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How former NBA player Iman Shumpert, the ‘underdog’ of ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ defied the odds and won the show

Daniella Karagach and Iman Shumpert are the winners of “Dancing With the Stars” season 30 on ABC.  (Eric McCandless/ABC)
Daniella Karagach and Iman Shumpert are the winners of “Dancing With the Stars” season 30 on ABC. (Eric McCandless/ABC)
By Emily Yahr Washington Post

At first, it didn’t seem likely that former NBA player Iman Shumpert would do very well on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” His debut dance during the season premiere was a blast to watch – he and his professional partner, Daniella Karagach, appeared to be having more fun than anyone else – but the judges weren’t particularly impressed.

As the pair progressed through the season, they received unnecessarily harsh criticism and low scores, especially from famously tough judge Len Goodman. Even ABC executives didn’t have high hopes: “When we were casting this season, we thought Iman was too tall to make it past the first few weeks, but he would be so fun,” the network’s head of reality television wrote on Twitter.

But as millions of viewers saw last Monday night, Shumpert proved the skeptics wrong. He and Karagach were crowned the champions of season 30, triumphing over teen pop star JoJo Siwa, beloved Peloton instructor Cody Rigsby and “The Talk” co-host Amanda Kloots. Shumpert, who won a championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, became visibly emotional when host Tyra Banks announced his name; he’s the first former NBA player to make the finale, let alone win the show.

On one hand, this was a bit of a surprise considering that Siwa was the reliable frontrunner. (Oddsmakers had her as the top choice from the start.) Not only is Siwa a talented dancer – she got her start on Lifetime’s “Dance Moms” – but she made history as part of the first same-sex couple on the U.S. edition of the show. She and her pro partner, Jenna Johnson, debuted impressive routines and cultivated a loyal fan base while dazzling the judges: “You looked like two angels out there. It was like watching two hearts and souls totally united. It was stunning,” Bruno Tonioli raved in the semifinals, calling them “perfection.”

However, the momentum started to slowly shift around the sixth week when Shumpert and Karagach let loose with a jaw-dropping contemporary dance inspired by Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us.” The pair earned their first perfect score as the judges called it “brilliant” and “a masterpiece,” and the routine went viral on social media. Their notable height difference, with Shumpert standing at 6 feet 5 inches and Karagach nearly a foot shorter, meant they could accomplish many difficult lifts.

“Holy cow!” judge Carrie Ann Inaba yelled at the end. “That was genius. You transported us to another world. My mind was blown.” After that, the judges warmed up to the pair even more, though they still weren’t the favorites. But it didn’t really matter: Fan votes count for a lot on “Dancing With the Stars,” and Shumpert and Karagach were so well-liked that they were never in the bottom two, so they were safe from the possibility of elimination. During last week’s semifinals, producers made sure to note Shumpert was the first former basketball player to make it that far in the competition.

“There’s a reason why you’ve come the furthest than any other NBA basketball player ever – because you create these amazing moments. I’m so proud of you,” Derek Hough said after Shumpert’s tango, a clear indication of how much he had improved over the season. “That was fantastic.” Still, Shumpert had no illusions about his standings before Monday’s finale. “I might be the underdog, but I’m still in game mode,” he said in an introductory video. But after a cha-cha and fox trot fusion, even Goodman had to admit that Shumpert brought down the house.

“At the top of the show, you said you’re an underdog. Well, sometimes, underdogs bite back,” Goodman said as the audience cheered. “And that is what you have done tonight.” “Iman, from day one, you have shown that you are special,” Inaba said. “But what you’ve done in the last 10 weeks, Dani has evolved you to a point that is beyond words. … When you dance, I feel joy, and I feel happy to be alive.”

The pair received a 40, and then another 40 for a captivating freestyle dance that judge and former “DWTS” dancer Julianne Hough (filling in for her brother Derek, who tested positive for coronavirus last week) called “my favorite freestyle I’ve ever seen in 30 seasons.” Goodman offered more foreshadowing, adding, “This season has been like a fantastic book. And you never know what is going to happen. There’s twists and turns, and you really don’t know the result until you turn the last page.”

Sure enough, in the final seconds, Shumpert and Karagach were named the winners and received the extremely sparkly Mirror Ball Trophy. Viewers didn’t get a chance to hear what the two of them thought of their surprise victory; they were immediately mobbed by their fellow castmates, who hoisted them on their shoulders as confetti rained down.

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