The Slam Dunk Contest has always been my favorite part of All-Star Weekend and it has been a mainstay. The tradition began way back when during the 1976 ABA All-Star weekend. In the 1980’s the game’s biggest stars, including Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan, used to battle it out for dunking supremacy. Later, however, the fans seemed to lose interest. Big stars no longer wanted to compete, leaving bench players and rookies to do most of the dunking. The contest seemed to get a facelift in 2000 when dunking phenom Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors entered. Along with him were his cousin, Tracy McGrady, and Steve Francis of the Rockets, this made for perhaps one of the most intense contests in history. Carter won and sealed his legacy as the greatest dunker of his generation.
The next few years saw a pair of Jason Richardson victories. Richardson was not a “star” but a good player in his own right who was able to improve upon Carter’s mastery and give the fans some dunks they had truly never seen before in the contest. That is when things began to go down hill. While wins from Nate Robinson of the Knicks and Dwight Howard of the Magic did prove exciting, they started the downward trend that continues today.
Perhaps the biggest blunder on the part of the NBA was their shake up of the rules. Not wanting to allow a missed dunk to take a contestant completely out of the running, the NBA instituted a time limit for certain dunks, of which an unlimited number of misses were allowed. This may have seemed smart in theory as it could potentially get the best dunks out of players.
Fans, however, more likely will remember Nate Robinson missing well over 20 dunk attempts and still coming away with the title of Slam Dunk Champion. Recently, they also changed the title to a fan vote for the winner, making the contest more about popularity than true dunking ability. The other mistake, and this was more the fault of the players, was the inclusion and exploitation of props and gimmicks in the contest. Sure, everybody loved Dwight Howard pulling off his jersey and revealing a superman shirt and cape. They were thrilled to see him reprise his role the next year when he came out of a phone booth. It was also pleasing to see Nate Robinson come out as “Krypto-Nate” and dunk over Howard to take home the crown. But some gimmicks did not quite work out the same way. Gerald Green, the 2007 winner, took off his shoes and signed them for some NBA legends including Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, and Dr. J. This arrogant act plus a “meh” dunk really did not bode well for Green. Sure Dwight Howard dunking on a 12-foot hoop is impressive, but isn’t the point of a dunk contest to show what you can do with a basketball on a regulation NBA hoop?
The contest has become less about the dunk and more about the pizzazz. During last year’s contest, the winner, a bench player for the Utah Jazz named Jeremy Evans, attached a camera to his head and dunked. He then replayed the video for the fans. Sure this was neat, but the dunk itself was pretty average. They cite creativity as part of a good dunk, but that creativity has to actually apply to the dunk, not a sideshow act that is being created simultaneously. The greatest stain on the once formerly great dunk contest was the 2011 victory of Blake Griffin. For his final dunk, the NBA rolled out a brand new Kia Optima and brought out a gospel choir to sing Blake to victory. He jumped over the car to thunderous applause. I vomited in my mouth. This was product placement and mockery at its finest. Anyone else in that contest could have jumped over that car. It was more about the NBA making Griffin into a marketable star than it was about looking for the league’s best dunker.
Although the contest has become borderline unwatchable in past years, this year’s contest provides a chance for redemption. Although the field is made up of generally unknown and young players, there is a lot of potential for something spectacular. Yes, Jeremy Evans will be defending his crown and yes, Gerald Green will be competing, but this year’s main attraction will be James White. White, a 30-year-old journeyman, will be representing the Knicks. He is well known on youtube and can do a between the legs dunk from the free-throw line. Says White “Whatever I do is going to be new. It’s not going to be seen in the NBA dunk contest.” “You’ve seen it maybe on YouTube, but you haven’t seen it on the NBA stage. You’ve seen windmills. Everything they do has to be with gimmicks, which is what’s making it corny.” I think we can all agree. Let’s just hope he’s right.