No, seriously, do YOU like basketball?
If you do, buy all 23 volumes of this, it’s easily worth the investment. If you don’t… hell, buy and read this anyway, there’s a good chance you’re going to turn into a fan by the end. Bottom line: I consider Slam Dunk to be the best by far in the business of depicting tall sweaty dudes trying to drop a round ball into a mounted hoop, and many people worldwide agreed, thanks to a dynamite main character and Takehiko Inoue’s clear passion for the sport.
The heart and soul of Slam Dunk is Hanamichi Sakuragi, a red-headed delinquent and complete basketball neophyte. When I got my first (badly but hilariously translated) volume of the manga more than a decade ago, Sakuragi felt like a breath of fresh air in a very archetypical genre: instead of a bland genius or meek underdog, he is an underdog who sincerely believes he is a genius. While Sakuragi is indeed great at various things (e.g. beating up other delinquents, being tall, being rejected by girls), playing basketball is clearly not included among them, but don’t tell him that. In fact, it’s his brand of unreasonable confidence and swagger that makes him such a fun character to root for.
A major pleasure in reading Slam Dunk is to watch Sakuragi slowly transform from playing just to impress a girl into being genuinely affected by the game and consequently throwing all of his body, mind, and heart into it. Whether it’s his one-sided rivalry with the prodigious Rukawa, his constant bloopers in the court, or his endearing simple-mindedness, Sakuragi will make you laugh and face-palm until he eventually also make you fist-pump in pride as he successfully defends a dangerous opponent, secures a key rebound, nails his first jump shoot, and many more.
So, there’s a lot of basketball in Slam Dunk. Gee, obviously, you may think, but this is really not the series to read if you demand substantial amount of drama and character work outside the court. Although there’s plenty of humor, rom-com triangle, and non-basketball events early on (up to the end of Volume 8, to be exact), once the main cast is assembled it’s pretty much Basketball Action all the time. Non-playing characters like Sakuragi’s love interest Haruko and his amusing band of delinquent pals are inevitably demoted to the sidelines, and character development is strictly confined to the realm of basketball court as the main cast (especially, but not limited to, Sakuragi) learn to utilize/expand their strengths, overcome their weaknesses, and develop chemistry with each other.
Of course, when you’re largely reliant on a single dish, it helps a lot if it’s mighty delicious. There’s a welcome sense of plausibility to the basketball matches in Slam Dunk, as the players thrive with relatively realistic skills and athleticism rather than over the top superhuman techniques. Questionable moments do exist (quad-teaming a single player, anyone?), but in terms of general flow of the game, it’s still a lot more faithful than your typical sports manga. The matches in Slam Dunk are also enjoyable to read in spite of (and because of) its deliberate pace; Inoue likes to take his time, often going over two or three volumes to depict a single match—for the final match, he went all-out and spread the match throughout over six volumes. Just to put it in perspective, virtually every other sports manga I’ve read could depict an entire tournament in the same span it takes Inoue to portray certain individual matches.
Understandably, that kind of play-by-play pacing might not be everyone’s cup of coffee, but Inoue’s art makes it very palatable. While the artwork in early volumes may not suggest more than an unassuming comedic tone and a host of hilarious reaction faces, it gets increasingly beautiful and detailed as the intensity ramps up. Visual homages to the 1990s NBA are abound, from the players themselves (Sakuragi and team captain Akagi, for example, are clearly modeled after Dennis Rodman and Patrick Ewing respectively) to some iconic poses and jersey color schemes. Most importantly, it successfully captures a range of moments native to this particular sport in breathtaking fashion.
Whether it’s a vicious rejection…
…a silky smooth three-point swish…
…a gorgeous dime…
…or a rim shattering dunk, you’d be hard pressed to find more passionate depiction of the beautiful game in any other manga (similarly stunning work in concurrent projects Vagabond and Real firmly established Inoue’s standings as one of the best artist in the industry).
Admittedly, I did finish Slam Dunk with a slightly unfulfilled feeling—without spoiling too much, the manga feels like it stops prematurely and in such fashion that some potential future opponents/match-ups being teased ultimately never materialize. It could’ve easily run for a few dozen more volumes and become a long-running epic, but apparently Inoue had other plans. No matter, it’s still a powerful and memorable journey, led by a beloved red-headed brat.