HIGHLAND, Utah — Andy Nicholson is looking straight into a Fox 13 TV camera with dozens of men in basketball shorts standing behind him. He’s doing a live interview to promote a dunk show scheduled for later that week at American Fork High School (Utah) when he mentions there’s a surprise.
The far door swings open, and Jordan Kilganon — widely considered in the dunk community to be the world’s best dunker — enters the gym. He is immediately swarmed by Chris “C.J.” John and Steven Celi, two of the internet’s more prominent dunkers. They had no idea he was coming.
Kilganon, wearing jeans, grabs a basketball and heads straight to the basket to throw down a monster two-handed jam as the entire crowd jumps along with him. Nicholson unleashes an emphatic fist pump.
The made-for-TV “surprise” worked to perfection.
Ten years ago, Nicholson never would have thought that this was possible.
Nicholson is 5-foot-11. He’s a 47-year-old father of three with no competitive basketball experience beyond high school. He has a regular day job in product marketing for the computer software company Symantec. And yet he’s dunking at the most consistent rate in his life. The best dunkers in the world know who he is. They celebrate his story. They break out their phones whenever he makes his approach toward the basket.
They can’t wait to share the moment on Instagram and YouTube.
Kilganon, with 785,000 combined followers between those two services is dunking’s social media king, but Nicholoson has become a revered father figure who gives hope to those still hoping to slam their first dunk.
“Andy, being that short and that old, being able to jump like that is honestly amazing,” Kilganon says.
Nicholson is here in Highland, Utah, to lead the Dunk Camp. It’s exactly what it sounds like — a camp that is entirely dedicated to dunking a basketball. The top professional dunkers in the world, performance trainers and aspiring dunkers coming together for a week-long dunk session.
It’s the second year of a camp that Nicholson created, and the men listening raptly to his intro all paid between $600 and $800 for the experience. They’ll put in nine-hour days testing their verticals, learning the fundamentals of dunking, focusing on recovery and hearing from performance trainers who specialize in jumping. Some are even hoping to throw down their first-ever dunks this week.
And as important as that training will be, they’ve also come to be around Kilganon and his contemporaries — a chance to put a face to those Instagram handles — because this is as much about experiencing the dunk culture as it is exploring the mechanics of adding inches to your vertical.
Ten years ago, the very thought of Nicholson’s involvement with a dunk camp would have been preposterous. He was in his late 30s, coming off a knee injury and he could no longer dunk – he could hardly touch the rim.
But now Nicholson stands in front of 54 campers from 11 countries at the Norton Performance training center outside of Salt Lake City. Here, there are dunkers as tall as 6-foot-7 and as short as 5-foot-5. They all share that same passion and made the trip to learn from each other.
Nicholson holds the microphone, looks around the six-hoop gym with massive windows offering a view of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. He can’t hold back the smile.
“We have guys who came from China, Australia, all over Europe, South America — awesome,” Nicholson says in his welcome speech to the campers. “All because we love this thing called dunking. It’s cool to be in the same gym with guys who understand that.”
Few would understand that love for dunking better than Andy. He’s chased that dream for decades. He changed his life in pursuit of that goal, and it took him on a journey that he never could have seen coming.
All because at 39 years old, he wanted to dunk a basketball.
It’s how he became the “Over-the-Hill Dunker.”
* * *
It all started with the 1986 NBA dunk contest: Spud Webb vs. Dominique Wilkins. That was when Nicholson first fell in love with dunking.
Nicholson, 13 years old at the time and living in the Kansas City suburbs, couldn’t look away as he watched the 5-foot-7 Webb throw down dunks that didn’t seem possible for someone of that height. Webb took off from the elbow. He completed reverse dunks, 360 dunks. He beat Wilkins, the defending champion and his Hawks teammate, in a massive upset.
Nicholson was in awe. He had to experience that. He just needed to figure out how. There was no internet to turn to. He couldn’t just watch jumping videos on YouTube or sign up for a pro dunker’s jumping program. He did, however, find a $10 jump program in a magazine and asked his mom to sign him up.
