ST. PETERSBURG — The opponent was trapped when TJ Tampa took the ball away. Within seconds, the Lakewood High guard was at full speed as he blew past everyone.
Tampa took off near the foul line, climbing toward the apex of his vertical leap. The crowd stood, already anticipating the next move.
As his hands reached above the rim, Tampa threw down a dunk. The fans roared with approval.
By then, the outcome was decided. The Spartans (13-2) dominated — again.
More than winning, Lakewood’s players have gained notoriety for their ability to elevate several inches off the hardwood and propel the basketball downward through the hoop. This often elicits oohs and aahs from the audiences that come to see their assortment of dunks.
Tight game? Lopsided score? It does not matter. One teammate sets up another with lob passes, backward-over-the-head feeds, backboard-high bounce passes — whatever it takes to produce a rim-rattling jam.
They each oblige, sometimes twisting themselves into a corkscrew before dunking on a defender.
“We’re just so dang athletic,” Spartans coach Anthony Lawrence said. “Our games — they can become dunk fests.”
The green light is always on. In fact, the Spartans keep tabs of these highlight-worthy baskets on their Twitter account. Dubbed the “Slam Pony Express,” Lakewood players have accounted for 77 dunks this season. In last week’s rout of Pinellas Park, the Spartans had 16.
Occasionally, the team will put on a dunk exhibition during halftime of the junior varsity game. They go through their dunkathon then because they will get a technical for performing in warmups before their game.
“Our first look is to dunk,” said Tampa, a multisport athlete who has signed to play football with Iowa State.
There is plenty of preparation that goes into these jam sessions. In the offseason, Lawrence has his players perform drills on a VertiMax machine. The device has a small platform with bungees attached, all designed to help with speed, explosiveness, and, perhaps most important, vertical leaping ability.
“You can feel the difference as soon as you get off the machine,” Lakewood junior guard Oteman Delancy said. “Let me put it to you this way. Last year, I couldn’t dunk. After using the VertiMax, I can do it more often.”
But most of the dunks come from a player who doesn’t need much elevation to slam the ball through the hoop.
Jamille Reynolds is a 6-foot-9 power forward who has already signed with UCF. During games, Reynolds stations himself under the basket. Once he stakes out his spot, he pushes and presses until his opponent is out of the paint.
It is hard labor for the defender who drew the short straw and is assigned to guard Reynolds, who averages 17.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
The area’s most irresistible force, as well as its most immovable object, Reynolds treats overmatched defenders the way a wrecking ball treats a window pane. He bulls his way through opponents for prime post-up position, then turns and drops the ball in the net as casually as if he were placing a book on a shelf.
Often that comes with force. His dunks usually make rims quiver and send opposing players into duck-and-cover mode.
“The most I’ve ever had in a game is six last year,” Reynolds said. “The most this year, I think, is five. It makes the game fun.”
It also helps to have a coaching staff that has a penchant for putting the ball through the hoop with flair. Lawrence, who starred at Lakewood before going to play at Alabama and Miami, said he had about 50 dunks as a senior with the Spartans in 1988-89.
“My dunks were pretty good, but they were nothing like David White’s,” said Lawrence, referring to his assistant coach. “He’s the man when it comes to dunking. He could put on a show.”
White was a McDonald’s and Parade All-American during his senior season at Boca Ciega in 1987. He went on to play at Florida State.
“I’ll admit, I had some pretty good dunks,” White said.
But the Spartans do not want to be known strictly as a high-jumping, basket-stuffing curiosity who peaks in dunk-offs, then is forgotten once the postseason makes it way to Lakeland for the state final four.
Lakewood reached the state championship game last year and is motivated to get back and win it all.
“We want to dunk, but the biggest thing we want to do is score — and keep on winning,” Tampa said.
Check them out
Want to watch the “Slam Pony Express” in action? Lakewood plays at St. Petersburg High on Friday nigh at 7:45.