This past weekend, it was hard to miss the NBA. Whether you watched any of the events or not, circulating through Instagram and Twitter is an overwhelming barrage of improbable dunks, memes (thanks, Fergie) and celebrity photo ops. Recaps and storylines coming out of the event seem so endless that it is tough—even for a committed fan like me—to feel completely caught up.
If there was one moment that did stand out, however, it came on Saturday night, from a babyfaced player with an inexplicable anger towards the rim.
Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, prepping for his final attempt in the Slam Dunk Contest, shed his bright orange uniform to reveal a throwback Toronto Raptors number 15 jersey, the one once donned by the legendary Vince Carter. In an ode to the best to ever jam, Mitchell was gearing up to replicate one of the crowning dunks of the 2000 contest.
With one quick motion, the young rookie approached the rim from the left, jumped off two feet, spun 360 degrees in the air and threw the ball down vigorously with his right hand. Meh.
It was a great dunk by all measures, a spectacular athletic feat, but nothing we have not seen before. What made Carter’s dunk in 2000 so special is that with such ease and swagger, he jumped straight up into the air like a human pogo stick. For a split second, Carter made us all collectively reconsider gravity — there could just be no way a man could jump vertically, spin in the air and then have his head above the rim. Woah.
Mitchell’s dunk was just not that. Fellow participant Larry Nance, Jr., also tried his hand at replication, putting on an old Phoenix Suns uniform to perform his father’s famous cradle rock dunk. Once again, a great dunk, but not the same feel.
There is a certain emptiness to the dunk contest these days. Retro is cool, but when it comes to jaw-dropping dunks, it is all about originality. We remember Michael Jordan’s free-throw line leap, Dee Brown’s no-look, Vince Carter’s athletic slams and Dwight Howard’s superman cape. But for the last 10 years of the contest, there has not been that iconic moment. Despite players getting increasingly more athletic, their dunks rarely take our breath away. It is almost like fans’ thresholds have gotten too high.
The NBA knows this. And as a response, there has been a total rebranding of All-Star Weekend. It is much less about the actual contests, much less about the actual games and much more about the pageantry of it all.
Go back and YouTube an old dunk contest, and what is clear is that everything used to be much more simple: one announcer, a clear scoring system and little hype. Last Saturday, the dunk contest was built up with a jarring amount of previews, graphics and commentators. There were lengthy WWE-style introductions for not just the participants, but also the judges, many of whom were celebrities rather than legitimate dunk analysts (a real art, if you ask me). There were drawn-out breaks in between dunks, and endless angles of instant replay after each successful slam. Gimmicks and costume changes were more notable than the actual dunks.
It was an event saturated in flash and ceremony. Like it or not, it is undeniable that it is working.
All-Star Weekend offers the NBA the rare opportunity to celebrate their players. Just like rockstars, players must build a persona to ascend into national popularity. For Donovan Mitchell, the dunk contest was the platform he needed to do just that.
The Vince Carter replica dunk was replayed and recounted endlessly, with Mitchell being heralded as the league’s next great dunker. Right before our eyes, “The Spider,” as Mitchell has been nicknamed, became a star.
Mitchell was not the only breakout performer of the weekend. In the Rising Stars Challenge, relatively unknown rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic, a Serbian player with unlimited range and a silky-smooth style of play, took home the MVP award. In the 3-Point Contest, Phoenix Suns textbook shooter Devin Booker scored a record 28 points in one round.
“It feels really good. I wanted to go out there and make a name for myself,” said Booker (Lexington Herald Leader, “Devin Booker after record-setting 3-point contest win,” 2.17.2018).
And the business of the weekend for the NBA was to make names for players like Booker. There was an extensive media day, the type of event usually reserved for the Finals and the Super Bowl. In photo ops, players were invited to choose their own clothing. Some rocked streetwear, some designer and others opted for athletic apparel. It was a nice touch, a simple way for fans to get to know the athletes on a more personal level.
Forget London Fashion week—Staples Center hosted the premier social gathering on the weekend. Celebrity presence was noted and highlighted at every turn. Quavo dropped 19 points in the Celebrity game, Cardi B ate her popcorn with swagger, Lonzo Ball performed his mixtape, Jamie Foxx strangely stormed out of an interview and Kevin Hart got dunked over.
It was a strong push by the NBA to make a testament for the popularity of the sport. The means for them to do so was by bombardment, to make as many headlines and clips out of the weekend as possible. Fergie’s seductive national anthem stole the show, but it is hard for me to believe that no league official was present for her practice run beforehand.
Now is the most entertaining time to be an NBA fan. As an effective victory lap, the spectacle of All-Star Weekend has become the most encapsulating and compelling PR tool in pro sports. Case in point: did I even mention the actual All-Star game once in this article?