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30 Years Later: An Oral History of the NBA's First Slam Dunk Contest

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30 Years Later: An Oral History of the NBA's First Slam Dunk Contest
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Before NBA stars leaped over cars in a single bound and dunked with a blindfold on, there was a man known as Dr. J who flew through the air from the free-throw line.

Julius Erving created one of the most memorable moments in basketball history during the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest. When the NBA brought the event back in 1984, he launched himself through the air once again in front of an awestruck crowd in Denver.

What’s more incredible is that Erving didn’t end up winning the NBA's inaugural competition in '84, as he was ultimately outdueled by Larry Nance. The other contestants were Michael Cooper, Clyde Drexler, Darrell Griffith, Edgar Jones, Ralph Sampson, Dominique Wilkins and Orlando Woolridge.

Listen as the masterminds behind the contest, many of the participants and one very nervous judge describe what made the Association’s first foray into dunk-a-thons so memorable.

 

 

MARY ANN CHASTAIN/Associated Press/Associated Press
Carl Scheer

Carl Scheer (former Denver Nuggets team president and general manager, 1974-84): You really can’t talk about the All-Star Game or Slam Dunk Contest without talking about its origins in the ABA in 1976. We were sitting around a room one day, in Virginia I think, asking how we can best represent what we thought were better players than they had in the NBA. But we didn’t have the markets or the television contract or ownership stability. ...The All-Star Game was scheduled to be played in Denver (that year). We just finally concluded that we had to do something unique.

Rick Welts (former NBA director of national promotions): In 1984, we were going to Denver for the All-Star Game. The NBA Board of Governors had already elected David Stern to become commissioner at the end of All-Star weekend. A very big subplot was Stern taking office the day after this event took place. Part of what he was talking about was getting back in touch with the rich history of our game. We had limited video archives and very little archival material of our sport.

I’d only been with the NBA for a year-and-a-half. My job was to be the first person to go out and try to find corporations to invest marketing dollars into the NBA. It was a wake-up call trying to talk NBA to corporations who had very little, if any, interest in associating with what the NBA was at that time.

Prior to '84, the All-Star Game would (consist of) flying in on a Saturday. There was a banquet, usually at that hotel the night before the game. We had a game and everyone went home.

If I remember, there was a meeting with Carl (Scheer) and Adrian DeGroot, who was the president of NBA Properties. We met for a drink at the Waldorf Astoria bar. It was in that conversation that Carl threw out, ‘We had one of the most memorable events in the history of basketball in 1976 with the ABA Slam Dunk Contest. Wouldn’t it be great to bring that back and do it the way we did that, which was at halftime?' That started the ball rolling.

Scheer: Rick was so creative and we were so delighted he would support the Slam Dunk (Contest)—he may have said it first. We both agreed we had to convince Stern it made sense.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Rick Welts

Welts: We were on CBS at the time. They had halftime programming that had nothing to do with what was going on in the arena. We were pretty sure that wasn’t going to fly, but it definitely was an idea that merited some consideration.

I had been thinking for a while about Stern’s mandate of getting in touch with the history of our game. Certainly before then, I had watched an old timers’ (baseball) game staged in Washington, D.C. I just remember some old guy heading up to the plate and hitting the ball over a fence with a big Cracker Jack sign in front of it. A couple of lights went off with me.

I went ahead and spoke to Stern and said, "What if...we created an old timers’ game of great former NBA players and have a Slam Dunk Contest to create a second day of events?" He really thought the idea had some merit.

Eventually, he and I trotted down to Commissioner (Larry) O’Brien’s office, and to say the reception to the idea was a little underwhelming was an overstatement. I left that meeting thinking I’d better come up with another idea because that was going nowhere. I’m not sure how, but Stern called a week or 10 days later and said, "Here’s the deal. The commissioner says that if we don’t do anything to embarrass him in his last weekend in office and that it doesn’t cost the NBA a nickel, then you’re free to go see if you can put that together."

Scheer: We were going to charge two dollars a ticket (for the old-timers' game), and David Stern said to me, and I’ll never forget this—"You think you can get two dollars out of anybody to watch these guys play?" We sold out quickly.