“It was just this big, yellow chart,” Nicholson said. “I put it on my wall. And that’s where my tracking started and doing my workouts every day.”
And he stuck with it. This wasn’t just a phase that many teenagers would grow out of. Nicholson did his jumping workouts regularly. He was out there in his driveway each day, jumping, reaching with the right hand. Then, the left. Then, both hands. He tracked his progress. By 14, he was 5-foot-7 and grabbing the rim. At 15, he threw down his first dunk.
But still, dunking never came easy for Nicholson even as he found success in basketball. In high school, he played for Kansas City powerhouse Raytown South (Mo.) — a top-5 nationally ranked team led by the late Bud Lathrop. He came off the bench on that team, and his hopes of playing college basketball were never fulfilled.
“It was very challenging for me because I had all these big dreams as a player, goals I had set, I really wanted to play college basketball,” Nicholson said. “I was getting in front of the top D-I coaches in the country, but, of course, they were recruiting my teammates and not me. I was just a role player on this phenomenal team.”
Nicholson recalled the time he got denied by the rim going for an in-game dunk against rival Blue Springs — a moment that was not met kindly by his coaches. He estimates that he dunked maybe six times in his life before he turned 30. That was it. Despite trying to dunk after every practice, he kept slamming the ball off the back rim. At the time, nobody tossed up lobs for post-practice dunking — a tactic that is now acknowledged to make it easier for nascent dunkers to get the ball cleanly through the hoop. But back then it was all off-the-dribble and self-tossed dunk attempts.
The constant misses were a source of amusement for Nicholson’s teammates, but those memories and the shortcomings of his basketball career helped fuel his desire to dunk — albeit decades later.
Nicholson admittedly had a midlife crisis as he neared 40. He hadn’t dunked since he was 29 – a two-handed dunk after a city league game that he remembers vividly because his wife, Whitney, filmed it.
“I still watch that clip sometimes,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson described having that fear of getting older. He moved to Utah for college, got married, started a family, and there he was, staring at age 40. When he watched a 5-foot-10 dunker Jacob Tucker, who’d played Division III ball, won the 2011 college basketball slam dunk contest against Division I players, that same desire that he felt 26 years earlier as a 13-year-old suddenly came back.
He wanted to dunk again before his 40th birthday. He had to go for it.
“I left it alone, that dream,” Nicholson said. “I kind of moved on, and now, that fire was back.”
This time, he had more resources at his disposal to make that happen — notably, the internet.
Nicholson took to Google and searched for vertical-jump programs, and he came across something called “Jump Manual.” It was an online program that gave him a series of plyometric workouts. The program boasted huge results with users claiming to have gained nearly 20 inches to their vertical leap.
“I remember I was like, ‘That’s a thing?,’” Whitney said of the first time Andy mentioned that he was going to purchase an online jump program. “He was excited about it, took that and worked really hard at it. He’s always felt passionate about setting a goal and achieving it.”
In a world where experienced jumpers train relentlessly just to add an inch to their verticals, the notion of a 20-inch gain sounded beyond outlandish. But what did Nicholson have to lose? He went for it
He tracked every workout, saving those logged exercises and progress in folders. He still has them today. He followed a strict diet and recorded his weight daily because the leaner he was, the easier it would be to jump. He filmed his progress, which started with touching the rim.
Nicholson didn’t even need to dunk for other prospective dunkers to take notice. Celi, a 5-foot-10 pro dunker, credited Nicholson for inspiring his personal dunk journey, and they exchanged messages regularly on YouTube.
“I was only 19 at the time,” Celi said. “Him being 39, before I saw his videos, it was always just one kid at the gym who could jump really high or a friend of yours who could jump really high. You never really thought you could train from just average jumping to jumping high.”
In all, though, Nicholson needed to add about six inches to his vertical to get to that magic 126-inch dunking height.
Watching this all unfold, Nicholson’s friends from his weekly basketball game heard about the idea and thought he was crazy. Nicholson would go up for dunks after their pickup games, and he’d be nowhere close.
