Illustration: Joseph Applegate
Illustration: Joseph Applegate
While NBA fans debate the validity of the participants named to play in the All-Star Game and the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge, some of us still have questions about the players we will see in that now-august All-Star Weekend event, the slam dunk contest. According to ESPN's Marc Stein, the contest will feature Chase Budinger, Paul George, Iman Shumpert and Derrick Williams. We shake our heads that Blake Griffin will apparently not defend his title. We wonder if we will ever be able to relish the dwindling prospect of LeBron James, the most incredible nexus of size and skill in sports today, making his dunk contest debut. We are curious why the Powers That Be at the NBA did not see fit to appoint dunkers who are not well known but hold great promise, guys like Utah’s Jeremy Evans or even Griffin’s teammate, Travis Leslie. Also, with Jeremy Lin helping out Shumpert, it bears mentioning that the most popular player in this dunk contest will be someone not dunking the ball.
For years, the dunk contest was All-Star Weekend’s signature event, a high-wattage expression of creativity and athleticism. Over time, though, thanks to an avalanche of highlights and online videos, we became inured to seeing windmill jams and free-throw-line jumps. The dunk contest tried to stay relevant but just became convoluted (anyone recall the Wheel of Dunks?), and eventually it was scrapped altogether. Just when people seemed willing to accept the notion that we had seen every new dunk imaginable, the contest returned. General public interest was resuscitated by modern-day Barnums like Nate Robinson and Dwight Howard, who, while criticized for being overly dependent on props and schemes, should at least be commended for realizing the dunk contest held untapped branding value.
These days the NBA slam dunk contest, at least as it was most recently defined by Blake Griffin and Javale McGee, exists in some space between creativity and circus. Griffin may have needed to leap over a car and insert a gospel choir in the background, but as anyone who has played basketball or attempted a dunk understands, it remains astonishing that a human leaped over a car, even to Griffin’s fellow NBA players—check the faces in the background.
Despite the general sense of ennui that seems to surround the modern dunk contest, pro basketball needs it because dunking is something that deserves to be celebrated. It is a temporary bending of the laws of gravity, a pure expression of fury and glee. It is a magic trick where we all understand exactly how the trick was performed, yet instead of lessening the impact of the trick, seeing the nuts and bolts only enhances the value of the maneuver. Dunkers are super humans, the dunk being the most pure expression of their purpose. And as a practical application, the dunk is a bold exclamation point, the way a player proclaims his dominance, a dominance many of us only ever dream about.
Growing up, I had my own dreams of dunking, of being like Mike. I played countless hours of driveway basketball with my friends, where double-pump lay-ups were the most artistic shots we could manage. Eventually we discovered a local Catholic school that had a parking lot hidden between the buildings. Along one side of the asphalt expanse was a metal backboard and rim, supported by a thick, curved steel pipe. The entire thing was as sturdy as an NBA basket stanchion, but for reasons that were unclear, this basket was installed at exactly eight feet from the ground—just low enough to make all of us all scale models of our favorite NBA players.
For us, the dunk contest was something sacred. We were furious when Kenny Walker won the competition without dribbling the ball, and spent hours debating the merits of even inviting seven-footers to participate. We taped the broadcasts and watched them back until we dulled the tapes, and then went out to our eight-foot goal and did our best to replicate these moves from our newly discovered inspirers.
Perhaps the dunk contest has been robbed of some of its uniqueness by the advent of the information age—cable television and the internet provide an overload of highlights, giving those of us who appreciate the dunk an endless archive from which to source what we most appreciate. At the very least, it is much more difficult to be surprised by any participant. Maybe the bar to surprise is permanently set too high. Or maybe the NBA itself has overwhelmed the dunk contest, making it little more than just another sponsored cog in a corporate whirlwind weekend.
In this age of American Idol and X-Factor and assorted other entertainment competition shows, in a culture obsessed with ranking and listing things, it seems as though the dunk contest should hold renewed relevancy. Shouldn’t viewers be more likely than ever to tune in to a show where contestants are rated? Yet it’s been little talked about the last few weeks, even in the recent run-up to All-Star Weekend. At its best, the dunk contest is the platform where athletic players like Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins validate their reputations, or where legacies are made for gentlemen such as Terence Stansbury, Dee Brown and Harold Miner.
At its worst, the dunk contest is loud noises and flashing lights and a series of gimmicks. Although sometimes those things are nice, too.