When I was growing up, there were two exhibition events that I looked forward to more than anything else. One was the MLB Home Run Derby, in which I got to see juiced up sluggers like Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and Sammy Sosa hit moon shots deep into the night while Chris Berman made sounds similar to those made by a man suffering an embolism.
The other, of course, was the NBA Slam Dunk competition. As a taller-than average young man and an avid basketball player, it was always my dream to dunk. I fondly remember sneaking onto elementary school playgrounds with my friends to attempt ferocious dunks on the 8-foot rims. We were always astounded to find out how hard it was to do the dunks we saw every February in the dunk contest, even on the significantly lower rims. When I was a sophomore in high school and started feebly dunking on 10-foot rims, I gained even more respect for the guys that dazzled us in the competition.
My earliest Dunk Contest memory was watching Isaiah “J.R.” Rider complete his infamous “East Bay Funk Dunk,” becoming the first player to complete a between-the-legs dunk on the NBA stage. After that I was hooked, and the Dunk Contest became an eagerly anticipated event.
In the subsequent years I was so excited for the contest and the athletic ability on display that I didn’t even notice how far it was slipping. Sure, we had memorable dunks like Brent Barry from the free throw line (with his warmup jacket on) in 1996 and an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant going between the legs and mean-mugging for the crowd (with love interest Brandy, left, in attendance) in 1997. But the highlights just masked a glaring problem: the lack of significant NBA stars competing in the contest.
From 1994-1997, the stellar participants included Antonio Harvey, James “Hollywood” Robinson, Jamie Watson, Tim Perry, Greg Minor, and Bob Sura.
With names like that it’s not difficult to see why the contest was canceled in 1998. After missing it again in 1999 due to the lockout, the grumblings and fervor were loud enough to entice superstars Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Steve Francis to participate in the grand return of the dunk contest in 2000.
What ensued was arguably the best dunk contest in history: one that I taped on VHS and re-watched pretty much weekly for about two straight years.
After Carter established himself as the best dunker of all time with that performance, the torch was passed to Jason Richardson, who did several things we’ve never seen before including an off-the-backboard between-the-legs and a between-the-legs reverse off a bounce.
Since then we’ve seen the contest go into yet another decline (with the exception of Dwight Howard vs. Nate Robinson for a couple years), with last year’s contest turning into more of a circus than a dunk contest. Serge Ibaka enlisted the help of a tiny Asian child with a stuffed animal (must…resist…Jeremy…Lin…reference!), JaVale McGee dunked two balls on two different baskets (impressive but way too much setup) and finally Blake Griffin and Kenny Smith set up a church choir and a Kia to eclipse all other ridiculousness that took place that evening.
Even Griffin, who was essentially forced to join last year’s contest by David Stern, admitted in October on Bill Simmons’ podcast that the contest was a bit disappointing:
I did it this year because they asked me, but it’s just not my thing. Everybody hypes it up so much and they’re like ‘Oh, we can’t wait!’ but honestly it’s like, what can we do that hasn’t been done? It’s all about bringing something onto the court, like the car and stuff like that…Nobody’s gonna come and do a double-360, you know? Nobody’s gonna do a double windmill. Nobody’s gonna go between the legs twice. So that part of it just turned me off to the dunk contest.
Here is one of the best dunkers of all time saying that he’s “turned off” by the dunk contest. I would say it’s time for a change.
Essentially there are two main reasons why superstars like Griffin and LeBron James won’t compete in the dunk contest, despite the pleading of young fans:
- They don’t want to get hurt.
- As Griffin said, they feel that there’s no dunk they can do that hasn’t been done before, so they have nothing to gain.
These are both legitimate complaints. No matter how great of a show LeBron would put on in the dunk contest, there would be no forgiveness if he tore his ACL landing awkwardly after a dunk. On top of that, 360s and between-the-legs dunks no longer do it for us. So in order to truly wow us and show us something we’ve never seen before, he would have to put himself in even greater risk of injury.
Let’s face it, we wouldn’t risk it either.
So that brings us to the underwhelming roster for this year’s contest, where the contestants are a rookie (Derrick Williams), two second-year players (Paul George and Jeremy Evans), and a bench player who nobody outside of Houston (where he plays) and Arizona (where he went to college) would recognize (Chase Budinger).
Now these are all phenomenal athletes—Williams and George could even eventually be stars, but nobody’s buying their ticket just to see these guys. Chances are the dunk contest is going to be pedestrian at best, which will lead to another pedestrian one next year, and so on.
So, at long last, I arrive at my point: if stars aren’t going to participate in the dunk contest anyway, why not put some dunkers on display who can actually do something we’ve never seen before?
Think they don’t exist? I have two clips to show you as evidence. The first is from a dunk contest at the Lakers 3-on-3 tournament outside of Staples Center in 2010. I attended it when I was covering the Lakers for Examiner.com, and here is one of the participants, Guy Dupuy, doing something I had truly never seen before:
Going behind your back while jumping over three people is something that shouldn’t be possible, but you just saw it. The other clip I have for you is James White, who I’ve had a man-crush on since I first saw him in the McDonald’s All-America Dunk Contest in 2001 (another VHS that I watched until it broke). White was in Turkey in 2008 when he did this:
Yes, he just did a two-hand windmill and a between-the-legs FROM THE FREE THROW LINE! We’re impressed when a guy even completes a regular one-hand dunk from the stripe, and this guy is going between his legs? Ridiculous.
Ok I lied, one more. This is what happens when you have the idea to jump over a car but you aren’t afraid of getting injured. This is what last year’s finale would have looked like if we had invited Chris “Skywalker” Lowery instead of Blake Griffin:
These are just examples of what goes on all over the country. Guys like Dupuy and Skywalker travel all over the world just competing in dunk contests. It’s their job to dunk. That’s why they are able to do the things they do. That plus the fact that they’re not afraid of getting hurt since they don’t have millions of dollars waiting for them in their next contract.
Do you really think the crowd wouldn’t be excited if they saw one of these guys doing their thing in Orlando this weekend? Do you think they’d start to stand up, but then stop and say “wait a second, this guy’s not even in the NBA! Booooo!” Not likely.
I understand that in a perfect world we’d see LeBron, Griffin, Russell Westbrook, and company throwing caution to the wind and letting their freak flags fly at the dunk contest every year. But that’s not going to happen.
So rather than watch a bunch of low-level NBA players go through the motions, why not showcase a group of guys who do this for a living—a group of guys whose fame solely depends on entertaining the crowd with their dunking ability?
I just don’t see how we can lose.
The NBA already has an amateur dunk contest called the Sprite Slam Dunk Showdown, where they give the winner some money. Instead, why not let that guy compete with the NBA players in the dunk contest? What better way to reward the fans and push the NBA players at the same time?
The dunk contest has undergone its fair share of changes, from the dreaded dunk wheel to this year’s one-round, fan-vote format. I think it’s time we took the next step and invited some non-NBA players into the mix. Look at it this way: it couldn’t be any worse than this.