There is nothing like the sound of a slam dunk–not the dunk itself, even though a number of arenas are now miking the hoops and broadcasting the sound over the PA, but the roar of the crowd in response. There is something both joyful and violent in that roar, an appreciation for the beauty of the feat but also for the humiliation it wreaks upon an opponent. A dunk triggers the same sort of unbridled in-your-face ecstasy as a smartly landed punch in boxing, with all of the sadism but none of the guilt.

I was reminded of this when Marvin Williams, a big, athletic forward from Bremerton, Washington, stole the ball and drove in to literally jam it over the top of his six-foot-nine-inch opponent Cedric Simmons in the Roundball Classic at the United Center last week. This high school all-star game, now in its 40th year, brings 20 or so of the top U.S. seniors together, and like many such exhibitions it emphasizes offense and athleticism over defense and tactics. So from the warm-up drills on, it was a veritable dunkfest–but Williams’s was the best of the night. Simmons leaped, tried to block it, and even seemed to get his hand between ball and rim, but the northwesterner rammed it home with a rattle that echoed through the stadium. “Oooo-o-oohhh!” went the impressed and impressive crowd of 15,421. As the basket also gave the West squad an overwhelming 48-30 lead early in the second quarter, the acclaim all but crowned the team.

Yet oddly enough the most breathtaking player in the game never dunked once–unless he snuck one in when I was looking elsewhere. Shaun Livingston, who just led Peoria Central to the Illinois Class AA boys’ basketball championship, is a tall, thin player, a fluid six-foot-seven point guard with long ropelike arms, and although on this night he’d abandoned his signature 70s-style Afro for cornrows, he couldn’t have made himself look typical if he’d tried. From start to finish, Livingston displayed the rare court sense possessed by greats like Kevin Garnett or Magic Johnson, along with an almost regal but never cocky awareness of his own abilities. It was Livingston, dominating his much shorter East-squad counterpart Josh Wright on both ends of the floor, who led the West out to an early lead and asserted his team’s dominance. On one fast break he burst out and made an effortless pass ahead through traffic to Joakim Noah, the six-foot-ten-inch son of former tennis great Yannick Noah, and though Noah muffed the dunk, seven-foot-one Robert Swift cleaned up with a rebound slam to put the West up 9-2. Moments later Livingston drove easily around Wright, pulled up, and hit an 18-foot jump shot–all sweet straight backspin–to make it 18-5. When, standing flat-footed running the squad’s half-court offense, he suddenly reared back and fired a blind pass to the wide-open Swift under the basket, turning to walk nonchalantly back down the court without even waiting to see Swift’s uncontested dunk, it was the piece de resistance. With the West up 20-7, the game was all but over, and it wasn’t even halfway through the first quarter.

Both teams had 11-man rosters, but the East’s was trimmed to 10 with six-foot Brooklyn point guard Sebastian Telfair back home with his team in the New York state finals. This allowed both coaches–the East’s Mike Byrnes of the Winchendon School in Massachusetts and the West’s Chuck Buescher, who’s had the honor of coaching Livingston at Peoria Central the last few years–to rotate two set teams of five, with Buescher mixing his 11th player, hometown favorite Calvin Brock of Simeon High School, into both of his West lineups from time to time. With the game broken into 12-minute quarters, as in the NBA, each group played half a quarter before surrendering the floor to their teammates. There were no firm regional boundaries: while Brock and Livingston were both with the West, west-suburban Aurora West’s sunken-eyed, beetle-browed Justin Cerasoli played for the East, as did DePaul recruit Dorell Wright of Los Angeles. The West squad included Noah, Colombian import Juan Diego Palacios, and the slick six-foot-two point guard A.J. Price, all of whom go to school in New York. Price, in fact, made sure the West’s B team retained the initiative the starters had seized, feeding the ball down low to the rock-solid six-foot-eight Palacios and the tank-size six-foot-nine Glen Davis of Louisiana. When Brock hit a three-pointer and punctuated it with that familiar open-mouthed head shake of his, it padded the West’s lead to 36-16. From there, although the East staged a couple of rallies, it really was little more than an exhibition.

Yet what an exhibition. With the A teams back on the floor to open the second quarter, the East’s Wright hung up a perfectly timed alley-oop pass on a fast break to six-foot-nine Josh Smith of Georgia, who delivered a high-speed jam that left him hanging on the rim like a sack of mail. New Jersey’s six-foot-six J.R. Smith, who’d been practicing his repertoire of jams during warm-ups, rose to the occasion with a double-pump dunk, later adding a one-handed alley-oop jam as well as a spinning 360-degree slam on a breakaway. He made a few jump shots too, and his 16 points–augmented by his slam-dunking style points–earned him MVP honors for the East squad, overshadowing the ballyhooed six-foot-eleven Dwight Howard, a broad-shouldered Georgian who’s expected to be the top high school player chosen in the NBA draft this summer. Howard hadn’t practiced during the week, complaining of a balky back, and though he too scored 16 points in addition to pulling down 12 rebounds, he seemed to take most of the night off. If he winds up with the Bulls he’ll fit right in.

It was the West players who most impressed, as much for their limitless aspirations as for what they pulled off. The 330-pound Davis pulled down a rebound and rumbled end to end on the dribble, only to come huffing and puffing to the other basket and get fouled trying to make the shot. Howard hit an early jumper over Noah–a pretty player with his dad’s good looks and a full head of soft hair pulled back with a headband in one big flowing bunch–but Noah went right down to the other end and hit a three-pointer outside over Howard. Noah was soft inside though. He and Livingston worked a lovely fast-break give-and-go only to have Noah muff the dunk. Later Brock made a saving pass between his legs on a ball headed out of bounds and got it quickly to Livingston, who gave up a dunk of his own to leave it for Noah with a pass off the backboard, only to watch Noah get beaten to the ball by a defender. Swift, in fact, made a night of cleaning up Noah’s misses, but even he was flummoxed when Livingston slung him a no-look pass trailing a fast break and the ball bounced off his hands. (Livingston was named team MVP along with backup point guard Price.) Williams, whose first-half dunk was so astounding, sealed his standing in the second half with a flying tomahawk jam that got two of Buescher’s assistants leaping off their seats on the bench like a couple of Pentecostal deacons about to speak in tongues.

Maybe it was excessive. It certainly wasn’t the greatest display of pure basketball I’d ever seen. When I ran into my friend Jim Kauss afterward, he said he’d counted no fewer than 27 dunks in the game, shaking his head dismissively. Yet I have to admit, from the warm-ups on, I loved it, loved it for the sheer ebullient energy of these kids leaping into the air like the balls in a toddler’s corn-popper push toy, as well as for the thrill–and disappointment–of players still discovering what they can and can’t do. What I loved too was the friendly spirit of the players, who obviously knew one another from various all-star games and summer basketball camps, and who got along like a bunch of Ivy League alums at a reunion retreat–or, perhaps more descriptively, like the future millionaires most of them no doubt are. Brock, with his playful-kid looks and turned-up nose, got Livingston laughing at something he said on the bench, and Davis was a general favorite from the moment he started sashaying to the dancehall rap playing during the pregame shootaround. And after all, I decided, if by some miracle I had found at 16 that I was able to dunk a basketball, no one could ever have gotten me to stop, so it was a pleasure by proxy for an old man to watch these kids do it so boundlessly and joyfully. In the immortal words of Max Bialystock, “Flaunt it, baby, flaunt it.”