This was a matter of feeling comfortable with what we were doing, so it didn’t create chaos around the league, and it didn’t become a joke—that it was well received and legitimate. (Stern) didn’t say that, but he had some concerns.

Welts: The first company we talked to was a company called Stokely-Van Camp. At that time, they owned Gatorade. We got that done. American Airlines paid for airline tickets. We made our first deal with Schick, the shaving company, to sponsor the old-timers’ game.

I also got in touch with the fledgling Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) that was just starting up. They didn’t do live events. They agreed to take what went on Saturday and create a show out of that, which was important to us.

 

The stage was set for the NBA’s first All-Star Saturday event. But the ABA dunk contest from 1976 featured arguably one of the greatest feats of athleticism: Julius Erving’s free-throw line slam. By that point, Dr. J was already a legend who inspired many of the dunkers who came to Denver that Saturday.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Julius Erving (1984 Slam Dunk Contest participant): When I did basketball clinics for Converse, I always ended it with a dunk from the foul line. So I thought it was something a lot of people were familiar with from those sessions, but for it to still be relevant today, in my wildest dreams I never would have imagined that. As a matter of fact, I never felt I was alone in terms of throwing a ball down from the free-throw line. Obviously, I was playing in the Harlem professional league for five years and doing a lot of barnstorming in the offseason. We played a lot of games that I saw a lot of people soaring from some serious distances. I didn’t feel like I was the only one who could do it, and I always felt like I was following Connie Hawkins, for one, and with some of my moves, Elgin Baylor.

Welts: If you go to Denver today, there were probably about 200,000 people in McNichols Arena, which held about 17,000. That’s how many people claim they were in the building that day (in 1976). What punctuated that contest was the dunk where Julius Erving walked to the opposite end of the court and took off in a sprint and took off behind the free-throw line, which was something no one remembers ever having seen a human being do before. It became instant legend.

Darrell Griffith (1984 Slam Dunk Contest participant): I thought (the contest) was a great (idea). The one in ‘76, that’s when Doc took off from the free-throw line—that was a memorable one there. It’s been many years, so I thought it was due. It was perfect timing.

Larry Nance (1984 Slam Dunk Contest champion): I did not watch the one in 1976, so when I heard about the contest, it was cool because it was the first one. The next reason to do it was because Dr. J was in it. I thought he was the best dunker ever. To go and compete against him, that was the coolest thing. I always watched him play basketball on Sundays. I never watched a lot of basketball, but when Dr. J was on, he had my attention. I just loved his game, and that’s who I wanted to be like.  

Erving: When they came around to building the Slam Dunk Contest, that clearly was the throwback to '76 and what the ABA had accomplished. I was just excited about it. (I was) a little older; this is eight years later and a lot of miles and a lot of wear and tear. But I felt as though my game was one in which I dunked the ball in games, and I sort of moved away from playing basketball in the offseason, so the idea of doing clinics and camps was a part of my past. I was playing tennis and swimming in the offseason by the time '84 rolled around and three years from retirement.

 

The league picked nine dunkers with a wide range of height, age and experience. Ralph Sampson was the tallest at 7'4", Clyde Drexler was a 22-year-old rookie and Nance was in the middle of his third season—one in which he’d average nearly 18 points per game.

Nance: At the time, I was looking at a '67 Camaro I wanted to buy really bad. As soon as I heard about the contest, I was like, "Man, (I get) $10,000 if I win this contest. I can get the Camaro." I was all about that. I was ready to go.

Edgar Jones (1984 Slam Dunk Contest participant): I was real excited. I grew up in New Jersey, and Dr. J, Connie Hawkins, all those high-flying, swooping, crowd-pleasing guys just fascinated me.

Clyde Drexler (1984 Slam Dunk Contest participant): I was a rookie, and coming from Phi Slama Jama (the nickname for Drexler's high-flying University of Houston team), of course, everyone wanted to see what the rookie had. Because we put on such a showing at the college ranks, they wanted to see more. So it was great. I was happy to be a participant, more than happy to go to the All-Star Game, because I loved the All-Star Game. It’s the ultimate compliment to your game. Even though I didn’t make it as player, I was happy to be around some of the greats of the game.


Practice for some of the players began as the contest drew near. 

