Twenty-five years ago, a teenage Shaquille O’Neal ran out his front door in San Antonio to imitate greatness.
The 15-year-old had just witnessed one of the most legendary All-Star Weekend performances in history, a dunk contest in Chicago between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins.
The moment in 1988 would result in pinned posters of suspended majesty on the bedroom walls of today’s NBA stars.
O’Neal, then a high school kid, had such respect for Jordan that he cut grass for three months to buy a pair of Air Jordans—even if they only had size 13 for his size-15 feet, an obstacle that Mom taught him to fix with some hot water.
“Every day I was putting hot water in the shoes, trying to stretch them to wear them in front of my boys, even though they’d kill my feet every day,” O’Neal said in an interview with Bleacher Report. “That’s how much respect I had for Jordan.”
This weekend’s dunk contest in Houston marks a quarter-century since the teen from Texas watched his idol captivate the nation with leaps of awe against Wilkins, the “Human Highlight Reel.”
It was Blake Griffin today versus Vince Carter in his prime.
But O’Neal then wasn’t the athletic seven-footer who would one day become one of the game’s greatest centers of all time. Then, he was just a big kid. He recounts his memory following the dunk contest:
I was a tall kid that could dunk, but I wasn’t that athletic yet. Dominique did the windmill dunk, so I went out and tried that and I couldn’t do it with a basketball, but I could do it with a volleyball. Then he did the double-pump, backwards dunk. I tried that; I couldn’t do that. Then when Mike did his dunk, I tried that.
I was actually outside all day trying that until it got dark. And I could hear my father whistling—my father had this whistle, and his rules were when it got to night time and the street lamp went on in front of the house, it was time to come in—and I was out there and he was going (whistling noise, whistling noise). I came over and he was like, ‘what the hell are you doing?” and I was like, “Im practicing this dunk.’ He’s like, ‘get your ass in this house.’
Years later, O’Neal went from watching idols to joining them.
“I was a poor juvenile delinquent looking at these guys and then one day I am sitting in the All-Star chair and Michael Jordan has his hand on my shoulder telling me, ‘hey you’re next in line,’” O’Neal said. “It was amazing, it really was. Then one-by-one they’re leaving and I’m the next man. It was amazing, really, really amazing.”
The Next Generation was Watching
Not yet three years old in 1988, Los Angeles Clippers superstar Chris Paul doesn’t have the same memories as O’Neal.
But growing up in North Carolina, Jordan’s dunk from the free-throw line was an emblem of the game’s royalty.
“It’s kind of crazy. I think back and I had a poster in my bedroom of MJ taking off dunking the ball from the free-throw line,” Paul told Bleacher Report. “It’s crazy to be a part of that now. I loved MJ. I grew up in North Carolina. I was all about MJ.”
The NBA took off on the back of Jordan from that free-throw line.
The play was iconic, and the moment from that 1988 All-Star Dunk Contest is a symbol of the league 25 years later.
"That slam dunk contest, and what Jordan and Wilkins did for the game, as far as flash, style, pizzazz, the sneakers—it was 100 percent the golden era,” said Paul’s teammate, Clippers forward Lamar Odom.
Jordan, and that contest, set the tone for today’s NBA.
“Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, they were still wearing the chains and stuff like that during the dunk contest,” Odom told Bleacher Report. “Jordan especially, his style still impacts the game today. Look at my flip-flops on the ground (he points), look at those flip-flops, know what I’m sayin’ … Everything, how he played the game, how he carried himself, his mannerisms, we all emulate him.”
Ray Allen, at 12 years old in 1988, said the memories of the Jordan-Wilkins dunk contest still stands out. A few years younger than O’Neal, the current Miami Heat guard wasn’t going to run outside to practice the dunks, but the event did make an impression.
“I don’t think you just run out immediately and just start trying to do what you saw on TV,” Allen told Bleacher Report. “I think what it does is that it just kind of burns a memory into your brain that you visit over and over again. The things that we store in our memory banks, they end up raising us, helping us grow up.”
Allen took that memory with him when he first became an All-Star, a moment and feeling he describes as being on top of the world.
“I guarantee you can ask any professional athlete, you don’t have to be a basketball player, and they’ll tell you something similar to that All-Star Weekend,” Allen said.
“Even the athletes in football and baseball, especially my age, they grew up watching Michael Jordan in the dunk contest. That’s what inspired them to want to be great in what they do. It always stays with you.”
Did Wilkins Get Robbed?
Odom couldn’t discuss the 1988 Dunk Contest without first mentioning the other side: “Some say that Dominique won that dunk contest.”
You can include Wilkins on that list of "some."
Fat Lever, an All-Star Game starter for the Western Conference in 1988, remembers plenty from that weekend in Chicago—including drawing the unlucky task of guarding Jordan in the first half of his 40-point MVP performance in the Sunday game—but there’s one thing Wilkins won’t let Lever forget.
“Afterwards, every time I ran into Dominique Wilkins he’d come up to me and be like, ‘Fat, you know they cheated me, right? Only in Chicago would I lose a dunk contest because it was Michael Jordan I was going up against,’” Lever, currently Director of Player Development for the Sacramento Kings, told Bleacher Report.
“Even to this day Dominique will still make those types of comments. Ask Dominique who won; it’s still in his mind that he won that dunk contest. It’s nice to dream and have memories.”
Jordan slipped past Wilkins in the 1988 contest with a score of 147-145.
Jordan earned a perfect score of 50 in the final round for his free-throw line dunk, while Wilkins received just a score of 45 on his final dunk, a spectacular two-handed windmill.
According to an NBA.com article from 2011, Jordan said about Wilkins' final score: "I was shocked. I would have given him a 49 or a 50."
Wilkins, stated in the same article, "When you're in somebody's hometown, it's always tough. But he had a great dunk, you have to admit. If anybody's going to beat me, I'd rather have it be him."
Another voice from that night in Chicago was Warriors Hall of Famer Rick Barry, a color analyst during the TBS broadcast of the dunk contest. From his seat, Wilkins was the winner.
“To be honest with you, I thought ‘Nique deserved to win in that contest, I do,” Barry told Bleacher Report. “Certainly, home court prevails in a lot of things and obviously Michael has a reputation that is bigger than other people.”
Barry recalls the competitive spirit that filled Chicago Stadium that All-Star Saturday:
They were just such amazing dunkers. ‘Nique was an incredible dunker and he dunked with such power. Michael was incredibly creative and had the ability to jump as well. They were really getting after it. Each one wanted to win to beat the other guy so that made it fun. It wasn’t like the guys going through the motions, and I think that made for a really exciting contest because they really put a lot into it.
Barry’s son, Brent Barry, won the 1996 Slam Dunk Contest with his portrayal of the free-throw line dunk that won it for Jordan, further proof of the dunk’s impact.
The tradition lives on.
Saturday night’s contest, a quarter-century later, features Gerald Green, Terrence Ross, James White, Eric Bledsoe, Jeremy Evans and Kenneth Faried.
The impact of the 1988 battle between Jordan and Wilkins continues to lead expectations for the occasion.
Follow @jimmypspencer on Twitter for more NBA news and analysis.