A History of the Slam Dunk Contest

Jim Jividen examines the golden age of NBA dunking, assessing every Slam Dunk competition from 1976 to 1994.


I just have to do this one time.

Holding. Return Team. Ten yards from the spot of the foul. No touchdown.

Moving on.

This is NBA All Star Weekend, which means the return of the dunk contest. NBA TV marathons are among my favorite sensual pleasures (this is where I smack my lips and talk about my pyloric valve).

They’ve cut up every Slam Dunk Championship into a half hour program; that’s maybe the ideal length for a dunk contest; it’s maybe the ideal length for a Super Bowl. Let’s see if we can get to work on transforming every event in the culture into 30 minute packages. I’d watch if CSPAN ran a marathon of Presidential election nights in 30 minute episodes. Or national calamities. The full coverage of the Kennedy assassination in 30 minutes. As long as Bob Neal anchors.

I’ve got recaps through ’94. If I’m still around, being a good man and whatnot, a year from now, maybe there will be part 2.


The ABA had a compulsory round in ’76, like figure skating. Artis Gilmore’s double axel brought tears to my eyes. Steve Albert (I think it was Steve) announces the players before the contest, including Larry Kenon, nicknamed “Mr. K”, which would have been a good nickname for Dwight Gooden near the end of his career after his license to practice medicine was stripped away; and George Gervin, who Albert called a “guard”. I don’t mean Albert just called him a guard – I mean Albert said he was a “quote, guard.” That’s maybe how to refer to a guard who doesn’t guard anyone. “Here’s your 2011 Golden St. Warriors starting backcourt, “from Davidson College, the Point Guard, Stephen Curry; from Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi, the Quote Guard, Monta Ellis!…”

Erving wins, and rightly so, with the foul line dunk.


This was the first NBA contest. I didn’t catch who the analyst was. Let’s say it was Hot Rod Hundley, “You know what I smelled? A lot of stickem around a circle of guys.”

Yeah, that’s not what I smelled, chief.

Hot Rod’s commentary’s going to allow for one of my favorite games when watching old sportscasts, Homoerotic Double Entendre Theater.

From ’85: You know he’s got a deep bag!
From ’86: I like Roy Hinson….He’s got an unbelievable stretch.

When the dunks returned in ’84, it was with new judging criteria. Back in ’76, dunks were rated based on (1) artistic ability, (2) imagination, (3) body flow (4) fan response, but the standard had now changed to a more corporatized (1) creativity (2) style (3) athleticism. Somewhere around ’87 they stopped referencing judging criteria altogether: “Just watch the dunks, okay – put numbers in the air and move on with our lives.”

Body flow is awesome. Someone in the ABA offices was listening to some Doobie Brothers when he came up with body flow as an official judging standard for the dunk contest.

It Keeps You Runnin. Yeah, it keeps you runnin’. Hey guys, you know what I love about David Thompson? The way his body flows. You know he has a deep bag.

Nance wins, and deserved to – like the early era dunkers, he was a version of Erving, much more finesse than power. They were stylish dunkers; his reverse righthand windmill was the best dunk of the night.


Do you want to know the ideal height to win a dunk contest? 6 foot 7. That’s from, again, I’ll say Rod Hundley. Imagine all the stickem!

In ’85 we get the debut of the forgotten dunker of the era, Terence Stansbury (replacing Barkley, who we are told was missing the dunk contest due to “personal reasons”. He never winds up competing in one, so apparently those reasons were ongoing. Here’s hoping he gets the help he needs soon.). Stansbury hits a 360 degree Statue of Liberty dunk that becomes the best dunk to that date in a performance overlooked due to the arrival of the game-changing Dominique Wilkins. Whereas Dr. J and his progeny were finesse dunkers, ‘Nique was all power, just rocketing his way through the mid ’80s and really forcing Jordan, who also debuted in ’85, to transform his dunk contest game from a more gentle showing in ’85 to the heights he’d reach in ’87/’88 where he brilliantly became a combination of both styles; Jordan essentially taking the best of what Wilkins could do, adding height and body flow, and building his dunk legacy.

Wilkins wins – taking 12 grand for his troubles, but Stansbury had the best dunk.


