How one WVU basketball star reached above the rim and into history 35 years ago this December.
When the first woman dunked in a regulation college game, no ESPN coverage instantly splashed across America’s television screens. No fan uploaded clips went viral on YouTube. No congratulatory comments and emojis avalanched Facebook and Instagram.
One lone video documented the moment―recorded by the rival team’s head coach.
So when 6-foot-7-inch WVU basketball star Georgeann Wells slam-dunked against the University of Charleston just a few days before Christmas 1984, the only eyewitnesses to history were the roughly 100 people in the Randolph County Armory.
Slamming it down
That brisk December night was far from a one-time fluke. As a senior at Northland High School in Columbus, Ohio, Wells had helped lead her team to the 1982 state championship. College recruiters vied for her talent and towering height, and she ultimately chose WVU.
WVU coaches Kittie Blakemore and Bill Fiske encouraged Wells to dunk. She dribbled, shot, and slammed the ball after practices―often tearing her hands up from hitting the rim. Timing in a game never seemed right, though. Not until the 1983– 84 season, when the then-sophomore dunked against Massachusetts. But, as fate would have it, a foul called on another player disallowed the two-handed stuff. It was “The Dunk That Died,” a short New York Times clip proclaimed.
History would have to wait.
On December 21, 1984, WVU faced the University of Charleston in the Mountaineer Christmas Classic. WVU recorded games at that time on a reel-toreel video recorder. However, the heavy equipment didn’t make the trip to Elkins. Only Charleston’s head coach, Bud Francis, had a camera prepped and ready. A small crowd settled into their seats, the players warmed up, and the whistle blew.
The game had begun.
The Mountaineers were in the lead at halftime. According to a 1985 New York Times article, that was when teammate Lisa Ribble asked Wells if she was ready to make the shot. Wells wasn’t confident after playing poorly in the first half but, seeing Ribble’s excitement, she said, “Let’s go for it.”
The clock ticked while the women searched for an opening. Then, with less than 12 minutes left in play, Charleston sank a basket. It was time.
Wells broke away to midcourt. Ribble got the ball and fired it at her. A dribble or two, and Wells soared toward the basket. The clock hit the 11:18 mark as the ball swished in a gorgeous, one-handed stuff.
The armory exploded. Mountaineers sprang up from the bench in a flurry of limbs and earthquaking cheers. The celebratory hoopla lasted so long that WVU received a technical foul, a small price to pay for a remarkable shot. The Mountaineers went on to win, 110 to 82.
Video or it didn’t happen
Stories headlined in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame displayed the basketball Wells used. She is said to have dunked with a men’s regulation-sized basketball, despite the NCAA having adopted a slightly smaller women’s ball earlier that year.
Evidence of the dunk remained elusive when reporters asked for photographs or videos. Blakemore and other officials called Francis about the tape, but he didn’t release it. Wells dunked again a few games later against Xavier, this time with a camera rolling. And as the years passed, many wrote off the original Elkins tape as lost or destroyed. Blakemore said in a later Wall Street Journal interview, “I guess we felt let sleeping dogs lie and, if we didn’t have it by that time, we weren’t going to get it.”
Until Ford Francis’ phone rang in 2009.
Wall Street Journal reporter Reed Albergotti was on the other end, asking A Slam Dunk How one WVU basketball star reached above the rim and into history 35 years ago this December. him if his late father had a video tape from the 1984 tournament in Elkins. The younger Francis hadn’t seen it. However, he did have his father’s old coaching tapes sitting in a wicker basket next to his couch. Could the Elkins video be one of them?
Sure enough, he found a tape marked “WVU-84 Elkins.” The image was fuzzy but, between the lean young woman leaping at the far end of the court and the crowd’s instantaneous uproar, the proof was undeniable.
Wells had dunked.
The 1985 New York Times article prophesied Wells would “be followed by a flurry of hands above the rim.” A decade later, in December 1994, North Carolina’s Charlotte Smith became the next lady to dunk. Other outstanding women soon slammed their names into the history books—Brittney Griner, Lisa Leslie, and Candace Parker among them.
Yet nobody can quite replace the first hand that reached above the rim 35 years ago, right here in West Virginia.
Photograph courtesy of WVU ATHLETICS COMMUNICATIONS