In Defense of the Greatest Spectacle in Sports, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest

Josh MartinFeatured Columnist IVApril 8, 2017

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 16: Terrence Ross #31 of the Toronto Raptors during the 2013 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest on State Farm All-Star Saturday Night as part of the 2013 NBA All-Star Weekend on February 16, 2013 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The NBA Slam Dunk Contest gets a lot of guff—far more than it deserves.

It's practically an annual rite of midwinter for talking heads and McKayla Maroney types to wax melancholic about how the dunk contest has grown stale, how it lacks star power, how everything's already been done.

Why can't it be like the good ol' days, when Dr. J leapt from the free-throw line? What ever happened to the rivalries, like Michael Jordan vs. Dominique Wilkins? And why the heck won't LeBron James get off his dang high horse long enough to throw down some crowd-pleasers?

I must admit, these thoughts and others like them have crossed my mind in earnest in the past, if not inhabited my opinions entirely.

I too would love to see the very best players in the game partaking in the marquee event of All-Star Weekend. I too have yearned for the days when the dunk contest meant something, when participants didn't need props to captivate an audience and when the Birdmen of the world didn't need (and/or weren't given) a bajillion tries to complete a dunk that wound up underwhelming precisely because it took those bajillion attempts to execute properly.

By and large, this year's new format and loaded field should address the majority of the concerns that most often crop up in discussions of what's "wrong" with the dunk contest.

The rules for the 2014 contest remain a bit convoluted, though the general setup of the Freestyle and Battle Rounds should in theory allow for more dunks and more creativity. It should diminish the usual downtime and all but do away with those awkward runs of miss after miss that tend to suck the air right out of the building.

Any argument suggesting that this year's field lacks stars is a losing one, even when factoring in the absences of LeBron and Kevin Durant. Of the six participants, three (Paul George, John Wall and Damian Lillard) are All-Stars—the first time that's happened since 1988, when His Airness outclassed 'Nique and Clyde Drexler in Chicago.

Beyond that trio, Saturday's Slam Dunk Contest will showcase the talents of high-flying rookie Ben McLemore, poster master Harrison Barnes and Terrence Ross, the reigning dunk champ.

Ross' victory was also one in the win column for creativity, which, contrary to popular belief, recent dunk contests haven't lacked. Who could forget 2008, when Gerald Green blew out a candle in a cupcake, only to lose to Dwight Howard's Superman slam?

Or 2009, when Nate Robinson went Kryptonite on Dwight?

Or 2011, when JaVale McGee dunked on two baskets at once before Blake Griffin upstaged him by leaping over a car?

Maybe you're not impressed by these tricks in particular. Maybe you're a purist who views the use of props as gimmickry that doubles as lipstick on a proverbial pig.

In that case, go with Nate-Rob's lobs (to himself and from an assistant) for title No. 3 in 2010, the "Show Stopper" from current All-Star DeMar DeRozan in 2011 or any of Griffin's other dunks from that same year.

If anything, the dunk contest is more creative and inventive now than it's ever been.

As Charles Curtis detailed for Bleacher Report, the first dunk contests (the ABA's in 1976 and the NBA's in 1984) consisted exclusively of players running full-speed toward the hoop before taking off, with the ball in their hands the entire time. There were no lobs of any kind—not from a player to himself, not from one player to another, not off any portion of the backboard—to add a dose of excitement, via the exercise of hand-eye coordination and impeccable timing, to the proceedings.

And there certainly weren't any instances of guys flying over self-portraits.

You might be among those who think that anonymous benchwarmers like Jeremy Evans, Gerald Green, James White and Jamario Moon don't belong in the spotlight. Then again, you could say the same about Edgar Jones (1984), Terence Stansbury (1986), Shelton Jones (1989), Kenny Battle (1990) and—Tobias Funke's favorite—Blue Edwards (1991), to name a handful.

And if you're going to espouse the virtues of what the dunk contest "used to be" in the 1980s, it's only fair that you then reflect on how far it fell in the 1990s. Remember when Harold Miner, Kenny Smith and Cedric Ceballos were the headliners in 1993? What about Isaiah Rider's run to No. 1 in 1994? Or Brent Barry beating out Michael Finley and Greg Minor in 1996?

Who could forget the 1998 dunk contest? Oh, right—THERE WASN'T ONE! Nor was there one in 1999 on account of the lockout. However "bad" you think the dunk contest has been of late, there's no denying that it's in much, much better shape now than it was 15 to 20 years ago.

The fact is, the dunk contest has always been an event wherein no-names compete side by side with basketball's big shots. That's part of the point: to make stars out of unknown and underappreciated talents. It's a showcase for "who's next," rather than yet another stage for "who's now."

Guys like LeBron and KD don't need to show off their best uncontested slams to solidify their superstardom.

Jordan won his two dunk titles several years before he so much as sniffed any of his six Larry O'Brien Trophies. Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin all became household names as a result of their dunk contest success, not the other way around.

John Swart/Associated Press

The same could happen this year for George, Wall or Lillard—or any of the other three, for that matter.

  • Ross will have every opportunity to grow into an All-Star on the wing with the Toronto Raptors, now that Rudy Gay's gone.
  • Gay now plays alongside McLemore, a 2013 lottery pick of the Sacramento Kings who's oozing with ability.
  • Barnes has struggled off the bench in his second year but could find himself back on the up-and-up if/when the Golden State Warriors find him a new home with a starting spot fit for the "Black Falcon."

This year's infusion of talent could give way to yet another wave of great dunk artists next year.

Anthony Davis would be a great choice for 2015. So too would rookies Victor Oladipo, he of the breakaway 360, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, he of the never-ending arms.

If the 2014 NBA draft is as loaded as most expect it to be, we could also see a slew of future rookies (i.e., Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart, etc.) electrifying fans everywhere while ushering in the league's next generation of standard-bearers.

In the bigger picture, how desensitized to athletic achievement must we be if we're nonplussed by the sight of supersized humans twisting and contorting as they soar through the air, their minds and bodies focused intently on the task of sending a leather ball through a 10-foot-high hoop the entire time? Have we all forgotten how hard it is for most of us to so much as graze a rim with our fingertips, much less launch ourselves to within eye-level of it?

Can't we just appreciate the dunk contest for what it is: People not only doing really hard things, but making those really hard things look way easier to pull off than they actually are?

If not, perhaps the problem lies not with the Slam Dunk Contest, but with us. Maybe we, the viewing public, have become so spoiled by the incredible feats from All-Star Saturday that we no longer recognize, much less appreciate, the masterpieces-in-motion to which we're treated.

Hopefully, a refreshed and re-energized competition in New Orleans will change that—now and for years to come.


What do you think about the Slam Dunk Contest? Let me know on Twitter!