Griffith: You’ve got to (practice). Even though we freestyled and dunked, we’re in a competition, especially when it was competitive as it was. You have to strategize your arsenal—what you’re going to bring out which round, what you’re going to save for the later rounds, or sometimes, you could bring something that you were going to save for earlier to survive. Just watching what everybody else does, you’ve got to figure it out. 

I didn’t practice too much. I did most of my practicing in warm-ups prior to All-Star weekend.

Nance: Back then, I loved to dunk so much anyway, I would fly around and dunk after practice. So we worked on a little bit of stuff. Dennis Johnson (Nance's former Phoenix Suns teammate) was there after a practice. When I went there, I didn’t really have any plan. I kind of decided when I got there, "Here’s what I’m going to do first." I decided that night, about five minutes before it was time for me to do it. I didn’t have an order; I just know I had four to five dunks I could do and I could pick and choose which order I’d do them in. 

Jones: Back then, I had an arsenal already. In the dunk contest, you’re by yourself. During the course of a game, you have to navigate seven-footers. You pretty much have an arsenal already. My problem was I had to look at the consistency of the judges and who they are and what they might want to see and haven’t seen. 

Drexler: You have to understand, my idea of dunking was more of an intimidation factor as opposed to a style factor. The notion of a slam dunk contest to me was hard because: Where are the seven-footers to dunk over? I was just dunking in games over big guys. I liked the thrill of just dunking on big guys who didn’t think you were supposed to do it.

Nance: We were warming up. To me, it seemed like a dunk contest before the dunk contest. Everyone was warming up and trying stuff to see how it worked. When we were warming up, there wasn’t any talk. Everybody was probably a little intimidated and scared. It wasn’t a totally comfortable situation, that’s for sure, because no one knew what to expect.

Drexler: Before every game, you have to get loose. We always used to always do a variety of dunks before the games started. When I was with Portland, people would get there early to see the show, to see what kind of dunks you would do. You go to an NBA game today, you can see that still happening. If you see Blake Griffin and the Clippers before the game, you’re going to see some dunks before the game.

 

The judges included one of Jones and Erving’s favorites, Connie Hawkins, along with “Pistol” Pete Maravich. But there was also New York Mets catcher John Stearns, Adriana Early (who was then married to Denver District Attorney Norm Early) and Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder.

Scheer: We had a lot of discussion of the judges. I think the NBA picked them all except for Pat. We picked her. I thought that was a good choice. She was a hot politician at the time and had a lot to do with us going forward. She was just an all-around wonderful lady who we thought would make a very good judge to balance out some of the basketball experts. She was excited, I remember that.

 

CHARLES KRUPA/Associated Press
Pat Schroeder

Pat Schroeder (former Colorado congresswoman): As a politician, I tried to avoid sporting events. I figured the last person they want to see there was a politician. I suddenly realized somebody had scheduled me into this thing. I don’t know why. They didn’t quite focus on what it was. I had a scheduler in Denver and a scheduler in Washington. Somebody must have said, "She has to do this, there’s no question about it, and it’s not like she’s going to play ball." I can’t even remember (anything). It was one of those things where you’re in such stark terror. I just remembered everybody was very nice. I kind of followed their lead; whatever they did, I said, "That’s fine, that’s great."

 

The lineup of Drexler, Griffith, Jones, Nance, Sampson, Erving, Michael Cooper, Dominique Wilkins and Orlando Woolridge were ready to go. The rules were simple: Three rounds of dunks. The top four scorers would move on to face each other, then the competition would be whittled down to two finalists. One key: dunkers were penalized if they missed.

Griffith: I think everybody was confident they had enough to win. My philosophy was, "I can win this." I think everyone had the same attitude. Being in high school and watching the '76 Dunk Contest when Dr. J took off from the free-throw line and being able to participate in it with him was an honor. 

Nance: I’m never a guy that would talk junk, and I always have confidence in myself, so I believed if everything went right, I can win. I didn’t think I would win because I thought Dr. J. would win.

Jones: My confidence level to execute those was pretty high.

Erving: I would think I should have been (the favorite). I would think so.

 

The contest began with Jones, who claims it shouldn’t have been him who led off.

