Kenny Dobbs can fly. When he jumps with a basketball either in his hand or in his sights (many of his dunks have him chasing a ball in midair), he appears to be floating. He has mastered this ability after years of intense training, dissecting the physics and physiology of dunking with the focus of an artist—or a madman. After years of physical, mental and spiritual training, Dobbs is arguably the greatest dunker in the world, perhaps one of the greatest ever. His vertical leap is 48 inches, as good or better than NBA dunk champions Michael Jordan, Spud Webb and Vince Carter in their primes. He has traveled the world showcasing his talents, from south Florida to South America, from Rome to Romania as a celebrity dunker for both the NBA and Sprite. He displayed his dunking abilities at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend, and was asked to be a featured talent in the biggest-selling basketball video game on the planet, NBA 2K12. This past May, he beat two of the best dunkers in the world by wowing judges at the Ball Up’s Air Up There Slam Dunk Contest in Los Angeles. One of those judges was 1992 NBA dunk champion Cedric Ceballos. Another was a doctor by the name of Julius Erving.
Kenny Dobbs can also change lives. He has traveled across the country to speak to and on behalf of kids on reservations as an employee of the Division of Behavioral Health Services for the state of Arizona. For three years he served as the chairman on the Arizona State Youth Advisory Council for Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention. He is currently serving as an ambassador’s for Nike’s N7 division and the Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI) Foundation. With NABI, Dobbs created the UpRise Youth Motivational Presentations to educate kids on Native lands. He knows that if you want to grab a kid’s attention, flying is a good way to do it.
Kenny Dobbs, member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Phoenix resident, proud son, brother, father and husband, is 27 years old. And he is lucky to be alive.
Nine years ago, some men came to Dobbs’s family home. They should have been college recruiters, asking a high school basketball phenom to ply his talents for their school. The men standing outside of the Dobbs home in the Maryvale neighborhood in West Phoenix should have been there to shower Dobbs and his family with praise and promises. Instead, the men were armed with 12-gauge shotguns. There were six or seven of them (they were never caught, so the number is a guess based on shell casings and bullet holes) standing outside in the dark, aiming their pump-actions at a second-story window. Dobbs, 17 at the time, was a high school dropout. He had not played a single minute of high school basketball, and college recruiters had never heard of him.
The men pumped their shotguns and opened fire.
LIKE FATHER LIKE SON
Kenny Dobbs Jr. was born on March 17, 1984, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. He grew up with his father, Kenneth Sr., his mother, Cynthia, and his little sister, Candice, in West Phoenix. His childhood memories are of smoky rooms, adults huddled together in various states of delight, delirium and debauchery. “The first memories I have of noticing that things were going wrong for me was when I was 3 or 4 years old,” Dobbs says. “Growing up, my mom and dad’s house was where everyone got together and partied. My dad loved to drink and do drugs—mostly pot and cocaine. At that time, my mom was working nights and my dad had a lot of friends coming over to hang out and party all the time. I remember I found a mirror with white powder and rolled dollar bills.”
Dobbs was walking on air even back then. Kenneth Sr.’s friends used to give little Dobbs drinks, then turn him upside down so he could walk on the ceiling. Once the party died down, Dobbs says he would go through the discarded bottles and cans, searching for more to drink.
Dobbs woke one night to his father screaming for his mother to grab his gun. Dobbs followed the sounds of panic into the living room where he watched as his father flew across the room and against the front door just as a man tried to shoulder it open, his arm visible through the partially open door, a gun in his hand. Cynthia Dobbs found the gun. “When I looked outside the window, I saw two more guys out there,” Dobbs says. “As my mom gave my dad the gun I remember the bad guys leaving. As I got older I realized it wasn’t a burglary, it was a drug deal gone bad. They were after my dad for months.”
It was around this time that Dobbs’s mother threw herself into the ministry, singing in the choir, shepherding Kenny and Candice with her two to three times a week. “My mom realized she didn’t want to be involved in my dad’s lifestyle,” Dobbs says, “and didn’t want her kids to grow up in that environment, so they finally separated.”
