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Remember When the NBA Dunk Contest Was Truly Awesome?

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Remember When the NBA Dunk Contest Was Truly Awesome?
Todd Kirkland/Associated Press

The year was 1988. I was in the United States Air Force, and the NBA Slam Dunk Contest was an hour away from starting. I turned off the TV, turned to my roommate Luigi and asked, “Hey Lu, you coming with?”

“Of course!” he replied, sitting up in bed and grabbing his shoes.

We grabbed a six-pack from our fridge and headed down the hall towards the “dayroom.” We hadn’t really discussed doing this. It was just something that so obviously needed to be done that it made conversation unnecessary.

When we opened the door, we were hardly the first ones there. The dorm was three floors, with three wings per floor, 32 rooms per wing and two airmen per room. Each of the wings opened up to a dayroom, which was a circle of couches and chairs surrounding a big (for then) 31” TV screen, a few tables and a pay phone.

That meant that there were 192 people per floor who shared a dayroom if the dorms were filled, and it seemed they usually were. About a third of our floor was already assembled for the festivities.

The couches were overflowing. There were beers and sodas collected on the table along with bags of chips, jars of salsa and other communal snacks brought from the varying rooms. It was a kind of potluck for 18-year-olds and 20-somethings.

Lu and I grabbed a beer each from the six-pack and put the rest on the coffee table, snaring a slice of pizza while we were at it, and then perched on the corner of a couch in anticipation.

We watched the prelude, the Three-Point Shootout featuring Larry Bird, who proved once again that he was the undisputed best shooter in the world. It was fun, but just the appetizer. By the time it was over, you could barely move in the dayroom.

There must have been 100 young men and a few young women crammed in.

Then the dunk contest started, and the only thing that matched the atmosphere in the room was when we watched the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals or the World Series. I hate to sound trite, but the excitement actually was palpable.

The field for the contest was dynastic. It included the last three winners: the diminutive Spud Webb, who seemed to impossibly jump his own height; the beastly Dominique Wilkins, who had rims quivering in fear before his dunks; and the aeronaut himself, Michael Jordan, who took gravity as a suggestion more than a law.

Additionally, the field included future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, who was a reserve All-Star that year, averaging a LeBron James-like 27.0 points, 5.8 assists and 6.6 rebounds. He finished fifth in MVP voting that season. And he was the afterthought to the contest.

That’s because of the dunk rivalry between Jordan and Wilkins. This was the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier of dunk contests.

In '85 Wilkins trumped Jordan, but Jordan was the defending champion. This one was going to settle the score. Webb took the crown over Wilkins in '86. After he won, his coach Mike Fratello said:

He's America. Tomorrow, every father and son will be out in the driveway trying to dunk. If Spud can do it, anyone can. People will be talking about him on their way to work or riding the bus.

It was a time when the contest galvanized people. They talked about it instead of complained about it. The 1988 Dunk Contest was one of those moments in history, where people remember where they were and what they were doing when it happened, because it was that special. 

As the contestants threw down dunk after dunk, those of us in the room oohed and aahed, ate and drank, and cheered and celebrated and high-fived one another. We didn’t take a favorite; we just enjoyed the spectacle and the company.

My point here isn’t to recount the event, but the impact of it. There’s TV, must-watch TV and must-watch-communally TV.

This was an event that drew people together. Some of the guys in that dayroom I never met. I knew some of them by sight. I remember some of them by name. Lu and I still keep in touch.

But whether they were friends, acquaintances or strangers, there was something about that contest that pulled us together. We just couldn’t watch it alone, so we converged in that dayroom, without any planning.

This wasn’t just about the dunks but about the stars coming together and doing something spectacular. The anticipation was too much to be fully absorbed alone. It demanded watching in the company of others. You can’t high-five yourself, slap yourself on the back or scream with a room full of people alone.

“I” didn’t watch the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest; “we” watched the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest.

And because it was a “we” and not an “I,” it is indelibly imprinted in my memory as one of the highlights of my military service.

After that, the dunk contest underwent a slow and gradual decline in terms of star power until it reached the point where the NBA removed it in 1998. In 2000 the league brought it back, and the stars came with it.

Vince Carter entered the contest with rising superstars like his cousin Tracy McGrady and Houston Rockets sensation Steve Francis. All-Star Jerry Stackhouse also joined the group.

Carter threw down his between-the-legs windmill jam to claim victory. It was a contest that came close to 1988.

While the star power wasn’t quite on par, it was legitimate star power. There was a true buzz to that contest, and it lived up to the billing. Carter’s performance was arguably the best in the history of the dunk contest.

Since then, it’s become increasingly hard to get multiple stars in the contest. Blake Griffin in his rookie year was an instant superstar, but he was alone. There was no true “rival” to challenge him.

The Dwight Howard vs. Nate Robinson rivalry was fun, and “Kryptonate” defeating Howard’s version of Superman was legitimately hilarious, but Robinson hasn't been an All-Star.

Last year, only one of the contestants, Kenneth Faried, was even a starter on his own team.

In 1988, Jordan and Wilkins started the All-Star Game and were the top two scorers in it. They, along with Drexler, went on to gain entrance into the Hall of Fame. All three finished in the top six in MVP voting.

There’s something about having actual stars on All-Star Weekend in the dunk contest that makes it more exciting. Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated wonders why LeBron James continues to hold out:

It can't be fear of exhaustion or injury that keeps you from competing in the contest, LeBron, because otherwise you wouldn't perform the jaw-droppers that you routinely do during warmups, so why won't you take your act to All-Star weekend? Do you feel guilty at all sitting on the sidelines while your league -- and it is YOUR league -- trots out some of its least-known players at one of its showcase events? If Jordan and Dominique and Dr. J could compete in the contest, why can't you?

I don’t want to be “that guy” who gets to middle age and laments about how much better the world was when he was younger.

I still enjoy All-Star Weekend, and there are a lot of things that have improved about it. The musical acts and extrinsic things are on another level. Heck, I even like the Skills Challenge, and I’m probably in the minority there.

Some of the dunks are extraordinary. JaVale McGee’s three-balls-at-once dunk is the most underrated in the history of the event and should have won.

Which MVP candidate would you most like to see in the dunk contest?

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But sometimes it seems like the jumping over cars, the props, the show choirs, the so-called coaches, the 60 seconds of continuously missed dunks, the exaggerated excitement when one is finally successful and all those other things just gloss over the essential missing ingredient: the star.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask the game's brightest stars to come out every year and compete in the contest. But shouldn’t every generation have a chance to have its “dayroom moment?”

If LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Paul George all entered the contest, wouldn’t that be must-watch-communally TV? Wouldn’t that be the kind of thing worth gathering your friends over at your house and having all the festivities associated with the Super Bowl?

It would be too big for independent viewing, and every decade the contest needs one of those.

No, I’m not here to bemoan my lost youth, but to beg on behalf of today’s youth: Give them their “remember when” moment! Can you hear me, NBA? David Stern? Adam Silver? Are you listening LeBron, Durantula and PG? The fans are speaking.

Give us not just a dunk contest, but the dunk contest that defines your generation.

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