Jones: I had the worst moment of the competition that year. There was a draw for who goes in what position. I ended up going last. I mean, how much better can you get than last? (But one of the dunkers) showed up the next day, and they wanted to do the drawing all over again. It might have been Dominique Wilkins. I can’t blame him. I have a Hawk in my head. It could have been Orlando Woolridge, too. I’m quite sure it was one of them. Now, I go first! That messed my mentality up.

Michael Cooper (1984 Slam Dunk Contest participant): We picked the night before. And I think it might have been Orlando who came late. But at the last moment, they changed it all around. I think in the initial thing, I was third.

Jones: My first dunk, I was going to try to do something and it slipped off my arm; I was going to cup it—some of the stuff Nance was doing. It slid out, but I reached back, caught it and came under and dunked it with two hands backwards. That was a weak dunk as far as I was concerned. The 42 or something like that [Editor’s Note: It was a 32] I got for the dunk was disheartening. It was a motivating experience because in my career, I probably had more dunks after that All-Star Game because I was so upset.

The second one was the better of all three. I don’t know if anyone else liked it. You take off with the ball with one hand, then you drop it down, change hands, turn in the air to the side and come over the top with the other hand. It’s just a question of getting elevation—or twisting movement—creativity. My only regret is I didn’t execute my first dunk well.

Erving: Edgar had this wild helicopter dunk. He wasn’t known for doing a lot of different dunks, but he did have that exclamation point next to that dunk that he did, which was his calling card. I think with there being rounds and elimination, you’ve always got have something in the reserve tank for the finale, so in the beginning, I wasn’t going to dunk from the foul line or dunk two balls or do some of the things you needed to save for later on. And with Edgar, my memory is very vague in terms of being thrust into that first position and dealing with the pressure of going first. But I believe him. I’m sure his memory is very clear.

Griffith: Everyone was respectful. Somebody who could dunk, we gave them props. There wasn’t any trash talking at all.

Ralph Sampson (1984 Slam Dunk Contest participant): There was camaraderie. Everyone was having fun enjoying each other’s company. I just remember the camaraderie.

Nance: My favorite memory was getting to relax and not be necessarily in a one-on-one competition with Dr. J, but to actually sit down and enjoy and watch him and watch how the crowd was reacting.

Obviously, I wanted to win because people were saying a tall guy can’t dunk, so if I was going to do stuff, I had to do small man-type dunks. I think if a tall guy does a 360, it’s easier because he’s at the rim. I did a windmill that a short guy would do. I did the two-ball dunk, but I wanted to spin and cuff the ball and dunk it hard. That’s what Dominque’s dunks were: just really power. I wanted to show some finesse along with energy with a lot of power, and I think I did that.

Cooper: Everybody was sitting there discussing dunks. "In order to get this, you may have to do a double reverse." Or, "You have to come out of your trick bag with that one." That kind of chatter. It took you back to the playground, when you’re sitting in the park and everybody at the end, there’s five to six guys left who really like basketball. One guy will go off and dunk—the next thing you know, everyone’s taking turns and talking about it. "Why don’t you try this twist?" Or, "Let me try a 360." We were giving each other pointers on what to do to get the crowd’s approval.

Erving: I don’t remember anybody talking trash. Teammates are trying to pump guys up; they might have been talking to the other guy’s teammates—"My guy’s going to do this, he’s going to do that." That wasn’t the banter between the competitors. I’m not going to say guys were advising one another, either.

Cooper: I missed every single dunk. I was so fired up for that, and it was one of those things. I was hyped up and a little nervous. I know I was thinking, "How can I outdo Dr. J?" You had to outshine Dr. J. He was a person we looked up to growing up. Now I had the opportunity to get first-hand vision of (him) and try to match it. That was my train of thought going in.

Griffith: (Erving) still had hops. He had them bear claw hands. He could grab the ball like it was an orange.

Nance: Obviously, he’s older, but when you played against him during games, he was still dunking. I think he got me when I was in Phoenix.

Erving: (On one dunk), I accelerated and turned back, dunked the ball and then hit my head on the rubber support around the backboard. It clipped the back of my head. And then I don’t remember anything after that...no, I’m kidding. Yeah, it was a clip. Obviously, I had to play on it a little bit. That wasn’t something everybody could do. That isn’t an excuse for missing.

