The NBA’s All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk Contest is rich with history and incredible displays of athleticism and creativity.
From the very first ABA contest in 1976 to Blake Griffin’s controversial win in 2011, this event has had a number of ups and downs.
Let’s take a look at the complete history of the competition and predict where it will go in the future.
1976 Inaugural ABA Dunk Contest
Before the NBA and ABA merged in June of 1976, the initial seed was planted for the annual dunk contest during NBA All-Star Weekend.
Some of the highest fliers from the era had two minutes to perform five dunks at halftime of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game.
The field included Julius “Dr. J” Erving, David Thompson, George “The Iceman” Gervin, Artis Gilmore and Larry Kenon.
Thompson had a great chance of winning with his double-pump reverse and 360-baseline slam, but Dr. J cemented his status as one of the greatest dunkers in history by throwing it down from the foul line.
After a few more impressive jams, Erving was quietly declared the winner, and the second half of the final ABA All-Star Game was played.
Return of the Dunk Contest and Early Years
The dunk contest was a one-year phenomenon until 1984, when the league decided to reinstate the event in Denver, the site of the original 1976 contest.
Erving was still around and once again used his leaping prowess to flush one through from the foul line. On a different attempt, he got so much air that he smashed his head into the backboard on a behind-the-back reverse.
However, Larry Nance took down the inaugural NBA dunk contest by performing a ridiculous rock-the-baby that wowed the crowd.
Dominique Wilkins won his first slam dunk crown the next year, highlighted by a crazy double-clutch reverse.
In 1986, his Atlanta Hawks teammate, 5’7” Spud Webb, became the shortest man to ever win the competition with an incredible looking off-the-floor reverse.
Michael Jordan Takes Flight
Jordan had participated, but failed to impress in the 1985 contest, so he returned from hiatus with a vengeance in 1987.
His “Kiss the Rim” slam is iconic and still remembered as one of the greatest ever. He only barely got his head beneath the basket as he finished the windmill slam en route to his first victory.
Jordan returned in 1988 to defend his crown and became the first ever back-to-back winner with his take on Dr. J’s classic charity-stripe dunk.
He scored a perfect 50 with this elegant, beautiful display of athleticism that cemented “Air Jordan’s” status as a man who could truly fly.
Is there Less Talent in Recent Years or in the Post-Jordan Dunk Contest Era?
Lean Years and Disappearance
After Jordan decided to end his epic reign atop the dunking world, there was no true heir to “His Airness’” throne.
In 1989, a relatively unknown player named Kenny Walker took the first contest in the post-Jordan era.
‘Nique claimed his second title in his fifth and final appearance in 1990, with a savage two-handed windmill that was a fitting end to his dunking career.
Dee Brown made it seem easy in 1991 by not looking at all when he performed a classic jam to win it.
Cedric Ceballos’ 1992 victory marked a turning point in popularity for the competition, as fans started to get bored of unoriginal dunks that won it.
Harold Miner’s 1993 appearance was an exception, and he easily claimed the crown with a beastly, rim-rattling reverse jackknife.
Troubled star Isaiah Rider followed up that solid performance in 1994 with an extremely difficult between the legs “East Bay Funk Dunk." He won, but failed to repeat in 1995, giving Miner his second championship in three years.
Brent Barry quietly won in ’96, and a young Kobe Bryant stole the show with a solid impersonation of Rider’s winning dunk in ’97.
That would be the last competitive jam of the century, as the contest would go on hiatus until 2000 due to lack of popularity and the 1999 lockout.
Vince Carter and the Epic 2000 Competition
The league decided to ring in the millennium and the first post-lockout All-Star Weekend with a bang.
They enlisted Vince Carter, Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady—three of the most electrifying dunk artists the league has ever seen—to restore the Dunk Contest to its former glory.
Carter ended up wowing the crowd and judges by doing some never-before-seen moves, including a honey dip and a between-the-legs alley-oop flush.
Was the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest the Best Ever?
While that edition of the contest was amazing, the league soon found it hard to continually woo young, athletic stars to the competition.
The 2001-2004 events were absolutely awful compared to earlier incarnations and saw Desmond Mason, Jason Richardson (twice in a row) and Fred Jones win during lean years.
There was a mild resurgence in 2005, when the league required the use of a teammate in the second round and extremely creative dunks were invented. Josh Smith won with a wild leap over Kenyon Martin in the final round.
Nate Robinson won the first of his three titles in 2006 by clearing Spud Webb in a tribute slam.
The 2007 Vegas competition had MJ, ‘Nique, Kobe, Dr. J and Vinsanity as referees, and they awarded Gerald Green the top honors when he cleared Robinson while performing Dee Brown's 1991 no-look jam.
Dwight Howard finally won in 2008 for his Superman slam.
Nate Robinson then got his buddy back by jumping over the 6’11” center in 2009 and repeated in a lackluster 2010 performance.
Controversy, Lack of Star Power and Uncertain Future of Event
The 2011 dunk contest was sketchy, as Blake Griffin took home top honors after jumping over a Kia, a sponsor of the event.
It wasn’t the best dunk of the night, and many believed that the Clippers’ young superstar should not have even made the final round, but pressure from the sponsor and use of the car prop were part of a rigged event.
Blake’s a capable dunker in games, but his lack of creativity was exposed last year, and it’s not a surprise he didn’t elect to participate in 2012.
What is a surprise is that the league couldn’t muster any notable athletes into this edition and changed the format to just one round and 100 percent fan voting to decide a winner.
This year’s contest will feature Derrick Williams, Paul George, Chase Budinger and possibly Jeremy Evans (replacing Iman Shumpert). None of these guys have the hype or star power that many previous contests have possessed.
The league may want to shut down the competition for a few seasons until they can figure out how to get more creative players involved who can bring fresh inspiration, or run the risk of losing this event’s popularity forever.