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Slam Dunk Is Your Favorite Sports Manga, You Just Don’t Know It Yet
Manga Reading Recommendations

Slam Dunk Is Your Favorite Sports Manga, You Just Don’t Know It Yet

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In the 1990s, Takehiko Inoue created what is arguably the greatest sports manga of all time. And since it was the 1990s, it could only be about basketball. I’m from Brazil and basketball is not the sport that comes to mind when you think of our country, but back then I would walk around sporting a counterfeit Chicago Bulls cap. I was the flyest kid on the block thanks to the quasi-omnipresence of Michael Jordan on posters, stickers, graffiti, unbelievably expensive kicks, TV interviews, movies, video games, and even tattoos. Unfortunately, being seen on my block wearing a Bulls hat drew the attention of an older kid. He liked my hat. He did not like that it was mine. When he snatched it from my head I quickly grabbed it back and ran like hell. It was possible to escape a bully, escaping the basketball craze of the 1990s was a little harder. So when Slam Dunk was published in Brazil in the early 2000s I just had to get into it.

Takehiko Inoue loves two things: basketball and samurai. Aside from his magnum opus Vagabond, almost every other manga series he worked on as an author was about basketball. Manga such as Real and Buzzer Beater, but none of them could match the success Slam Dunk had. Competing for space in Weekly Shonen Jump Magazine during its golden age while legendary series such as Dragon Ball Z were being published every week, Slam Dunk would constantly be amongst the most popular. In spite of being a comedy sports manga, it borrows an element from another popular manga genres of the 1980s and 1990s: the school delinquent. Stories about teenagers who are constantly getting into street fights. Characters like Eikichi Onizuka from GTO or Yusuke Urameshi from the Weekly Shonen Jump hit YuYu Hakusho. They might steal your fake Bulls hat, but often they have a heart of gold. Shunned by society, feared by others, and misunderstood, they are read as irreparable punks, pushing them even more to the fringes of society. Slam Dunk’s main character fits well within this stereotype.

Slam Dunk Volume 1 cover by Takehiko Inoue.
Slam Dunk Volume 1 cover by Takehiko Inoue.

Sakuragi Hanamichi, is a tall, orange-haired troublemaker who gets angry whenever someone says the word basketball around him. The manga begins with him being rejected (now for the 50th time) by a girl who is in love with someone from the basketball team. However, his disposition towards the sport quickly changes when Haruko, an adorable girl from his school approaches him to ask if he would like to play basketball given his athletic body and height. Falling in love again, Sakuragi decides to join the basketball team to impress her, but before he realizes it, he is already in love with the sport.

While most manga with Sakuragi-type characters are about fighting, Slam Dunk gives its main character the possibility of focusing all that raw energy of a troubled youth into sport. Basketball becomes everything to Sakuragi Hanamichi, who is still little more than a beginner towards the last chapters. While he considers himself a genius, it is possible he does it just out of insecurity. Sakuragi joins the Shohoku basketball team at the same time one of the best players in the league arrives at his school: the truly genius Rukawa Kaede, an antisocial teen who doesn’t say much, sleeps most of the time, and dominates everybody on the court. To make his relationship with Sakuragi even saltier, Haruko, the girl who he joins the basketball team for, is in love with Rukawa.

Slam Dunk chapter 131 panel by Takehiko Inoue.
Slam Dunk chapter 131 panel by Takehiko Inoue.

Haruko’s brother, Akagi is the captain and has the terrible luck of being the only good player in a weak team. Now in his last year, he has a burning desire of leading Shohoku to victory in the National High School Tournament. And with the addition of Sakuragi and Rukawa, his luck might just change a bit. His team is soon reinforced by Ryota Myagi, Shohoku’s point guard and the protagonist of the upcoming movie The First Slam Dunk. Ryota is the smartest player in Shohoku, but he was absent from the team because he was hospitalized after a fight. The last player to join Shohoku is Hisashi Mitsui, the shooting guard and MVP of his Junior High years, who was forced to stop playing temporarily due to an injury. The frustration of not doing what he loves the most turned Mitsui from an exemplary player to a rebel without a cause, but he seems to find himself again when, after much conflict, he joins Shohoku’s ranks. With this ensemble of young delinquents, natural talents, and absolute beginners, Inoue will take anyone who reads Slam Dunk to the greatest basketball season fiction has ever produced.