Jones: Larry Nance, the things he was doing, they were great in their own right. He put some exceptional shots up. Dr. J did his stuff, but Larry was taller, and the way he made it look, he glided with hooking and swinging. I liked them both. Wilkins, that boy would fly. Darrell Griffith...people used to forget about (Dr.) Dunkenstein.

Griffith: That (nickname) was inspired by my brother. It was inspired by the character Dr. Funkenstein with (music collective) Parliament-Funkadelic. It was inspired through the character George Clinton portrayed.

I remember everyone up close and doing their thing. Nance was looking down at the rim. I knew he could jump, but the freestyle stuff he was doing was ridiculous. (I thought), "Wow, he’s looking at the rim—he’s got hops like me!"

Sampson: Larry Nance did a famous dunk with two balls. (That was) a special moment right there for me.

Nance: Dominique did a two-ball dunk. I figured that was a good time for me to show my two-ball dunk. Mine was totally different because it was a reverse. I knew mine was going to be a good one.

Welts: Fans in the crowd wrote themselves scoring cards like you’d see in diving or gymnastics to rate every dunk a 10 or a six or whatever it was.

Griffith: Oh yeah, they were into it—the fans, players that were there, they were all hyped.

Jones: The place was electric.

Nance: They were out of control. A whole lot of, "Oooooohhhh." You could hear it and get a feel for how you’re doing. I didn’t necessarily hear it when I dunked because I was concentrating. I heard a lot of that with Dominique because of his power and how reckless he is when he dunks. 

Cooper: I remember Woolridge stood out. He was more of a power dunker. Edgar Jones, I liked him. When he was with San Antonio, he was more of a Larry Nance dunker—those long steps that glided to the basket. Back then, you knew Clyde was Clyde the Glide; he was going to do something artistic gliding to the basket. He was the one who had a chance to outdunk Dr. J because he had the ability to glide to the basket like that.

 

It was down to Nance and Erving in the finals after Wilkins and Griffith were eliminated in the semifinals. 

Welts: I hope somebody still has it somewhere: Julius had his two little sons helping him as he sat on the floor talking about the next dunk, and (cameras) captured those conversations.

Erving: (It was my sons) Cheo and Julius (and) Andrew Toney. Andrew was a teammate and a friend, and I kind of took him under my wing when he came in. We still maintain a great relationship today. Andrew likes to be where the action is, so he was there with the boys. They were just supporting their guy, and I was their guy. I know at least with Cheo and with Julius, they were talking about experimenting, like, "Over the foul line, throw it off the backboard, catch it, do a 360..." They let their imagination run wild.

 

To the surprise of many, Dr. J would miss one of his chances in the finals, cementing the victory for Nance.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Griffith: The key is you can’t miss. Based on the old dunk contest rules, if you miss, that counted against you. You had to bring it in the initial stage of the contest; you couldn’t afford to miss. I had one where I was going to come from the right side. I was going to tap it on the right side, go on the other side and do a reverse in the air. I had that one in the war chest.

Erving: In the heat of the battle, you’re definitely better off staying in your safety zone where there are things you’ve done before, and I ventured out to experiment with something I hadn’t done before or something I dreamed of doing. If I had as many tries as Nate (Robinson in 2006), I probably could have pulled it off. I remember in 1976, when David Thompson missed, it opened the door for me. So it was good for the goose, good for the gander.

Nance: I really felt I could win when Dr. J missed. (After the miss), I just went in and, to this day, I don’t think people appreciate what I did. I dunked the ball simple, but I put my head right up by the rim and showed them how high I could dunk. But I think they took it as "I’m just going to do an easy dunk to go ahead and win this thing," which is true, but I did get up high also.

Erving: Larry was swooping. Pretty much, he was doing the same stuff over and over, just from different angles. They were similar in terms of the audience...they liked the shock value, spiking the ball. He was great; I don’t want to take away from him. I literally tried a dunk I had never tried before, and that’s when I missed. When you miss, you’re done. The safety part of it...maybe that’s what I was saying about Larry, because he jumped so high. They were safe.