Hey, we meet the judges. Martina! Staubach! This was the Spud Webb year, and maybe the year that caused the dunk contest to penetrate the culture when one considers its historical arc. ‘Nique had the dunk of the night, a double clutch behind the back thunderslam from the preliminary rounds. I’ll call it the third best dunk to date, and it really was just one among another dozen similar powerdunks that marked Dominique the best contest dunker through ’86. But the thing is – Webb was better in the final round, with his 1 handed dunk the 4th best to that date. it’s tempting to say Wilkins got jobbed by the Spudtastic frenzy–“aw, he thinks he’s people!” A modern analogue would be our national acceptance of special needs reality star Snooki. Girl got hops. Can’t take that away from her. But the truth is, Webb was better at the end even though Wilkins dominated the competition.


Michael Jordan’s 1987 dunk contest performance was the great leap forward for the art form; it was Gutenberg creating movable type. Sports analysts have spent the last 20 years giving some variation of the “dunk contest is dead” post mortem after every All-Star weekend. They’re wrong – the dunks are more often fun than not, it’s just that it can’t always be the 1440’s. The 3 best contest dunks ever to that date – all Jordan from ’87.


1988 was Ali/Frazier – but the one we didn’t see; it’s Ali from ’65, all athleticism and body flow – against the ferocity, the thump/thump/thump of the best of Frazier. The best heavyweight title fight of the 1980s? It was Jordan/’Nique in the ’88 Dunk Contest.

Jordan in ’88 was Jordan in ’87. He returned with the same repertoire, the same level of excellence, he returned for his coronation; he knew Dominique, he had already absorbed his sexy. But he didn’t know this Wilkins – it wasn’t that suddenly Dominique found his inner Erving – instead, in ’88, ‘Nique’s mean got meaner. He hit Jordan with a reverse two hander in round one (BAM!) then a one armed windmill in the semis (WHAM!). MJ hit his own two handed reverse to slide his way into the finals and then got punched dead in the mouth with Nique’s best contest dunk yet, a two hand windmill.

By all rights, that should have been the knockout.

But it wasn’t – Jordan rose, hit his foul line dunk, and took the judge’s decision. If Wilkins, Marvin Hagler-like, had chosen to quit hoops right then and move to Italy, we all would have understood.


Kenny Walker hit a one hand 360 and obliterated the field. Inspired, as Bob Neal and Rick Barry told us on multiple occasions, by his dead father.

You see that episode of the behind the scenes documentary about Oprah’s show where she really wanted to put the iPad in her last “Oprah’s favorite things” episode and said that it was too small a thing to pray for?

This was that – I don’t know if you want to play the dead parent card on a dunk contest, especially post-Jordan. If Kenny Walker was visited by a magical genie and given three wishes, my concern is he spent them all in 1989.

Top 5 Dunks of the 80s:
1. Jordan’s one handed under the basket swooping dunk from round 1, 1987
2. Jordan’s one handed dunk from the baseline, semifinals, 1987
3. Nique’s two hand windmill, finals, 1988
4. Walker’s one hand 360 cradle, 1989
5. Jordan’s foul line dunk, 1987 (tie)
5. Stansbury’s 360 statue of liberty, 1985


Lot of nice dunkers early on — Kenny Battle, Rex Chapman. Pippen’s free throw dunk was really pretty sweet; ‘Nique gets over with his one armed thunderdunk. 20 year old Rainman matches Wilkins power for power, like if Ernie Shavers fought Joe Frazier in ’74.

-There’s a commercial for Christianmingle.com; were I a soulless entrepreneur, that would be the group I’d target. Rapture jewelry, sweatpants with scripture on the ass. Numbers 22:28 right on the ass.

-There’s a bit of a cover band quality to the dunks; were one to graph it out, I think dunk contests show spurts of originality followed by a few years of artistic consolidation. That might be how all culture works. I wonder to what degree the dunk contest could be analyzed as representative of a broader milieu.

-Doug Collins and Rick Barry would have made a cranky couple. They meet cute when both ejected from a meaningless Sixers/Warriors game. Picture them in matching sweats, both wearing headbands, going on a morning jog in the park and then to a local bistro for scones. Later, back to the house for man love.