“Some of these guys were like, ‘Are you out of your mind? You haven’t dunked in forever. You need to jump like five or six inches higher. You’re almost 40.’ They would give me a hard time,” Nicholson recalled.
Nicholson didn’t give up, though. He pushed himself to make it to the gym. He held himself accountable. By Week 9, he was able to dunk on a 9-foot-10 rim. He was dunking home lobbed passes with ease as those same friends watched in awe.
For it to really count, Nicholson needed to take his dunk journey to a gym with a 10-foot rim. He didn’t want the dunk to come off a lob either. At the 11-week mark, Nicholson rolled up to a near-empty local gym and went through his warmups. One-step approach with no ball: He grabbed the rim with one hand. Jumping off the run with two feet: He grabbed the rim with both hands.
It was time for a basketball. And … he missed. He missed a lot. But, eventually, Nicholson dunked home a one-handed dunk, jumping off two feet and without a dribble. It was a dunk that he called “weak” — still, it was a dunk. By Week 12, Nicholson had transitioned to jumping off one foot, a more natural approach for him. And this time, the dunks came easily and with purpose. He slammed the basketball to the floor after making his third dunk in a row.
The gym was empty, but Nicholson was ecstatic. The video from this day would amass 115,000 views on YouTube.
That’s because at age 39, Andy Nicholson had dunked for the first time in 10 years.
* * *
Nicholson is holding his phone, filming as Kilganon offers some last-minute instruction for 40-year-old Isaiah Perumalla, who came to Dunk Camp from London in search of his first dunk in 20 years.
Perumalla walks to the 3-point line, and Kilganon makes a practice toss to measure up the height of the impending lob.
Every component works perfectly here. Perumalla makes his slow, building approach to the basket as Kilganon lobs the basketball up in front of the rim. The 40-year-old reaches with his left hand to slam home the alley-oop dunk.
Just like that, everyone goes nuts. Perumalla has dunked for the first time in two decades.
This was what Nicholson had in mind when he started Dunk Camp.
It wasn’t only about offering coaching and encouragement to dunkers. He wanted Dunk Camp to be a place where people — regardless of dunking and jumping ability — could be in an environment where the best dunkers in the world would have the same excitement for a camper’s progress as they would for their own perfect, contest-caliber dunk.
“Dreams come true at Dunk Camp,” Nicholson said.
* * *
Utah-based professional dunker Dallon Findlay can’t forget the first time he met Nicholson. Findlay and fellow Utah dunker Clint Ainsworth saw videos of Nicholson dunking and arranged to meet for a session at a local gym.
“When I first saw him, he was shorter than I expected, he was older than I expected. But … he was dunking,” Findlay said. “It wasn’t anything fancy. He wasn’t doing windmills – it was just basic, one-handers off the backboard or off the dribble. But that was intense.”
Findlay had seen thousands of dunks in his lifetime, but he specifically remembers one in particular from that evening.
“He had one at the very beginning where he threw it off the backboard,” Findlay said. “And I remember he got his hand up and he had to catch it far behind him, which adds to the difficulty of the dunk, and he freaking punched it.
“Both myself and Clint were there. We both just ran out of the gym screaming. We were just losing our minds. We had no idea what to expect. He definitely caught us by surprise.”
Nicholson began to realize he wasn’t satisfied with just being able to dunk. He wanted a new goal. Something difficult. Something with an expiration date.
He wanted to compete in a dunk contest. After all, it was how his love for dunking started in the first place.
This was in 2016, and Nicholson was 44 years old. His videos were making rounds in the dunk community on Instagram and YouTube. He wasn’t just dunking to achieve his own goal anymore, but he also had people reaching out to him for advice. Both pro and aspiring dunkers knew of him.
Top professional dunkers like Kilganon and Isaiah Rivera – who recently won the Quai 54 dunk contest in Paris by jumping over Blake Griffin – heard that Nicholson was planning to compete in a dunk contest and leaped at the opportunity to support him.