Slam Dunk pages by Takehiko Inoue.
Slam Dunk pages by Takehiko Inoue.

After reading Slam Dunk I decided to watch a basketball game and I was in awe with how boring it seemed to me. Basketball isn’t boring in the least, but I realized then that what made Slam Dunk so captivating wasn’t the game, but Inoue’s masterful storytelling. You don’t have to like basketball or even know anything about it to get into Slam Dunk. Inoue turns every moment of the match into a battle of athleticism, skill, and wits. The Genius Sakuragi is an untrained beginner who barely understands the rules of the game, but he has lots of energy and is really good at getting the rebounds, so captain Akagi often puts him up to that particular task. Rukawa’s greatest enemy is himself. His individualistic style of trying to solve the game on his own can only take Shohoku so far, so he has to learn how to rely also on his teammates. Ryota isn’t very tall, but he makes up for it by being the most clever player in Shohoku. He creates opportunities for his teammates to score and often engages in psychological warfare getting into other players’ heads or psyching up the team. Every little aspect of their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses end up making for short stories in the matches they play. A moment that would last three seconds in a real game could take a few pages in Slam Dunk, not really like he is slowing down time, but rather zooming in on it. Real basketball never stood a chance.

Ikigai (生き甲斐) is a japanese word meaning your reason for living. Finding a reason to live through the dedication to what you love is also a recurring theme in Takehiko Inoue’s work.  In Vagabond we see that concept being taken to the most deadly consequences as swordsmen give their lives (quite literally) to the way of the sword knowing that their destiny is to someday be cut down. The greatest swordsman is just the one that hasn’t been cut down yet. The characters in Slam Dunk approach basketball in a similar way, putting everything they got in the game. Every match is a fight for survival in the championship. At one point in the manga, Sakuragi is tasked by his coach Anzai to shoot 20,000 hoops in three days in preparation for an upcoming match. I’m not sure if practice makes perfection, but it does make you better at whatever you’re trying to do.

Slam Dunk chapter 6 art (left) vs Slam Dunk chapter 274 art (right) by Takehiko Inoue.
Slam Dunk chapter 6 art (left) vs Slam Dunk chapter 274 art (right) by Takehiko Inoue.

Inoue himself is proof of ikigai in action as he drew Slam Dunk week after week for six years. The evolution in his art went from better-than-average to unmatched during the run of the manga. Towards the final volumes you can see so much detail in every scene, the air blowing through their uniforms as they run through the court, the sweat on their faces, their body language showing how tired they are. Even the players in the background are never just standing there, but always moving somewhere in the court or getting ready for what is going to happen next.

We never get to see Sakuragi’s parents (or anybody else’s as far as I remember) or what kind of upbringing he has, but it is implied throughout the series that he is quite poor. He is someone who perhaps wouldn’t amount to much out of the court. Hanamichi is short tempered, not very bright, arrogant, and naturally threatening due to his height and orange hair, but luckily he finds something he loves, something that gives him a sense of meaning, an ikigai. When he needs to get some proper basketball kicks because his shoes are torn from too much running around, he bullies the shoe store salesman into selling him a pair of Air Jordans for a measly 30 yen ($0.25 USD). However, even this salesman, who is also a basketball aficionado, is captivated by Sakuragi’s fierceness on the court and starts going to his games. The irreparable punk is redeemed by finding a place where his antics are actually welcome.

Slam Dunk is about basketball, about being inspired by what you love, about aspiring to be better. It could have been any other thing really. Football, fencing, music, or even gardening. I am very happy we’ll get to revisit those characters after so long with the upcoming movie release, but if you haven’t given Slam Dunk a chance yet, now is as good a time as any.

Slam Dunk is collected in 31 volumes and can be found in all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, and Amazon.

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