff sought out a hoop that could withstand his strength. Occasionally, Shaq would shatter the safety glass entirely, leading to a slurry of crystal shards pouring down on anyone unlucky enough to be standing in the restricted area. Again, all of this seems mathematically, scientifically, and spiritually solvent. Most basketball players don’t destroy stadium equipment with their bare hands, but again, most basketball players aren’t built like Shaq.
But here’s Michael Jordan, standing at 6’6 and 216 pounds, in a 1985 exhibition game in Trieste, Italy.
He glides through the key, ball over his head, prepared to make himself famous. Jordan puts the ball through the hoop, his fingers tug on the rim, and suddenly, the backboard disintegrates. Jordan, with his usual preternatural grace, sidesteps the debris and continues to jog back on defense while a couple of swaggerless defenders take the brunt of the impact. In some ways, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Michael Jordan led one of the most mythic careers in sports history, and frankly, an architecture-sundering superdunk feels like a natural piece of the legendarium. But when you zoom out, and focus on the boring, imagination-neutering laws of nature… how did this happen? Michael Jordan is an outlier athlete with boundless athleticism, but as far as measurables go, he was never that different from the many other shooting guards in his class. Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, and Gary Payton never tore down a hoop. So how did Jordan manage it? How is he the exception?
Thankfully, there is at least one person in the world who has committed his knowledge to answering that question. John J. Fontanella is a professor of physics at the United States Naval Academy, and in 2007, he published a book entitled, “The Physics of Basketball.” On the cover, naturally, is journeyman center Robert Traylor wearing his University of Michigan jersey. Above his head is a backboard captured in the middle of its destruction, as chunky fragments pour down to the earth below. (Here’s the highlight, if you’re curious.)
“Only the surface of a backboard is hard. The interior, as we’ll call it, is very soft. So the surface is under tension. Anything that disturbs that interior, will make it shatter,” explains Fontanella. He asked me to imagine a glass shower stall, which tend to be constructed in the same way that the NBA outfits their hoops. That pane of reinforced glass is built to resist any bumps or bruises we might be responsible for during our morning routine. But, if you somehow disturbed the interior of those shower walls — which structurally, are a lot more fragile and have the atomic consistency of ordinary cocktail glass — the whole thing could crash down in an instant.
That’s the crux of Fontanella’s thesis; the actual science of tearing down a rim isn’t that extreme. It doesn’t require an absurd amount of physical force, and typically, those incidents are more the result of ongoing wear-and-tear around the edges. Fontanella says the screws that fasten the iron to the backboard could become loose over time — breaching through the tough safety glass, and closer to that soft, flimsy core. “As soon as that metal on the bolt touches the inside, oh boy, it’s going to be a problem,” he explains. So, a player goes up for a dunk, yanks down on the rim, jutting the rivets into the vulnerable part of the window. Boom, you’re gonna be on SportsCenter.
Now, this isn’t to say that every backboard shatter is created equal.
Shaq has bulldozed more hoops than anyone alive, and with his size and stature, it’s easy to see why. Fontanella does tell me that, like everything else in physics, the larger the force applied, the more likely it will overcome resistance. “If you’re pulling on the rim harder, the more likely it’s going to come down,” he adds. “Suppose you just have a little attrition on the screws, a big guy could still be strong enough to push it over the edge.” That explains why Michael Jordan only has one broken backboard in his resume of carnage. Also, considering that he was playing in an exhibition game in a 6,000 seat arena, there’s a chance those Italian rims weren’t prepared for NBA-level athleticism. Especially back in the ’80s.
Still, it’s nice to know that the backboard shattering dunk can be egalitarian if you’ve got the hops. Head to the gym, attack the hoop, and see what happens. Who knows? Maybe you can finally Be Like Mike. Just make sure to clean up after yourselves.