By 1992, when Dobbs was 8, his dad was all but lost. Cynthia gave her husband a choice: Stop what he was doing or say good-bye to his children, promising him she’d move them all to California. Kenneth Sr. joined his wife at church. Reunited with his family, he never resumed his old ways. Dobbs says that years later, when everything in his own life had spiraled out of control, he looked back on his father’s decision and the strength it took to keep his word and used that as the fuel to change his own life.
GIFTS AND CURSES
Dobbs was a born athlete. Good at every sport—able to hit a baseball, dribble a basketball with either hand, dribble a soccer ball with either foot, catch and throw a football with preternatural ability. He was also fearless. Had he stayed on the fields of play and out of the streets, there is almost no question he would have been a standout, multisport all-star. Then in 1994, for his 10th birthday, his dad got him a gift that would change Dobbs’s life—an adjustable basketball hoop. Dobbs was hooked. Countless hours were spent playing, adjusting the hoop to seven or eight feet so he could dunk on it like so many countless kids have done, mimicking their favorite dunkers. “My idol was, of course, [Michael] Jordan,” Dobbs says, “but it was Dominique Wilkins and his power windmill that really excited me when I was a kid. That became my go-to dunk.”
At around 11 years old, Dobbs says he began to get high with his friends. Then his grandfather passed away, the first person close to him to die. “I started smoking more weed and making bad choices out of anger and hurt. I didn’t really know how to handle his passing, other then being angry.”
By 13, Dobbs was smoking pot on a daily basis and began getting into serious trouble at school. “When I was kicked out of sixth grade,” Dobbs says, “my mom took me away from my friends and put me into a private Christian school against my will. This made me even angrier, and I went around looking for trouble. My only release was playing basketball. This is when I developed a real love of the game. When I’m alone on the court, just me and the ball and the open air, that’s where I found a sense of freedom and peace.”
Dobbs enrolled in Independence High School in Glendale, Arizona. “All my partners in crime were there. I reunited with childhood friends in high school,” Dobbs says, “and I quickly got into using and selling drugs and drinking alcohol. I was selling and partying every weekend.”
“I would always tell Kenny that God had big plans for him and that he was not walking towards his calling,” Cynthia Dobbs says. Dobbs’s father saw a streak in his son he knew all too well. “My son always had to do things his way—play with fire and get burned to learn his lesson,” Kenneth Sr. says. “He would use the excuse with me, ‘Well, you did it.’?”
By the age of 15, Dobbs had already run away from home a few times and was deep into using and selling cocaine and methamphetamine. He dropped out his sophomore year of high school. “That’s when things got really bad. I chose to live out what my favorite rap artist would call the ‘thug life.’?”
Being bad was good. Living dangerously and escaping death were badges of honor. Money is king. School is for suckers. Yet high school was where Dobbs should have been playing varsity basketball, where he should have been getting better at the fundamentals of the game. Instead, his focus was drinking and drugs, meeting girls and the rush of brushes with death. “Things were getting out of control,” Dobbs says, “and I began realizing the deep hole I had dug for myself when shootouts and dodging bullets had become a weekend rush and just another story to tell at the next smoking session with my friends. I remember thinking that at some point things would have to change before it was too late.”
When Dobbs was 17, he and three of his friends robbed a furniture store. “They usually had large amounts of cash, but the day we decided to rob it was a Friday, and they had just taken the money to the bank.”
They grabbed what they could and jumped into their getaway car. Dobbs drove. They saw and heard nothing, so they assumed they were safe. They were not. An unmarked police car had been following them the whole time. Soon enough, patrol cars filled Dobbs’s rearview mirror. “We all took off running,” Dobbs says. “I was the most athletic, so I was jumping fences and running through backyards. After about two minutes I realized there was a helicopter circling above, so I found an apartment complex where I hid out until I didn’t hear the chopper or sirens. I called a friend and got a ride to a safe house, where I began celebrating my freedom by drinking and smoking.”