-Kenny Walker has a sweet, sweet, sweet second round dunk going up and under the basket; the best dunk of the night so far. You can’t match Wilkins/Kemp for power, so finesse would be the better strategic choice.

Kemp/Wilkins/Walker/Smith make the semis. I spoke too soon; Walker’s semi dunk is now the second best of the night, and it ups the power. Kenny Smith is getting a little bit of the little man degree of difficulty crowd bump. Ooh, Nique just brought the two handed windmill – Wilkins lands heavy, heavy blows. I’ll say that’s the new second best dunk of the night. Yeah, Smith bouncing Walker out doesn’t make any sense as a matter of booking this contest. It’s as if the multi-year relationship between Turner Sports and the Jet started in Miami in 1990; not only was Walker clearly better – but he was the defending champ; they had the opportunity to take the champ and go mano y mano against an all time great dunker. Walker v. Wilkins was teed up and they let it pass. It could be a Spud Webb hangover; the dunk contest looking to recreate the cultural relevance it had with Spud v. Wilkins, but in doing so it rejects the obvious storyline of a perpetually undercrowned champ against the reigning title holder. Smith was good, but didn’t stand out in a year of good dunks in front of a disinterested crowd. Nique apparently was a late entry, paid a hundred grrrr by his “shoe company” to enter. I’m not of a mind that we need more stars in the dunk contest, but pumping the corporate partners would be the way to go. He wins and deserves it, being solidly better than Smith and the best overall dunker in the contest, but Walker had the best dunk of the night and the dunks enter the 90s missing out on what could have been a really solid final round.


Kenny Smith is now a Rocket, and Doug Collins is now joined by Hubie Brown (shame he and Rick couldn’t have made it work). ’91 is a little light on starpower when Rex Chapman gets the biggest crowd reaction. Kemp’s this year’s powerdunker – his score gets booed and its unclear if that’s because the crowd thought the total was a little low or because Rex (who was, after all, in effect) was bumped to second.

Michael Jordan’s pick to win apparently is Kenny Williams from the Pacers; #23’s eye for talent knows no bounds.

Hubie tells us that Dee Brown has “very, very big hands.”

Brown pumps the Reeboks and does a little man dunk, getting the Spud hangover score. I liked Kendall Gill when he was in school; I was a sucker for that all court Jimmy Jackson type of combo guard game. I would have made a helluva expansion GM, picking guys who had no real position. A team filled with Gary Trents and Byron Houstons.

Kemp’s second first round dunk is the best of the night all the way until the final round. Rex is a loose, fluid dunker and his second round dunk is good, but it’s immediately overshadowed by Kemp’s power, his second dunk just behind his first. Rex is a good dunker; this might have been the best night of his career. There’s a crush of Domino’s pizza boxes on the media table behind Kenny Smith; presumably Bob Ryan and the rest of the coterie feel silly now that Dominos admitted that every pizza they made until like 2010 was saucy sawdust. Dee Brown’s pumping up his shoes probably made old guys angry in ’91 in the same way that a Justin Bieber hair flip irritates me today. Beebs wasn’t alive in ’91; I heard he drove by Nash in some charity game or at Rucker Park or at Alan Thicke’s house. NBA TV  aired lockout programming in 2012 like The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and that one Robby Benson movie. I’m surprised they didn’t have Bieber program the channel for a day. Remember when MTV would have their artists “take over” the channel for a day, “this Saturday, Poison’s CC Deville will talk dirty to you ALL DAY LONG!” That would make sense for NBA TV. They need to do more lists on that network; the MLB and NFL channels fill their offseasons with “top 5 this” and “all time that”. I’m not sure why NBA doesn’t do that type of show.

Brown gets booed for his high score; here’s the thing – as far as little guy dunks go, that semi dunk that shoots him to the top, his homage to the Wilkins dunk, not his homage to the Spud dunk, that was pretty goddamn good. Crowd and announcers thought it was overscored; in qualitative evaluation, I always try to ignore both. It’s why I now watch professional wrestling with the sound turned off. I don’t consider crowd reaction when giving a star rating to a movie “well, the guy seven rows away from me was laughing his ass off at Harold and Kumar in 3D, that means it must be funny” and it doesn’t much matter to me what the fans are doing when Triple H makes his frustrated face at the Undertaker at Wrestlemania. Facial expressions aren’t workrate. And if crowd reaction drove star ratings, Hulk Hogan would be regarded like Jushin Thunder Liger.

