Once, the slam dunk was so new, so unexpected, so novel, that no one even knew how to describe it. “Awesome Kansas Giants Reverse Basketball Lay-Up Shot Process,” read a New York Times headline from 1936, “McPherson Oilers Leap and Hurl Ball Downward to Target, Disdaining Upward Tosses.” The Times described the shot as being pitched “downward into the hoop, much like a cafeteria customer dunking a roll in coffee.”
In the decades that followed, the slam went from an object of confused wonder to a move reviled as tall-guy hackery (in 1967, the NCAA called it “not a skillful shot” and banned it from competition, allegedly to dull the talent edge enjoyed by UCLA and one Lew Alcindor), to the ABA’s ticket to the big time, to an indelible part of basketball and sports culture. The slam dunk is as American as apple pie, iced coffee, and moms. Eighty years on, it seemed as if the full human range of slam dunk motion had been fully explored. Windmills, Statue of Liberty dunks, free-throw-line takeoffs, 180s, 360s, reverses, double-clutches, through the legs, off the backboard, alley-oops. It had all been done again and again and again. Or so we thought. Until 2016’s contest, when Zach LaVine slipped the surly bonds of Earth to windmill on the face of god and Aaron Gordon CrossFit leg-lifted clear over Stuff the Magic Dragon, turning Air Canada Centre turned into a basketball fan moshpit.
This year’s lineup includes Aaron Gordon, Derrick Jones Jr., DeAndre Jordan, and Glenn Robinson III. What’s the first issue that jumps out at you? Big men, more often than not, are dunk contest cannon fodder. It is with a heavy heart that I say that. No shots at DeAndre Jordan, who is a fine in-game dunker and a cheerful-seeming, funny individual. His slam on Brandon Knight is one of the great unsolved NBA murders of the last five years. But dunk contests require a totally different skill set. I take no joy in saying this, but we all know it’s true.
There’s ample evidence in the historical record to prove that big men suck in the dunk contest. Even Dwight Howard’s 2008 slam dunk title-winning run was wack. When your money dunk is based almost entirely on wearing a costume and your dunk wasn’t even a true dunk, that’s textbook wackness. The issue, essentially, with dudes 6-foot-10 or taller, is that their feet don’t leave the ground enough on dunks for them to look cool. Those dudes are built to power dunk in a crowd, not dance in the air. Which, is really what contest dunking is: An aerial dance competition. The only philosophical difference between a dunk contest and rhythmic gymnastics is the fig leaf of scoring a basket.
The dunkers this year are faced with another, intractable problem: How do you follow the best dunk contest of all-time? The short answer is you don’t. Peace.
Wait, wait, wait — come back. The long answer is it’s complicated. This is the same question that the organizers of the event had to tackle after 2016’s once-in-a-generation air show put on by Zach LaVine and Gordon. LaVine, the sitting champion, confirmed he was sitting out at the end of January since he’s out the rest of season with an ACL injury. Gordon, though, is set to compete and theoretically avenge last year’s loss, which is lucky for the organizers. The Magic held Gordon out of two games last week due to a bone bruise. What would the coordinators have done if Gordon couldn’t go? And, how do they get contestants anyway? Does the player express his interest or does the NBA come to them?
“It was little bit of both,” DeAndre Jordan said when I asked him that question. “Then at the end I was kinda forced into it.” Jordan wasn’t confirmed for the event until February 2, days after LaVine officially dropped out.
This echoes comments Blake Griffin made last season regarding his famous 2011 slam dunk win, which he cemented by leaping over a Kia Optima. “I wanted to jump over a convertible, but I wasn’t allowed to,” Griffin told Barstool Sports. “I wanted to have Baron Davis and some of my teammates roll out in a convertible, and then just toss it straight up and jump over the whole thing instead of just the hood. I don’t know if you guys have stood next to a Kia Optima, but it’s a pretty tall vehicle, and there’s no way I was going to make it over the entire thing, over Baron Davis in the sunroof. So I opted for the hood, and then everyone was pissed that I jumped over the hood.”
“I think they came and asked me,” DeMar DeRozan told me when I asked how he ended up competing in the 2010 and 2011 contests. “I was hyped to do it.”
So, it appears as if some murky system of cajoling and, depending on how soon the event is, light coercion is how the dunk contest gets put together.
Before 2016, the competition had been in steady decline since Vince Carter’s revelatory Air Canada showcase in 2000. The flaws were easy to pick out: inconsistent performances, creative ambition out of proportion with actual ability, and, worst of all, a Carrot Top–ian reliance on props.
In 2009, Nate Robinson dunked off the back of Wilson Chandler as the then–Knicks swingman knelt on all fours. Nate actually stepped on Chandler’s back as if he were climbing into the saddle of a Clydesdale. Lil’ Nate then sealed his title by dunking over Dwight Howard. This is shameful. There is never an excuse — ever — for letting someone dunk on you. In 2013, former Jazz forward Jeremy Evans gave us the most meta prop dunk of all time when he leaped over a painting, which he painted, of himself dunking. He then signed the painting. In 2015, Victor Oladipo came out onto the court wearing a faux-tuxedo top and a black fedora while crooning “New York, New York.” The cameras cut to Rihanna as she looked at the Jumbotron and laughed.
LaVine and Gordon’s duel in 2016 actually saved that competition from lethal levels of cloying wackness. We forget this now, but the competition opened with Will Barton coming onto the floor to a “Thriller” skit, complete with zombies. Which…OK. Then Andre Drummond took the floor, eschewing a flashy musical number, and proceeded to miss his first two attempts at a pass to himself followed by a one-handed, between-the-legs dunk. The second attempt caromed hard off the glass into the stands. Drummond’s confidence, like a sand castle swamped by wave, visibly crumbled. With his time running down, he settled for a simple one-handed dunk, which Kevin Hart described as “a hard layup.”
Watching a string of missed dunks is among the most excruciating sports experiences known to the human race. I defy you, here and now, to watch the full video of Chris Anderson’s infamous 2005 appearance. It runs over five minutes. I rewatched it recently and I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to jump out of a window. There was a group of schoolchildren sitting on the court for this and I’m sure they were never the same after experiencing the full cringe-inducing power from point-blank range. In 2007, the NBA introduced a time limit in order to keep audiences from crying blood tears.
But I digress. After Drummond’s flaccid display, Gordon took the floor. He was wearing a black suit, white shirt, untied bow tie, and swung a black cane to “Classic Man.” A skit, two failed dunks, and then this. For a second, it seemed as if we were watching the worst high school talent show ever, except with very tall humans. Thank god the dunks were so lit.
What to expect from this year’s competition? Probably a letdown compared to 2016. How could it be anything but? I’m pulling for Derrick Jones Jr. My dude didn’t get called up from the D-League three weeks ago to lose.