Dobbs returned home at around three a.m. The cops were waiting for him. “The officer said I would be looking at between six to nine years in prison” Dobbs says, “I was 17 years old. For the first time in a long time I felt like a child again, wanting to call Mommy and Daddy to save me, but there wasn’t anything anyone else could do.”
Dobbs spent that night alone in his cell thinking about what his father had told him years ago, when he first started getting into trouble. “Life’s all about choices,” he says, “I had no one else to cry out to but God.”
After Dobbs was released from jail, while still awaiting his trial, he slipped easily back into his old life. One Friday night, despite being kicked out of his parents’ house, he returned to get some clothes. This was something he did often, owing in part to his parents’ inability to completely cut him off and his own brazen carelessness for the severity of his situation or his parents’ feelings. Dobbs left that night with fresh duds and went out to party, a potential nine-year sentence hanging over his head. Candice crawled into Dobbs’s empty bed that night.
Buckshot tore through Dobbs’s bedroom windows, shattering the glass, ripping up the blinds, pock-marking his bedroom walls and the posters of his hip-hop idols. Candice curled up into a ball and prayed for the raging fusillade of fire streaming through the windows to end. These men had come to settle accounts. “When I was selling drugs, we also used to steal from other dealers. When we sold some guys drugs and we knew where they lived, we’d go and take their stuff, plan the whole thing out—any way to make money, we’d do it,” Dobbs says. “I come home the next day, and the police had already been there and left. So when I get home, all I see is our cars with big holes in them from being shot at close range, the doors, the tires. Then I look at the house and see all this paint chipped off and holes in the bricks. Then I look up at my bedroom windows. My dad had already boarded up my windows.”
Dobbs’s walk to the front door was all the time he needed to piece together what must have happened. It was a simple and
devastating 10-foot walk. His life hung in the balance as he put the key into the lock. “My key wouldn’t work; they had already changed the locks,” Dobbs says. “I’m really frantic now, wondering what happened. I’m banging on the door. My mom answers, I try to walk in, but she won’t let me. She slaps me in the face and starts crying. She asks me what’s it going to take? I knew that my back was finally up against the wall. I knew that slap was my wake-up call.”
Dobbs believes the events that followed the shooting scene at his house were divine providence. At his robbery trial, where Dobbs sat with the hideous awareness that he would likely be going to a “grown-man’s prison” while he was very much still a child, the impossible happened. Both the arresting officer and witness failed to show up, something his attorney claimed to have never seen before. The charges were dropped, and a fine of $5,000 was levied against him for evading the police, which Dobbs’s parents took care of with the understanding he would pay back every cent. On top of this, Dobbs’s permanent record remained clean thanks to his being only 17 at the time. “From that day on, I set goals,” Dobbs says. “I wanted to become a leader.”
Dobbs’s first goal was graduating from high school—not via a GED, but an actual diploma. For 18 months straight, Dobbs went to Peoria High School in an accelerated program from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., then went home to take more online courses. He made up 22 credits and received his high school diploma in 2003. “I remember holding that thing up like I had just won the NBA finals,” Dobbs says.
Right after high school, Dobbs married his girlfriend, and they had a baby girl on July 10, 2005. Enter Uriya Jocelyn—“Uriya” meaning “light of God.” “My mind shifted from playing ball to providing for my family.”
At 19, Dobbs decided he wanted to create a career out of making an impact in kids’ lives. He had half a lifetime of bad decisions to learn from and all the street cred in the world. He started volunteering and ended up getting a job with the Department of Behavioral Health of the state of Arizona. “They took me to all these different places to speak because these kids didn’t want to talk to adults,” Dobbs says. “They didn’t want to look like a snitch. With my background, my story, they felt comfortable with me. And all of the kids I met, none of them had issues as big as the kids on the reservations. Generation after generation dealing with the same issues: gangs, substance abuse, suicide.”