“With Andy, I knew he was super passionate about dunking and training,” Rivera said. “In my mind, there wasn’t any kind of negativity or doubt in my mind. It was like, ‘Shoot, that’s dope! Go for it.’ ”
Kilganon even sent Nicholson the jersey he wore in his viral 2016 NBA All-Star Game dunk. Nicholson submitted a video to FitCon — a fitness convention in Salt Lake City — and was one of four dunkers to get accepted for the show. The last thing Nicholson wanted to do was qualify for a dunk contest and not land a single dunk. That couldn’t happen. He started training with Kilganon’s Bounce Kit program and worked to dunk at his most consistent rate.
“Andy was training meticulously,” Findlay said. “He was dieting. He got to the leanest point he’s ever been in his life. I’ve never seen that dude be so focused on a goal.”
When that dunk contest finally came around, Nicholson — of course — was the first dunker to go. He fought through the adrenaline and landed a one-handed dunk off the glass, punching it through on his first attempt.
Findlay told Nicholson in the lead up to contest that the mere shock value of a 44-year-old dunker would be worth points, so just focus on completing the dunks. And for the most part, Findlay was right.
Nicholson landed several dunks, including a two-hander, which Findlay hadn’t seen him do before.
“I like to tell people I came in fourth place but not tell them how many competitors there were,” Nicholson jokes. “Though I believe in myself, I had no expectation of winning that contest … I wanted to be in a dunk contest. It was something I wanted to do. Some people want to do an Iron Man.
“My Iron Man was a dunk contest, so I did it.”
* * *
“So, I’ve had this random idea,” Nicholson recalled saying.
Nicholson and Findlay had made a trip to Florida to meet up with an All-Star cast of dunkers. Chris “C.J.” John, Isaiah Rivera, Nico Christie, Steven Celi and Jordan Kilganon – they were all there. Dunking isn’t just a passion for them; C.J., Kilganon and Rivera do it full-time.
The money they earn from touring for dunk contests, specialized jump programs and merchandise sales pays their bills. Celi has a day job but supplements his income with revenue from his YouTube channel, “Dunk Life” line of merchandise, inspirational coaching and his own podcast.
The group spent the week dunking, talking about dunking, teaching each other new techniques, spending time together away from the gym.
“Just eat, sleep, dunk for five days,” Nicholson said. “It was like a dream come true.”
Nicholson noticed how people had traveled thousands of miles to be part of this group, and now that he had competed in a dunk contest, more and more people were reaching out for advice.
“That was the first time we got to meet and dunk together,” Celi said. “And since then, we’ve stayed in touch. The dunk world has kind of grown since and keeps sharing ideas.”
There had to be a way to help aspiring dunkers while also continuing to bring the online dunk community together … in person.
Nicholson remembered how he used to travel as a kid for basketball camps, but he had never heard of a dunk camp.
There should be a dunk camp.
Nicholson thought back to his dunk journey. He wished he had real dunkers, real experts around to guide him and accelerate his progress. Nicholson was sure there were other aspiring dunkers out there who would benefit from the connections he built during his journey to dunk.
“Because usually people have to buy programs, you never know who’s legit,” Findlay said, describing Nicholson’s pitch. “Who’s just trying to make a buck. ‘We can get some legit people in there, teach people, coach people, give them a program and set them up for the future because I wish I would’ve had that when I was growing up.’”
He pitched the idea for the camp, and the group of dunkers loved the idea. His family was surprised how serious Nicholson was about the idea. According to Kilganon, it was something that had been talked about in the dunk community, but nobody actually went out and did it … until Nicholson.
“I knew we needed a facility,” Nicholson said. “I needed a training partner. I had a lot of experience at this point about jumping and dunking. I have relationships with a lot of professional dunkers. But I didn’t have a formal training background, so I really wanted to partner with someone that had that. So, Ricky Norton is the owner of Norton Performance. I knew of him, and I knew he had been part of P3, which is really well respected — trains a lot of NBA players out of Santa Barbara. I was very familiar with P3. Ricky was a mentor and trained there. He was building his training business in Utah where I live, so I thought that Ricky would be a great fit for this.
