Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow
Isaiah Gibson grips the basketball with two hands and begins a sprint down the gym floor that has all the look of a long jumper building momentum for the launch. Only his mark is a small trampoline set a few feet in front of the basketball hoop.
Gibson leaps off both feet, propelling his slight frame on to the trampoline, which sends him catapulting more than a dozen feet in the air.
He hangs, grabs the ball he had flung off the backboard and slam dunks it.
“Whoa!” a teammate hollers, “That was sick!”
It was extremely sick, and so is this new feature of Game Day entertainment called the Flight Crew, 14 Grand Canyon University students with all kinds of steely nerve who put on a show of acrobatics off trampolines, flying to the basket with grace and aggression. They’ll perform at halftime of Monday night’s first men’s basketball game.
“You are really high in the air and can see the rim below you,” said Gibson, a freshman. “The biggest thing for me is believing I can do it. The mental block. Starting off that was the biggest thing, permitting myself to jump off the trampoline.”
When these guys let go and let it rip, as they did in a recent practice, it’s poetry in motion.
Zac Owen is another freshman who grabs a lot of air, enough that he twirls the ball behind his back and through one leg in midair before his thunderous dunk.
He dropped in on tryouts in September only to cheer participants on and decided to give it a try. “I was probably the worst one,” he said, adding that his former long jump style in junior high track messed him up because in the long jump you leap off one leg.
By the end of tryouts, he figured out the two-leg bounce and made the team.
“Joining the Flight Crew was probably one of the better decisions I made all year. It’s like the Havoc sections where you get to be a part of GCU in a different way,” he said. “It’s a pretty cool experience.”
Owen is so high at times, it looks as if he could drop through the rim feet first if it was wide enough.
It’s not all about the leap. There are flips and twists and a lot of coordination with basketballs.
“It takes a high level of consistency,” said Spirit Programs assistant coach Caleb Dunn, who inspired Flight Crew. “Every movement has to be the same every time you hit the trampoline. If not, you’re not going to be able to perform and dunk the ball.”
Dunn approached Spirit Programs Manager Jesi Weeks about performing at a basketball game last year after the halftime entertainment canceled. He’d been an able Thunder “handler” as the mascot increasingly did trampoline dunks for fun at events.
“It was an easy sell,” Weeks said. “It’s been amazing to watch them. This is one aspect of Spirit Programs I truly know nothing about, so I love learning along the way, just the skill that goes into it. I’m more like the anxious mom in the corner saying, ‘Don’t get hurt.’”
Dunn didn’t know much at first, either. He’s self-taught. He just started messing around jumping and filmed himself to critique it. He showed his clips to the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, who eventually hired him for their dunk team.
When the opportunity arose to gather a few GCU students and Suns jumpers for one show, they didn’t disappoint, and Flight Crew was born.
The joyful high-flyers hooked the crowd, he said, and the risk.
“You know there is danger involved,” Dunn said. “Every time you go up there is a chance you are going to hit the rim, or flip and your feet come down on the rim. That’s why everything has to be precise and consistent.”
Dunn suffered a major ankle injury during a practice for the Suns’ unit last year – he came down in a depression of the landing pad under the basket, tearing ankle ligaments and fracturing bones. He’s still in rehabilitation for the injury.
But detailed practice and safety precautions, he said, make it a relatively safe gig you couldn’t beg these fellows to give up.
“You get to have an experience that you don’t get as a normal human,” Dunn said. “You are jumping higher than humanly possible, having a different vantage point from up above and having all the sounds from the crowd.”
He says it attracts “adrenaline junkies, people who live off adrenaline you can’t find anywhere.”
Gibson smiles at that. As kids, he and his older brother had a history of testing the limits. “He influenced me to do a lot of reckless stuff.”
More refined than reckless, practice drills are intense, a hundred consecutive full-court sprints to approach and time the jump onto the tramp. But this group that includes former gymnasts, basketball and track athletes and one current GCU cheerleader needs more than fitness and athleticism.
It’s also about working together, when a “train” of three or even five pass the ball to the person behind them off the backboard and finish with a dunk.
“Everybody has a different jump, so you are going to have a different pass for whoever is behind you,” he said. “If the person behind you is quicker you have to come off the glass higher because he’s coming up faster. It’s a lot of over and over and building that chemistry.”
They also need to be entertainers. At one point in practice, Dunn reminds them to find the body language to give the appearance of floating and then afterward showing an exuberant self-wonder.
“Be excited,” he tells the young men, half of whom are freshman. “Get them excited. If you dunk and just walk back like it’s no big deal, the crowd won’t care.”
The crowd did care at the Flight Crew’s performance at Midnight Madness last month, a big event where the basketball teams are introduced to a full GCU Arena.
Dunn had some good advice – really, a life lesson: “The more momentum you bring to the trampoline, the more momentum the trampoline will give you.”
The first dunk set off an explosion of cheers, and the closing train brought the house down.
“That was nerve-racking. You don’t want to mess up in front of that many people,” Owen said of the team’s first big performance. “It helped, though, when the adrenaline started going through my body.”
He then horizontally flew through the Arena bathed in purple lights, like some kind of superhero who wants to save the world for slam dunks.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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