They again do big man/small man in the finals – Kemp v. Brown; it’s clearly the trope the dunk contest understood post Spud Webb. Brown goes over and I get it, his dunks were more interesting than Kemp’s. They weren’t better, Kemp was the better dunker — the best dunk of the night was his final round dunk from inside the foul line. But if you think of the dunk contest as this battle between craft (doing doings well, doing them precisely, even if the dunks aren’t inherently new or creative) and art (demonstrating a creative spark) this round went to the more artistic dunker. Brown’s meditations on Nique, on Webb, got the nod over Kemp’s more straightline dominance. My head’s nodding the other way, but I understand.


The Fresh Prince and Carlton were in the crowd grooving on the ’92 dunk contest.

Doug West’s first round up and under gives me the good feelings, but he gets hosed by an under 45 score. I’m a bit of a sucker for power (meta homoerotic theater), and Larry Johnson’s second dunk is a beast, all one armed through the hoop mannnnn jammmmm. That’s the best dunk of the night. Magic’s been courtside the past couple of years doing commentary; his appearance this year is just a couple of months after the HIV revelation. Nick Anderson’s semifinal 360 is nifty, but Anderson’s dunks are sort of like his game, just a little wrong in a lot of small but perceptible ways. LJ brings some thump again on his semi-dunk; it’s the second best dunk of the night, and LJ, playing the Wilkins/Kemp card, is powering his way through the competition. Given the dunk contest’s clear preference for finesse over power the year before, this may not be a winning strategy. Nick Anderson rubbed his head during his second semi dunk, the broadcast calls this an homage to Dee Brown, mistakenly believing he covered his eyes. Had he been doing so, with the blindfold dunk still to come, one could comment about the trend of early 90s NBA stars wandering around with their eyes closed. Larry Johnson’s dominating, just kicking everyone’s ass; Starks attempts to fill the Spud Webb/Kenny Smith/Dee Brown role, but LJ’s just punching him in the face, and it’s Cedric Ceballos who slips his way into the final. His first final round dunk is so pedestrian that the players in millionaires row laugh at him. Grandmama’s got this in the bag. Magic tells us this is the quietest he’s ever heard a crowd for the slam dunk; he’s forgetting every year previous this decade. This early 90s stretch is a bit of a lost period for the dunk contest, a post-celebridunk period, but we haven’t yet established, at least as part of the broadcast, the trope that “the real problem with the dunk contest is the superstars like Jordan aren’t there anymore”. That’s a discussion you’ve been able to hear every year of recent memory, regardless of the qualitative level of the dunks. PTI just hit its 12th anniversary, and I’m guessing every Monday after the dunk contest has been some variation of “why do we still have the dunk contest? Remember Dominique Wilkins? He was great. Have you see him wearing glasses? So erudite!” LJ misses. Then misses again. And again. Isiah tells us that it’s creativity the judges want to see, which was a clue that Johnson was in trouble. Ceballos does a sweet up and under that passes West’s for third best dunk of the night. Johnson misses again. I was looking for a “LJ got screwed” finish to this section, as obviously I recall how this contest turns out, but LJ can’t hit a dunk in the finals and hands the crown to Ceballos. Magic tells us the fans are leaving; he’s not exactly walking on eggshells a few months into his new life. The crowd reacts for the first time really when Thunder Dan brings out the blindfold for his teammate. Critical consensus is that Ceballos could, of course, see, making this the most overrated dunk in contest history. I don’t know Cedric’s current public posture on the visibility of the dunk. Crowd went bananas – and with the primary image of this stretch being Dee Brown’s pumping up his shoes and now Ceballos’s blindfold, we see pretty rudimentary showmanship, really the equivalent of flash paper.