Dobbs helped create a youth council and attended biweekly meetings in Phoenix, thanks to a grant of $3 million from the Substance Abuse Council. This grant helped pay Dobbs to head up a council of other young people to reach out to Arizona communities, all over Phoenix, Prescott, Flagstaff, rural areas and Native American reservations in Arizona, all in effort to find out what issues were most afflicting the youth in these communities. They held 32 focus groups throughout the year. “Kenny has always had this very special gift, and we saw it at a young age,” Cynthia says. “He could talk to anyone. It didn’t matter if they were the same age, little babies or grown adults. He was outgoing and courageous.”
Dobbs was given casework—10 children whom he visited in their homes and taught them the basics. He’d show up at 7:30 a.m., talk with them, figure out what was going wrong and help them take control of their lives by prodding them to come up with solutions and “skill building” before pushing them toward their goals and keeping them on track.
By 2006 Dobbs was serving as the co-chair for the Arizona Youth Advisory council for substance-abuse prevention as well as working full-time as a youth-support partner, helping kids build basic living skills. “My life became all about helping others,” Dobbs says, “and I felt a great joy being recognized as one of the leading voices in our field. This was a special time for me because I realized the impact I was having, but I still had bigger dreams of reaching the masses, and basketball was my first love. I just couldn’t leave it alone.”
In 2007 Dobbs decided he wanted to play basketball, so he enrolled at Arizona’s Glendale Community College. “I planned on staying there for two years and then trying to make it to a Division I school or go overseas to play professionally,” Dobbs says. “Coaches were amazed by my athleticism and jumping ability, but I had never been coached or taught any fundamentals of the game.” He worked hard at getting better at the basics during practice, but after practice he could unleash all his raw talent on something he was already phenomenally good at. “After practice, my teammates would have dunk contests,” Dobbs says. “This is when I really shined. I was pulling out dunks from NBA contests I had seen, like Dominique Wilkins’s power windmills and Michael Jordan’s reverse leaner with the leg kicks.”
In 2008 he entered the Hoop It Up dunk contest, which draws top-flight talent to the games and to the dunk contests. As fierce as the tournaments are, the dunk contests are arguably even tougher—there are even fewer places to hide when it’s just you against everyone else with the tournament’s spectators and athletes crowding around to watch the high-flying madness.
The famous street ballplayers of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s weren’t really famous; they were known only to those who lived in their neighborhoods. They were local legends—murky giants of their craft that only a small percentage of people ever actually got to see play. Dobbs lives in a different time, a time when video appears on YouTube just minutes after a dunk contest, meaning that thousands of people suddenly know his name and have seen his game. “After that first contest,” Dobbs says, “I was contacted by a guy that saw the YouTube video and asked me to come out to Los Angeles to compete for the 2008 Shaquille O’Neal Dunkman Contest. They flew me out to Los Angeles and, right there on Venice Beach, they had set up the venue. The weather was beautiful, the bleachers were packed, the other contestants were warming up, and as I was putting on my shoes I took time to thank God for the opportunity.”
As the quietest and least cocky of the dunkers there that day, Dobbs went unnoticed until his first dunk—and his second and his third. He won again.
Dobbs began getting calls from different organizations. One in particular sparked his interest. It was called Flying101, a traveling dunk team that performed shows all over the world. He decided to join it.
Dobbs now had to make a decision: treat dunking as a full-time job or stick with his full-time job working with the state of Arizona and helping kids. He decided he wanted both—the dunking and the kids. He sought out James Cooper, a professional trainer who had worked for the Los Angeles Lakers and was training NFL superstar Adrian Peterson and NBA legend Robert Horry. He went to Houston and endured Peterson’s workout regimen. Dobbs decided to dig deep. He did isometric workouts, resistance-band training, plyometrics, uphill weight-vest running, parachute running. He learned how to stretch.
He increased his vertical from 45 inches to 48 inches.
