Ah, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. It has a unique a marvelous history all its own. And every year, once the last jam has been thrown down, basketball fans like to gather together and debate where exactly this year's contest's fits in that history.
The old timers will spin yarns about the glory days of the '80s, when men were men and dunks didn't have all these fancy doo-dads and what's-its. But many of the young kids believe in their hearts that their modern heroes are far more athletic, and capable of more incredible aerial feats, than those old codgers dunking on those VHS tapes.
Now that 2014 All-Star Saturday is behind us and Washington Wizards point guard John Wall has walked away with the "dunker of the night" title, we can put Saturday's contest into its proper place in the pantheon.
1. 2000 (Oakland) – Vince Carter
2. 1988 (Chicago) – Michael Jordan
3. 1986 (Dallas) – Spud Webb
4. 1985 (Indianapolis) – Dominique Wilkins
5. 1987 (Seattle) – Michael Jordan
The Jordan-'Nique duels of the '80s made the dunk contest, and Vince Carter's performance in 2000 saved the dunk contest.
Pretty much every basketball fan considers the '80s to be the Golden Age of the contest, when the biggest stars came to play and legitimately wanted to beat one another. Jordan and Wilkins only clashed head-to-head twice, in 1985 and 1988, with Jordan's '88 victory considered by most to be the greatest contest of all time.
The rivalry is so intense that Wilkins is still won't accept losing in '88, as he told Grantland's Bill Simmons: "He [Jordan] said 'Hey, you know, you probably won. You know it; I know it. But hey, you in Chicago. What can I tell you?' "
But if you were to take away the names, and simply focus on the dunks, the 2000 contest might beat anything from the '80s. Carter was the unquestionable star of the night, but future All-Stars like Tracy McGrady and Steve Francis nearly matched him, dunk for dunk.
The 2000 contest was also significant because it helped rejuvenate interest after the event was cancelled in 1998 (there was no All-Star Game in 1999, due to the lockout).
Needless to say, without contests on this lists, nobody would be dunking on Saturday night.
6. 1991 (Charlotte) – Dee Brown
7. 2003 (Atlanta) – Jason Richardson
8. 1994 (Minneapolis) – Isaiah Rider
9. 1990 (Miami) – Dominique Wilkins
10. 2008 (New Orleans) – Dwight Howard
11. 2011 (Los Angeles) – Blake Griffin
Once Michael Jordan exited the dunk contest stage, the event would never again have quite the same transcendent star power. Still, these contests deserve a place above the rest of the pack.
The 1990 contest was Dominique's last hurrah, while the 1991 and 1994 contests were a stage for one of the most athletic dunkers in basketball history, Shawn Kemp.
The Reign Man had a fascinating career, both as ferocious talent and as a cautionary tale. He made six All-Star teams and led the Seattle SuperSonics to the 1996 NBA Finals, but eventually ate himself out of the league and procreated himself out of his money.
He never won a dunk contest, but he proved a worthy foil in both '91, when he lost to Celtics little-man dunker extraordinaire, Dee Brown, and '94, when he lost to an equally enigmatic athletic prodigy in Isaiah Rider.
Jason Richardson was perhaps the best dunk artist to come along since Vince Carter. He won two titles (and should have won three), but the best was the 2003 contest, which pitted him against champion Desmond Mason and a young Amar'e Stoudemire.
Since that time, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin have been by far the two biggest stars to actually participate. Both are astonishing dunkers, but unfortunately both play during the era when props count more than artistry (You didn't jump over the car, Blake, you jumped over the hood).
12. 2001 (Washington, D.C.) – Desmond Mason
13. 1992 (Orlando) – Cedric Ceballos
14. 1984 (Denver) – Larry Nance
15. 2009 (Phoenix) – Nate Robinson
16. 1989 (Houston) – Kenny Walker
17. 1993 (Salt Lake City) – Harold Miner
18. 2006 (Houston) – Nate Robinson
19. 2013 (Houston) - Terrence Ross
20. 1995 (Phoenix) – Harold Miner
21. 2012 (Orlando) – Jeremy Evans
22. 2007 (Las Vegas) – Gerald Green
Not great, not disastrous. Not particularly memorable. These dunk contests just sort of exist, out in the ether of history.
