You can hear the screams from outside. There aren’t a lot of campers in the gym at Wexford Collegiate in Scarborough, Ont., but you wouldn’t know it from the noise. They’re assembled around the three-point line, inches away from local legend Justin Darlington, a.k.a. Jus Fly, wearing his self-branded No. 0 jersey, black shorts and a pair of black-and-neon-blue Hyperdunks. The kids, ages six to 16, have never seen anything like this up close, and they’re reacting to the assortment of windmills and double-pumps accordingly. For Jus Fly, it’s just another day at the office.
A few days earlier, at a Nike event in Washington, D.C., Darlington wrapped up one of the most impressive dunk contest showings on record. There, the 24-year-old from Ajax, Ont., displayed his full repertoire: A 360 beneath-both-legs dunk, a hanging reverse jam over a six-foot-nine dude, and a “hesitation” windmill—the kind of physical feats that aren’t possible unless you’re six-foot-four with a 53-inch vertical and a limitless imagination. He sealed it with his most famous dunk, placing the ball on the ground, cartwheeling in front of it and seamlessly transitioning to a through-the-legs jam. He took home the first-place trophy with ease, capping off a July in which he won four of the biggest dunk competitions on the planet on four consecutive weekends. He won two more this month, cementing his status as the world’s premier contest dunker. His various YouTube videos have been viewed nearly five million times.
Darlington is a freelance dunker; he’s trying to make a living playing basketball without actually playing basketball. When he’s not performing for small crowds like the one at Wexford, he’s travelling the world competing in various dunk contests against guys with names like Werm, Young Hollywood, Airdogg and T-Dub, all pushing the boundaries of what man can do with a basketball.
But unlike many of his competitors, Darlington was a late bloomer who didn’t successfully dunk on a regulation hoop until he was nearly 17. He learned how to maximize his vert by watching tapes of NBA players rebounding, mimicking their two-foot leaping techniques. “I always practised on low rims, so I had the technique,” he says. “Once I learned two-foot, I could do everything else.” That’s the extent of his training. Darlington doesn’t lift weights; he doesn’t have a strength coach or nutritionist. “I literally just dunk,” he says, “so I’m only working the muscles that are made for dunking.” Contests and showcases act as practice grounds, and it’s not uncommon for him to go two or three weeks without hitting a gym.
Within a few years of his first dunk, he won a contest in downtown Toronto judged by LeBron James (a 360 through-the-legs dunk in the final round sealed it). He gained a global following, but soon after, on the suggestion of a Team Canada track coach, he joined the McGill University team as a high jumper in 2010 with an eye on the London Games. Darlington was a natural, breaking school records and earning a silver medal at a Canadian Interuniversity Sport meet on his fifth-ever competition jump. After his one and only season, however, he decided that the track wasn’t for him. “I was just messing around with that,” he says. “I wasn’t really a big fan.”
Darlington returned to dunking full-time, winning a slew of contests in China, Romania and throughout North America. But it was an L.A.-based event last month that was the turning point. Video of his cartwheel-through-the-legs dunk from that day instantly went viral, even earning him airtime on CNN and ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. “Right after L.A., a lot of things started to happen,” he says. “Especially between me and Nike. Hopefully I can become one of their athletes one of these days.”
Though Darlington earned $2,500 in Los Angeles and $3,000 in Washington, other events simply provide a means for exposure. At a contest in Paris in July, he received a bag of Jordan gear and got to meet the Jordan brand reps. ”It would be wonderful if I could [make a living off of dunking], but it’s hard,” Darlington admits. “You need income from other sources.” So in between contests, he’s developing a website and has his sights on a Jus Fly product line of clothing and other basketball gear. “I know what people who play basketball want to wear,” he says, “and I know what they can afford.”
Darlington played on his high school team and while he knows he doesn’t have the skills for the NBA, he hasn’t ruled out playing in Europe. For now, he’s just doing what he loves best, delighting crowds wherever they’ll have him. “Dunking is universal,” he says, pausing to acknowledge the latest kid in a steady stream who have snuck into the Wexford locker room to give Jus Fly a high five. “You don’t have to speak the language. Everybody knows what a dunk is.” As he finishes the sentence, a man walks in holding a basketball and asks for an autograph for his son. Darlington smiles as he signs it. “He’s gonna flip when he sees this,” the man says. Maybe he’ll do a cartwheel.
The article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.