Mike Kasdan looks back at the highlights from classic Slam Dunk Contests of yesteryear and previews this years contest.
The slam dunk has captured the imagination of the NBA fan since the games beginnings. It is the ultimate act of basketball athleticism, equal parts grace and power. Every kid on every basketball court in every town or city imagines himself soaring and spinning through the air and throwing down a monster dunk.
As David Foster Wallace has written:
“Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”
He was writing about tennis in that case, but he could have been writing about basketball.
Almost forty years ago, on a Saturday afternoon in Denver, Colorado, the first Slam Dunk Contest was held during half-time of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game. Rising above a fabled field that included David Thompson, Artis Gilmore, and George Gervin, was the winner, Dr. J (Julius Erving).
His winning dunk? The famed take-off-from-the-free-throw-line jam:
It set quite a high standard.
The format was re-introduced in the NBA in 1984, again in Denver. This time Larry Nance wowed the crowd and took the title:
And so it was. The NBA’s brightest and most athletic superstars doing not-to-be-believed feats. The 1980’s saw battles between Jordan and Dominique along with some exciting upset victories by the diminutive Spud Webb and the no-name Kenny (Sky) Walker.
By the 1990s, many superstars began to beg out of the competition, and the fan’s interest began to wane. This is not to say that there were not impressive displays. Harold Miner’s (AKA “Baby Jordan”) win in 1993 with an array of power dunks and Isaiah Rider’s “East Bay Funk Dunk” in 1994 stand out:
There was a re-awakening in 2000. After a two-year hiatus, the Dunk Contest returned to Oakland, California that year, with an electrifying showdown between the Half Man-Half Amazing Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Stevie Francis. Carter, the eventual winner, put on a show.
… and Vinsanity was born.
That year may still stand as the pinnacle of the Dunk Contest for this century. Winners since – including Josh Smith, Nate Robinson, Dwight Howard, and Blake Griffin – have pushed creativity and athleticism to new heights, but the buzz achieved by that contest has not been equaled.
In recent years, the NBA’s superstars have again declined to participate, leaving young but unknown players to take up the mantle. The 2012 winner was Jeremy Evans. The 2013 winner, Terrance Ross. While John Wall took the crown last year, the fact remains that many participants these days are names that are not familiar to casual and even more-than-casual fans. Dripping with athleticism to be sure, but nonetheless, a Jeremy Evans is going to generate less buzz than, say, a Blake Griffin.
This year is no exception. The contest participants for 2015 are: rookie high riser Zach Lavine (T-Wolves), one of the most athletic young players in the NBA,”The Greek Freak,” Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), along with Magic guard Victor Oladipo and the hometown Nets’ Mason Plumlee.
But this field should nonetheless make for a compelling evening. Lavine and Antetokounmpo in particular should be worth watching.
The Greek Freak is a transcendent talent. He does things on the court that simply boggle the mind:
The NBA has never seen a 6’11 guard that runs and jumps like a gazelle while processing information like a super computer. (And yes, he’s a guard). He’s in the Slam Dunk Contest this year, so his rise from cult hero to mainstream phenomenon is about to begin. His ceiling is so high that not even his skyscraper arms can touch it.
As for Lavine, he has been compiling a highlight reel of cover-your-mouth dunks for NBA fans since pre-draft workouts. And that includes last night’s performance in the Rising Stars Challenge. Zach Lavine might just be ready for his close-up.
So, we may not be getting Jordan. Or Vinsanity.
And some may complain. My colleague Wai Sallas at Good Men Project Sports mourns the Dunk Contest of those days, and has opined that the today’s dunk contest “now looks like amateur hour. Heck, even Dr. J is down on the dunk contest. He blames the mascots. (Yes…you read that right. The mascots).
But not this guy. The dunk still represents the pinnacle of applied athleticism on the basketball court. And we get to watch some of the best athletes in the world doing it.
That’s what I’ll be doing tonight.
Photo Credit: Associated Press/File (Blake Griffin, 2011 Slam Dunk Contest)