Dunk or Die Image

Dunk or Die

By Ray Lobo | February 21, 2022

Kadour Ziani is not so much a basketball player as he is a dunk artist. The laws of physics seem questionable when one sees him fly towards the hoop. Ziani’s dunks are less feats of grace — he’s not exactly Clyde “the Glide” Drexler — and more explosions of fury unleashed upon the hoop. Director Nicolas de Virieu’s documentary Dunk or Die surveys the athlete’s life from his upbringing in a rough French neighborhood to traveling the world as a dunk ambassador.

Ziani was the child of Algerian immigrants living in the subprefecture of Saint-Dizier. His neighborhood was the type of place where attempted murders, knifings, and drug dealing were common. Given the severe limitations imposed by his surroundings, Ziani and his friends chose to express themselves through one of the few avenues available to them: athletics. Economic lack could not prevent Ziani from dunking. If the courts had no lights at night, Ziani would burn trash bins. He was often outside dunking until midnight. He even developed blisters on his hands that required constant dressing. As Ziani puts it, he “was hooked on dunking.”

“…Ziani is not so much a basketball player as he is a dunk artist.”

His talent was eventually recognized, and Ziani became a minor celebrity in France as part of a dunking troupe called Slam Nation. In the 1990s, French channels covered him, NBA players as notable as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sat court-side and marveled at his abilities, and he garnered a cult following among the French youth. Though Ziani was at the height of his youth, looking back, he admits that he was a “time bomb.” He was a volatile and angry young man. His Slam Nation mates complained about his self-centeredness. It was as if the masculine, tough guise he adopted, which had helped him survive his rough neighborhood, had enveloped his entire personality. Then all that changed.

Dunk or Die is an enjoyable watch due to de Virieu’s ability to stitch together a narrative demonstrating Ziani’s transformation. Slam Nation’s tour took him to Italy, Hungry, Romania, Portugal, Turkey, China, the Philippines, and the United States. Travel made Ziani less self-centered and more global. While interacting with Filipino children, Ziani got to see crippling poverty firsthand. He was able to see the poverty of his youth in context. The athlete began to understand that the poverty that left him with a chip on his shoulder was not just his personal victimhood; it’s a universal victimhood that connected him to others.

Ziani’s athletic ability allowed him to soar not just above rims but above his circumstance. He comes across as charming, as he can talk all day about dunking but is erudite enough to quote Heidegger. Sports megastars such as Michael Jordan, and the French Algerian soccer player Zinedine Zidane, inspired Ziani and those in his community. He then inspired those who saw him pour his fury upon hapless rims. What Dunk or Die makes clear, however, is that sometimes those in the crowd can inspire athletes in profound ways. With all its beauty and grimness, the world inspired and changed Ziani.

Dunk or Die (2022)

Directed: Nicolas de Virieu

Written:

Starring: Kadour Ziani, etc.

Movie score: 7/10

Dunk or Die Image

"…an enjoyable watch..."

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