If anything, this list embodies the troubled evolution of the contest, from a star-laden affair to a showcase for mostly young, unproven talent.
There are only two legitimate All-Stars in this group. Larry Nance, winner of the first official dunk contest in 1984, was a three-time participant in the big game ('85, '89, '93), while Cedric Ceballos made the '95 All-Star Game.
The quintessential champion from this list might be Harold Miner. He won the '93 dunk contest as a rookie with the Miami Heat, then repeated as champion in his third year, in '95. One season later, he was out of the league.
There are plenty of excellent dunkers on this list, like Kenny "Sky" Walker, Nate Robinson and Desmond Mason, but nobody with the charisma needed to push these contests higher.
23. 1996 (San Antonio) – Brent Barry
24. 1997 (Cleveland) – Kobe Bryant
25. 2010 (Dallas) – Nate Robinson
27. 2005 (Denver) - Josh Smith
28. 2004 (Los Angeles) – Fred Jones
29. 2002 (Philadelphia) – Jason Richardson
These dregs of dunk contests past are filled with missed dunks, bad gimmicks and more missed dunks.
Who could forget (and who really wants to remember) the dunk wheel gimmick of 2002, when contestants had to perform famous dunks of years past? Steve Francis was forced into trying to palm a basketball (which he couldn't do), and the contest went downhill almost from the start.
The 2005 contest is best summed up in six words: "Time for the Birdman to fly!" But Nate Robinson nearly matched Chris Anderson miss-for-miss in the 2010 dunk contest...and won.
Fred Jones won in 2004 on an inexcusable technicality, per Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver:
Jones’ second attempt in the final round involved receiving a pass from a fan in the stands. Somehow, after a few tries at the pass (the sequence begins at the 18-minute mark below), Jones deflected a failed catch off the backboard and through the rim. For whatever reason, that was ruled a dunk attempt and scored by the judges. Nice. That deflating moment was met with boos and it only got worse when Richardson, needing only 42 points to win, missed his final dunk, a 360-degree punch, and was unable to replace it because he had missed earlier tries. That last miss made Jones the champion by default. What a mess.
As for the '96 and '97 contests, they represented the nadir of an event that had grown so stale it was cancelled in '98. Don't let the name on that '97 entry fool you: Kobe Bryant was a mere teenager at the time, and not the force of nature we know today.
Though Brent Barry is still remembered as "the white guy who won the dunk contest," that kid Bryant apparently went on to bigger and better things.
Congratulations, Worst of the Worst, you have a new playmate joining you in the basement of dunk contest history.
The contest had enough star power, for once—with All-Stars like Paul George, John Wall and Damian Lillard competing—but the format was incredibly confusing. It started off with a new freestyle format and ended with three East-vs.-West "battles." Though John Wall ended the dunking with a spectacular over-the-mascot reverse, nobody seemed to know whether or not the contest had actually finished.
As usual, it is the gimmicks that separate the mediocre contests from the truly awful. This was the 26th-greatest contest of all time, finishing ahead of only 2002, 2005 and 2004. It didn't have the wheel or the endless Birdman misses. And the right guy (Wall) won, as opposed to Fred Jones' controversial victory.
Moving forward, this is almost certainly the last time we'll see the "battle" format, which was a complete bust. Dunk competitions should never be East-vs.-West affairs: After all, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins both played for Eastern Conference teams back in the day. Could you imagine how markedly different dunk contest history would be if they had been dunking as teammates?
If the NBA wants to breathe life into this event in the future, they should scrap the gimmicks and focus on the real positive from 2014: getting actual All-Stars to contribute.