Sampson: I don’t think it’s harder (for a taller guy); I just think it’s more exciting when you have a smaller guy that gets off the ground like they do. Tall guys, you say, "OK, dunking should be easy," but you have to be really artful and forceful. Nance did something like that. 

The highlight of the contest was Erving bringing back the dunk that made him famous in 1976. It earned him a top score of 50 from the judges. But it wasn’t enough for the win.

Cooper: The whole show was just a buildup for Dr. J. That’s how I felt. It was unsaid, and Doc knew everyone was waiting on him; a lot of people in the stands had seen the last time he did a dunk contest. You could feel the electricity in the gym.

I had heard a little bit (before the contest) that he was going to take off from the free-throw line again. Many of us couldn’t do that. We had the ability to levitate and get it up right closer to the rim, but that long, long jump...none of us could palm the ball like that to be able to get it there. It was just about trying to outdo that. 

Nance: Once you’re starting to realize what he’s going to do, I would sit there and say, "This is going to be a nice dunk. It’s going to be a 48 or 49." When he did it, the reaction of everybody was just unbelievable. There was screaming. They put the 50 up. If you see, they show me put the 50 up and I just laugh. I said, "Well, shoot, if that dunk is 50, I could have done it. I could have jumped from the free-throw line."

I did that in practice, and Dennis Johnson and Walter Davis (another Phoenix Suns teammate) said, "You did that too easy, so eliminate that one." I could have gone in between my legs and dunked. And we eliminated that one because I’m so long, I made those two dunks look easy. (Dr. J’s dunk) ended up to be the best dunk of all of my era, points-wise. I did it with the toe on the line, not my heel. It was crazy how that dunk became so popular and it was one (of) my dunks I eliminated because it wasn’t very hard to do. My opinion: I’m pretty sure every time Dr. J and Michael (Jordan) did it, their heels were on the line. You’ll have to go back and look at that. 

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Doug Moe

Doug Moe (Denver Nuggets head coach 1980-90): People used to say so-and-so could dunk from the foul line. I’d argue with them: "No one could take off behind the foul line, not on it or over it." Kevin Loughery was coaching the Nets; we played them before the (1976) All-Star Game. He said he’s seen Dr. J. do it. I said, "I’ll bet you whatever you want, no one can take off from the free-throw line." It never happened. (I said,) "You can practice him and call off the bet if you want." They came back for the All-Star Game and called off the bet. The only one who’s come reasonably close was Michael Jordan. Julius Erving didn’t; they all step over or on the line. No one ever jumps from behind the line.

Drexler: We knew (Erving) was going to do the free-throw line dunk, and everyone knew in college that I had dunked from behind the free-throw line. I could go even farther. I was hoping Julius did it so I could do mine as well. Julius was certainly the favorite because he won the '76 contest. But this was '84, and he’d gotten a little older. We really didn’t know what to expect.

Cooper: Everybody was standing up—the players were standing up. Your heart starts racing. Even though I was dunking against him, I wanted to see it. When he started counting off the steps and going back, I’m like, "Oh s--t, we’re about to see something fantastic."

My heart is racing, and I forgot about the competition. I just wanted him to do it. When it actually happened, it went so fast! Up to that point, everything was going slow. When it happened, the crowd erupted, and I went out and gave him a high five. His kids were there. It was a fabulous moment. You always wanted everyone to do well. Everyone was congratulatory because we felt like we had won. We knew if Doc made that jump, it was going to be a wrap for the rest of us.

Erving: Well, I figured I’m going to do all of my dunks. The things you do, you do what you do. Like when you approach a game, you look for certain opportunities: If the daylight is there and there’s a clear lane, you make the plays you know how to make. So in the contest, because of whatever scripting there was, you try to do the best dunk from whatever position you’re going to come in from.

Sampson: When he did it, the reaction of everybody was just unbelievable. He wound up the whole nation.

Nance finished by cradling the ball for a one-handed dunk, clinching the championship.

Nance: (Erving) said, "Good job," and I remember he hit me on the butt and said, "You won." I just said, "Thanks," and I thought, "Yes, I won this contest but..." To me, he’s the greatest that has ever been. So I’ll take the contest, I’ll get my little Camaro. But as far as dunking in games, Dr. J is the greatest I’ve ever seen.