Dobbs also became a student of dunking and delved into the physiology and physics of it. All he had to do was make a few minor adjustments to make it appear like he was floating. He began holding onto the ball longer because it gives the illusion of being in the air longer. He also saw that by pulling his legs up and extending his arms as he rose, he gave the impression of some kind of airborne god.
Dobbs also started to work on his mind. “I started doing research, watching endless hours of dunk contests online,” says Dobbs. “I studied my competitors. I wanted to find out what punches they threw and have a counterpunch.”
In 2008, Dobbs decided to merge his two loves, dunking and outreach, and create an LLC under the name UpRise Youth Movement. The idea was to bring his extraordinary dunking skills and his life story to reservations across the country and to speak directly to kids, with a primary focus of suicide prevention. Suicide rates for teens in Indian country are terrifyingly high, and Dobbs thought that if he could look these kids in the eye and tell his story, he might be able to do some good.
It was a struggle. In 2008 and 2009, as his reputation as a dunker grew, Dobbs earned a scant $10,000 over an 18-month period. He joined the Sprite Slam Showdown Dunk Tour and went from dunk event to dunk event while trying to get the word out about his UpRise Youth Movement. Using partners he met on the youth council, Dobbs went to local parks, to high schools, wherever he could bring his story, his message and his skills. But he was becoming a world-class dunker by competing against the best. “In 2009 I set a new goal—to be the best dunker in the world,” says Dobbs. “This led me to try new things and develop tricks that hadn’t been done before.”
This past May, Dobbs got to perform in front of one of the legends of basketball, an idol for Dobbs and one of the first men to make dunking an art form—Julius Erving—at the Ball Up’s Air Up There Slam Dunk Contest in Los Angeles, on national TV on Fox Sports. Only one small problem: Dobbs was already booked for a dunk contest in Pennsylvania that weekend.
What followed was a mad dash across the country and back again. He went to Pennsylvania, dunked, won, got on a plane to Los Angeles with a layover in Detroit. He missed his connecting flight due to a plane delay, finally got a plane on Saturday night and flew to Los Angeles without a wink of sleep. Fortunately (and because of Dobbs’s reputation), the contest organizers pushed the competition back three hours so he could compete. Dobbs’s first two dunks were a ball-between-the-legs slam and a massive, thunderous windmill with one slight addition. “I came out,” he says, “pulled out three girls from the stands, lined them up under the rim, cuffed the ball and did a windmill over them.”
Dobbs’s performance—after crisscrossing the country twice and getting no sleep—won him the dunk contest as well as a contract with Fox Sports. He’s slated to bring his act to Brazil, Australia, Japan, France and Ivory Coast this summer. This August, Dobbs hopes to make history at the ESPN City Slam contest. One of the competitions is the Vert Bar challenge: A bar is placed in front of the hoop that dunkers have to clear before dunking. Last year, the record was broken when ex–Harlem Globetrotter Wayne “Rare Air” Clark cleared 70 inches by jumping backwards over the bar and dunking. Dobbs is going for 72.
He has traveled the world thanks his abilities, but it’s the reservations throughout the country that are the most important destinations for him. “I had the honor of hosting Kenny in Oklahoma at the Muscogee (Creek) Nation,” says George Tiger, a member of the legislature of the Muscogee Nation. “The message he shares is one that should be heard by all youth. Sharing his life’s battles with his athletic skills is a wonderful mix that kids can relate to. I’ve been involved in the radio and television industry for four decades. I believe every Indian community in the country should have a chance to listen to and interact with Kenny.”
Dobbs is now on top, but he also knows that he’s just getting started.
“I accomplished my goal of being one of the top dunkers in the world,” Dobbs says. “But most important to me is the UpRise Youth Movement. The dunk shows get the youth inspired and open to listening to what I have to say, then I’m able to deliver a powerful message of hope that will encourage them to rise up and become leaders in their home, school and community. I believe this is the reason I’m here, and I thank God I am now living out His purpose for my life. This is what makes my job the best in the world!”