For most, the NBA Slam Dunk contest is the highlight of the NBA All-Star weekend. But what used to be a celebration of athleticism, speed and creativity has turned into a celebration of showmanship. Crowds of spectators gather looking to be amazed by these high-flying acrobatics pushing our perspectives of what’s possible. Maybe that’s part of the problem. The Dunk Contest has evolved from something magical to something trying so hard to be magical. What used to be performance art is now just a performance.
In 1991, Dee Brown won with a no-look dunk, literally covering his eyes as he slammed it. In 2000, Vince Carter’s revolutionary series of amazing, complicated and very difficult dunks won him the title. To this day, his off-the-floor between-the-legs dunk is regarded as one of the best dunks in Slam Dunk contest history. In 2003, Jason Richardson took the title by bouncing the ball off the baseline, putting the ball between the legs and dunking backwards with his left hand. In 1986, Spud Webb, standing at at 5’7, won with a very impressive series of dunks, including a reverse jam after bouncing the ball off the floor and a 360 degree one handed flush. Watch the video and you’ll see Michael Jordan’s reaction of pure incredulity and amazement. That, it can be argued, is what the Slam Dunk Contest is here for. It’s about innovation, creativity and talent.
The Contest arguably gets harder with each year, not in terms of skill but in terms of originality. People don’t want to see what’s been done before, even if it was super impressive. Dunkers now have to think of something no one has done before, and then execute it perfectly. As impressive as Kobe’s between-the-legs dunk was in ‘97, we would hardly look twice at someone doing that now. This is just part of humanity’s nature of liking new things, and getting bored with redundancy. Even as infants, we tire of the same object. It’s this desire for new stimuli that brings us the gimmicks of the Slam Dunk Contest of today.
Blake Griffin’s 2011 contest-winning final dunk was my least favorite winning dunk of all time. It was an alley-oop from former Hornet Baron Davis, who passed the ball through the sunroof of a car, which Blake jumped over while crushing the ball into the hoop. At the same time, a choir sang R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” Seriously? Showmanship in terms of proving you’re the best through athleticism and creativity is one thing, but showmanship in terms of gimmicks is another. A lot of NBA players can jump over the hood of a car. Michael Jordan’s dunk from the free throw line in 1988 was probably high enough for that. The same year Blake won, Serge Ibaka took a stuffed animal toy off the rim with his mouth while he dunked with one hand. But Ibaka also really pushed the boundaries with a dunk from behind the free-throw line that Michael Jordan and superman-cape-wearing-Dwight Howard couldn’t even do. Yet, this revolutionary dunk was barely even talked about compared to Blake’s.
2015 saw earlier slam dunk era kind of dunks with Zach LaVine’s awesome series of dunks winning the title. LaVine blew us away with a consistently top-notch series of slams, including a bounce off the floor behind the back dunk and a bounce off the floor between the legs reverse that saw his head almost hit the rim. He took elements of previous winning dunks and put his own spin to it. Maybe imagination isn’t dead after all.
With almost 40 years of amazing feats, it’s going to be harder and harder to come up with something original. To give fans a thrill these days, we need props and gimmicks. People are no longer appreciating the artistic beauty of this skill. But who’s to blame for the Dunk Contest’s gimmicky ways? The NBA? Sprite (the sponsor of the dunk contest)? The players? Or us, the whiny spectators with an insatiable appetite for wonder?