Bob Neal tells us that “theoretically” a missed dunk could lead to a 50. Not exactly Kepler’s second law of planetary motion for theoretical significance. I wonder what level of double blind testing the NBA did to establish that theory, presumably one more stringent and blinder than Ceballos’s from ’92. All Star Weekend was in Salt Lake City, not so much the ideal hot spot for what Wilbon calls Black Thanksgiving. Kenny Smith is the first man to compete in both the dunks and 3 point on the same weekend. Chris Jackson, pre-conversion, pre-anti establishment political speech, pre-blackball, is competing this year. Baby Jordan goes up and under for what Bob Neal calls “the most exciting dunk in two years” – burying last year’s contest in the way the broadcast also did in Dee Brown’s year. The “dunk contest is back” as a broadcast trope is as popular as the “dunk contest is dead” in talk radio critical analysis. Clarence Weatherspoon gets a lot of height and Isiah, from the sidelines with Barkley, has a two year running discussion about “selling the dunk” as the key to getting a high score; I’m half expecting him to say that second prize in this year’s contest is a set of steak knives and third is you’re fired. Miner’s bringing some whippet power (Zeke hates dunks where you bounce the ball, by the way; hates it like he apparently hated the CBA – if he ever writes a tell all, I half expect the chapter on the sexual harassment suit that blew up the Knicks to stop halfway in favor of an expletive filled rant about dunk contest competitors who bounce the basketball.)

Weatherspoon’s one armed dunk in the finals winds up as best non-Miner of the night. Neal says Erving gave us criteria–“creativity, innovation, talent”–which, since it privileges the artistic component by essentially doubling it favors dunkers, well, like Doc, as opposed to those in the power line: Wilkins/Kemp/LJ. Isiah prefers Ceballos’s post dunk handflourish to anything he’s seen tonight. Miner cheats, reusing an earlier dunk – but then comes back with a left handed windmill that’s the new best dunk of the night and it wins him the contest.


I think this is the first time in the 30 minute dunk packages that we’ve had player introductions: “this rookie point guard has made valuable contributions with the Portland Trail Blazers, James Robinson!”

That will quiet the calls for additional star power.

This year’s a 90 second dunk contest “routine” in which the whole “performance” of the dunkers is being judged. There’s also constant music throughout like it’s a floor exercise so when Kerri Strug gets a nice one handed throwdown, she continues with the routine. Clearly, this is an attempt to weigh showmanship, the between-dunk posturing of the competitors. Obviously, this ratifies Isiah’s argument from most of the decade, in much the same way the wisdom of his signing Jerome James will eventually be proven. Charles Barkley just referred to one of Hollywood Robinson’s dunks as a “rub in”.

Allen Houston’s routine could reasonably be described as sleepy. No, it wasn’t Zeke who gave him 6 years at 100 million. Not for a guy who bounces the ball in a dunk contest. Hells no.

No character discussion about JR Rider. This probably the last time in his life he had this much air time without the adjective “much-troubled” attached to him. He pretty easily is the best dunker in the field; off the top of my head, I’d think his between the legs baseline dunk from ’93 is the best college dunk contest dunk ever. But I’d be wrong – youtube Patrick Ewing’s kid in 2008. That might be the best dunk of all time.

Kemp has a nice two hand powerjam that marks him against Rider as the best possible finals. Kemp’s going to crap the bed later, but if you were booking the contest, you wouldn’t have known that.
Robert Pack references Terrence Stansbury in his final dunk round, and then comes JR Rider – baseline between the legs – the callback from last year’s college contest. It’s easily the dunk of the decade to that point. There’s the Rider dunk and everthing else.

Best 5 dunks, 1990-94:
1. JR Rider 1994, finals
2. Harold Miner 1993, finals
3. Harold Miner 1993, first round
4. Shawn Kemp, 1991, finals
5. Larry Johnson 1992, second dunk

That might wrap me for a few weeks, sports fans.  I know I’ll be back to preview Wrestlemania; beyond that, I’ll wait until I have something to say.  Thanks for reading.

Photo of the great Michael Finley throwing down on Karl Malone by Dannyb/Flickr


About Jim Jividen

Jim Jividen (@JimJividen) is a lawyer, a professionally produced playwright, a game show winner, and the owner of a 2009 Honda Accord on which he diligently makes payments. He can distinguish among dozens of different suplex variants and may be occasionally read at his two non-revenue producing blogs, Basically Gherkins and What if Steamboat Beat Hogan? Jim’s been a college instructor since the top of 2004 and is currently working in the mist as a Course Mentor for Western Governors University.

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