Aaron Gordon Is the Picasso of the Slam Dunk Contest

Flinder Boyd@@flinderboydB/R Mag, Writer-at-LargeFebruary 16, 2017

Inside Air Canada Centre at last year's NBA Slam Dunk Contest, Aaron Gordon jogged to the right wing and prepared for his third-to-last dunk. Locked in battle with Zach LaVine, he placed Stuff the Magic Dragon, the Orlando mascot, inside the key with the ball held high over his head. Along the sidelines, a who's who of NBA royalty stood up next to celebrities, and for a moment everything for Gordon went stone-cold silent.

"I just let go," he tells B/R Mag. "I felt there was, like, a flow. It was an out-of-body experience." He took a deep breath, stutter-stepped, strode toward the hoop and exploded upward.

Just a few hours earlier, while most of his colleagues were enjoying the buzz of Toronto, Gordon was silently lying on the floor in his hotel room with the lights dimmed while his mental conditioning coach (and unofficial dunking consultant), Graham Betchart, guided him through a series of visualization exercises. "He was seeing the judges and the crowd, getting really into it," Betchart says. The pair had met when Gordon was just 13, and while many younger athletes scoff at what seems like New Age Buddhist teachings—live in the moment, silence the ego—Gordon now meditates twice a day. "I learn to cooperate with the circumstances," he says.

As Gordon took off inside Air Canada Centre, he jumped over Stuff, grabbed the ball and torqued his legs sideways nearly parallel to the ground, almost like an Olympic diver, his forehead nearly in line with the rim. He cleared Stuff before finally slamming the ball home cleanly. When he landed, TNT's Kenny Smith screamed "It's over!" three times, then "Let's go home!" Finally, Smith, out of words, simply grunted into the microphone, as if watching such force and grace left him gasping for air. Of course, in the end, LaVine swooped from just inside the free-throw line with a between-the-legs jam and won the contest. But Gordon, even without a trophy, was the people's champ.

That night, LaVine and Gordon partied together in downtown Toronto, and at one point, LaVine leaned over to Gordon and asked, "Did you practice those dunks?"

Gordon smirked: "Of course I practiced!" He had "workshopped" each of the first four dunks for weeks.

Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic dunks over Stuff, the Magic mascot, in the Verizon Slam Dunk Contest during NBA All-Star Weekend 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 13, 2016 in Toronto.
Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic dunks over Stuff, the Magic mascot, in the Verizon Slam Dunk Contest during NBA All-Star Weekend 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 13, 2016 in Toronto.(Getty Images)

For Gordon, now 21, dunking isn't a playful pastime. It's "art," he says. And he sees himself as this generation's dunking Picasso, but he also knows he'll never be in the conversation for what he secretly craves—the title of Greatest Dunker of All Time—until he wins the NBA's Slam Dunk Contest. So, once again, he's back this weekend in New Orleans, this time as the favorite.

"He's taking this year's contest very seriously," Betchart says. "It's been on his mind since the third grade."

Gordon's father, Ed, who played at San Diego State, was rumored to have a 45-inch vertical leap. In elementary school, Gordon would sit on the sidelines at Paul Moore Park in his native San Jose and watch his father and older brother Drew dominate with their athleticism. "My dad is my dunking idol," Gordon says. When he was 12 years old, Gordon had just finished playing at the local rec center when he decided to try to dunk for the first time. It wasn't pretty—the ball rattled in off the back of the rim—but he was hooked. "It was like a new toy. It was the only thing I wanted to do," he remembers.

Growing up surrounded by camera phones, Gordon became a viral sensation by the time he was 15 and was the favorite to win the 2013 McDonald's All-American dunk contest. But his powerful dunks didn't translate to the competition format and he lost to Florida signee Chris Walker.

Just over a year later, before the 2014 NBA draft, Gordon was working out in front of NBA scouts at UC Santa Barbara alongside other potential draftees when suddenly, in the middle of the workout, LaVine spontaneously dunked, followed by Andrew Wiggins and Gordon himself, each trying to one-up the other. "No one was talking," Betchart says. "Finally an agent says, 'Is anyone seeing this?' We essentially saw the dunk contest."

Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic congratulates Zach LaVine of the Minnesota Timberwolves for winning the Verizon Slam Dunk Contest as part of 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend on February 13, 2016 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic congratulates Zach LaVine of the Minnesota Timberwolves for winning the Verizon Slam Dunk Contest as part of 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend on February 13, 2016 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.(Getty Images)

The unofficial tally had Gordon and LaVine in a draw, and when they met for real in last year's contest, Gordon's performance was a surprise to some, "but not to him," Betchart says. Gordon expected to win, and the loss frustrated him. Just a few days after the contest, he was already brainstorming new dunks.

He then went on the talk show circuit, slamming for Ellen DeGeneres in street clothes and basking in his fame. But, as SB Nation said, he was still the "greatest dunk contest loser of all time." If he was going to have a chance to be The Greatest, he says he knew he had to come up with a new series of dunks that "no one has ever done before."

Last summer, he traveled to Venice Beach to host Dunk Fest and met many of the participants, mostly professional dunkers who circle the globe competing in various competitions for prize money. Gordon sat at the judges' table in sunglasses, holding up scores. But for him, it was also a chance to be, as he says, "part of the community."

"There's a different want and desire for streetball dunkers," professional dunker Michael Purdie says. "Aaron's cut from that cloth. We have a lot of respect for him because he's one of us."

When the NBA season started, Gordon had the challenge of learning the small forward position for the Orlando Magic, but the dunk contest has never been too far from his mind. He became friends with a few of the participants at Venice Beach. Over the course of the last few months, they've been talking about their art and exchanging tips, discussing things like showmanship and style. Gordon hasn't said what dunks he's been working on leading up to this weekend, but many have speculated. "He might try something like maybe a 360, behind the back," Purdie says. "And mix it up with the scoop."

Aaron Gordon working with mental conditioning coach Graham Betchart.
Aaron Gordon working with mental conditioning coach Graham Betchart.(Courtesy of Graham Betchart)

Recently, Betchart has been flying to Orlando, and after each practice Gordon will try out a few dunk ideas. When one sticks, he'll stand on the sidelines and begin visualizing himself inside Smoothie King Center in New Orleans bounding toward the rim, the crowd on its feet. "We do the mental prep. Your brain is so powerful that it doesn't know the difference between imagining and reality," Betchart says.

Now that LaVine is sidelined with a knee injury, Gordon is the favorite, but his toughest competition might be Derrick Jones Jr., who's played in just seven NBA games but has built a cult following through his YouTube clips. The Phoenix Suns Twitter feed recently posted Jones Jr. in a pregame layup line, casually dunking after spinning 360 degrees and going between his legs.

Last week, Gordon missed two games with a bone bruise in his right foot, but he insists he's "fine," and played 29 minutes Monday against the Miami Heat, then 33 more Wednesday against the Spurs.

When he arrives in New Orleans this Friday, the city will be captivated by All-Star Weekend. Gordon, though, will be in his hotel room "with the lights out," he says. "Visualize, meditation. Visualize and positive affirmation." In his mind he'll see what he's been practicing, slowed down. He'll tell himself he's the greatest to ever do it, and at the end, if all goes according to plan, he'll introduce the world to a series of new dunks, then be handed the trophy.

So, what are those dunks he's kept hidden away all these months?

"We can't say," Betchart says. "But they're amazing. It's mind-blowing."

Flinder Boyd is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag. A former writer at FoxSports.com, his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, BBC Online and more, as well as multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. Before becoming a journalist, he played 10 seasons of professional basketball across Europe, and now lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @flinderboyd.

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