“So, we met, and I pitched him the idea. He loved it. He said let’s do it. So, Ricky and I partnered up and we created the camp. We were at a different facility last year, and in between last and this year, he built this facility.”
The first Dunk Camp would be set for the summer of 2018 at the Karl Malone Training Center.
Nicholson wanted the camp to be a vehicle to improve the skills of not just experienced dunkers, but he also wanted people who had never dunked before to feel welcomed.
He enlisted the help of performance trainers who specialize in jumping like Project Pure Athlete’s Tyler Ray and Air Strike’s John Evans. They would focus on the technical aspects of jumping.
The process was slow at first. People didn’t exactly know what a dunk camp was — it didn’t exist anywhere else.
The camp was announced in January, and it happened to be scheduled for the busiest week of Whitney’s new full-time job: Running orientation for students from a Missouri medical school placed at hospitals in Utah. It was a major undertaking for the entire Nicholson family.
“Trying to juggle everything, that was pretty crazy,” Whitney said.
Following the camp’s announcement, it only had three signups through the first week. But relying heavily on social media, word of the camp started to spread. The next two months would see 35 more people sign up for the camp. The involvement of Rivera, C.J. and Celi helped push the camp to 42 signups by the time world-renown dunker Jonathan Clark —- a professional dunker and school teacher with 300,000 Instagram followers — announced that he was onboard.
When it was all said and done, 48 athletes from seven countries would sign up for the first camp. The Dunk Camp was officially born.
In that first week alone, 82 percent of the attendees saw an increase in their verticals from Day 1 to Day 4. Four people had their first-ever dunks on a 10-foot rim, and they got to do so with pro dunkers and other campers cheering them on.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Nicholson said of seeing those first dunks.
* * *
Nicholson is standing at the top of the key at American Fork High School’s gym. Microphone in hand, he thanks the packed crowd for coming out for the Dunk Camp’s show.
The second year of Dunk Camp had come to an end.
Everyone in this suburban Utah town had just witnessed some of the world’s best dunkers pull off dunks that would make Zion Williamson’s jaw drop. There was Clark literally kicking the ball with his feet in mid-air while finishing off a 360. There was Kilganon jumping over his favorite dunker, Terry “T-Dub” Cournoyea, and punching home a scorpion dunk.
It was an hour straight of poetry in dunking.
For Nicholson, he hopes this is just the beginning — not just for his camp but also for the sport of dunking. He can see the camp growing and moving to multiple locations — maybe even holding camps abroad. He can see dunking ending up in the X Games or Olympics one day. He wants to do what he can to help push dunking into the mainstream.
“I would love to be able to see him make this work,” Whitney said. “It would be awesome.
“He just comes alive when he gets home from playing basketball or dunk sessions. He’s so much happier. I would love to be able to see him turn that into something he can do all the time. He can inspire people and motivate people and push people. He’s great at doing that. That would be awesome for him to be able to take that and share that with other people.”
Where the first year took some time to gain traction, the second year of Dunk Camp sold out easily with three people dunking for the first time in addition to Perumalla dunking for the first time in 20 years.
Every one of those moments went viral on prominent accounts like Ballislife and Overtime during the week. The reach of Dunk Camp had grown exponentially.
“Things like this, I hope, give more visibility to the sport and how amazing these athletes are,” Nicholson said. “They really are world-class athletes, the guys that are at the top. I hope to be part of that. Help build it. Help others who have this dream to dunk like I did.”
And that’s exactly where this all grew from — Nicholson’s dream of dunking by age 40. This entire camp never would have happened if he decided to buy a sports car to satiate his midlife crisis. Dunking shouldn’t be some unachievable goal – regardless of height or age. You don’t have to win the genetic lottery. His story proves that.
But most of all, he’s happy that he at least gave that childhood dream another try.
“So many cool things have happened just because age 39, I decided to try and dunk a basketball again.”