Scheer: He was so gracious congratulating Larry. He was a real professional the whole time. Nance was a surprise, there was no question about it.

Welts: It also was a passing of the torch, with Nance winning. It was some kind of poetic passing of the torch from one generation of players to another. We closed out with a great All-Star Game, and I think everyone went home thinking, "Wow, we did something we wouldn’t have expected from the NBA." David Stern became commissioner the very next day, and I think it set the tone for the approach he and people around him had to try to elevate the NBA from something that was a very not well-respected sports organization to where it is today.

Nance: I got the Camaro. I had that car off and on. I sold it several times and bought it back. I sold it again, but it’s gone now for good. (The trophy) is right here at my house. From time to time, just because I want to buy race car stuff, I’ve thought about putting it up for auction just to see how much money it would raise, not that I need the money or anything. When you want to buy something I guess that’s worth something, like a race car part, and the wife doesn’t necessarily want you to, I could sell my trophy and buy a motor for my race car. I think it would be a good idea.

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It’s funny, after I won the contest, I instantly changed my attitude about my game. I always still wanted to dunk on people, but then I entered the mode of "I want to make the All-Star team. I want to become more than just the slam dunk guy." I started centering my games about that. I had to go back the next year, but I don’t think I had the drive to compete like I did in the first year, because I wanted to block shots. I wanted to be known as a defensive player and rebounder and scorer. I want to be known as having a full game.

 

The dunk contest grew into what it was today, a spectacle of high-flying, breath-taking athleticism. But not all the dunkers agree it’s as good as it used to be. In fact, no one thought it would transform into what it is today.

Drexler: I don’t think anybody had any idea what would happen. But it’s become much more of a show today. And if that had been the culture back then, you could have prepared for it with gimmicks and jumping over people and all of that stuff. It was very Neanderthal.

Griffith: Back in '84, there wasn’t a whole bunch of people throwing the ball up in the air. It was just off of the jump with no tossing the ball up. It was raw dunking. When we were dunking, we were doing something that could be done in a game, that could be done in a breakaway. That’s what sometimes takes away from a dunk contest—when guys are throwing the ball in the air. I’ve got mixed emotions about it if I was a judge. A lot of players would be pissed at the score I’d give. Show me what you can do with the ball in your hands. Like Vince Carter that year (2000). He had the ball in his hands every dunk.

Nance: I pretty much watch every year. A lot of people really look forward to it and watch it. I think sometimes when they’re not as good as people think it should be, it’s hard to change from year to year. Your best dunkers sometimes from year to year are going to be the same people. That’s why they’ve started bringing in cars and jumping over people and all that stuff like that. I think it should be like the first one: If you miss, it’s penalized, to make people concentrate. If you’re a true dunker, you should be able to do it without a whole lot of practice. 

Cooper: The guys that are in the dunk contest now, they put a lot of preparation into it and props. Back then, it wasn’t about props; it was about your leaping ability, what you can do off your two legs. And now they have people holding the ball. For me, a dunk is an individual artistry game. It’s not about jumping off of cars; it’s about you being artistic and creative as you can and let your creative juices flow. And it’s you and the ball and the rim. They have all these other things that are involved now. It’s fun to watch sometimes, but it takes away from the true artistry of the dunk contest.

Welts: We all had no idea what would come to pass that day, and like most things that are memorable, none of us could have foreseen that it would take on a life of its own and what I think people now would say contributed to history.

Scheer: I like to tell you that I knew (it would be a hit). I had my reputation at stake if it failed. But I knew what we did in ‘76 that there was a place for it. The fans in Denver showed me they cared about the team and the individuals, and they love the game.

Griffith: I’m not surprised. The growth of it has to do with (the) growth of NBA. They didn’t have all this stuff for All-Star weekend—the skills challenge, the WNBA, the marketing. (It’s a) credit to what they’ve done in the front office.

Cooper: The NBA is truly a brotherhood, that little special club you get (into)—the three-point shooters, the slam dunk people, the fundamental people, All-Star players, everybody has their own clique. ... It’s truly something special. It was a great moment in the history of basketball and the NBA, but no one knew it would turn out to be like this.

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