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College Basketball’s Slam Dunk Contest Is Much Better Than the NBA Version

Celebrating an event that features ridiculous dunks and a permanently terrified pancake

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

I tell people that my favorite sporting event of the year is the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, but that’s a lie. My favorite sporting event of the year is the college slam dunk contest. The 2017 edition was held on Thursday night, and it was wonderful.

The NBA Slam Dunk Contest chooses four participants from the best 450 basketball players in the world, which is nice. But dunk contests aren’t about being good at basketball. They’re about being good at dunking. And whoever is in charge of the college dunk contest does an incredible job of scanning the 10,000-plus men’s college basketball players to find guys who are outrageously good at that exact thing. In the last two years, the contest was won by Division II players; in 2012 it was won by an NAIA player; in 2011 it was won by a DIII player. I’m a college basketball writer, and I have no idea who most of these dudes are until they start dunking on my screen.

And while NBA players have professional basketball-playing careers to return to after the contest, the college competition features seniors, most of whom are from small schools and have little hope of establishing lucrative careers in the NBA or overseas. This is the argument that the NCAA makes for why March Madness is great — student-athletes playing for the love of the game! — and I don’t buy it. March Madness is great because it’s a 68-team, single-elimination tournament and we bet on it, not because the players from Middle Penntucky Tech are super motivated to shoot 37.8 percent from the field and play dedicated 2–3 zone defense.

But in a dunk contest? These kids know this is one of the last times they’ll ever have a bunch of cameras on them, one of the last chances they’ll get to show the world how dope they are. And boy, do they take advantage:

The Dunks Are Wild

That’s South Dakota’s Tyler Flack finishing a 540 dunk above his head. I wasn’t expecting an amazing dunk here because Flack basically walked into it, but that light jog somehow gave him enough propulsion to do a freakin’ 540. That’s not normal.

Here is East Tennessee State’s A.J. Merriweather, who turned some heads for his practice dunks before the NCAA tournament. I’m not sure what’s most impressive about this dunk — the elevation or the power with which he slammed — but both are in the HOLY CRAP range:

Merriweather’s first three dunks all received perfect scores:

He couldn’t land properly, because clearly he replaced his own human hamstrings with kangaroo hamstrings, and kangaroo tendons are not exactly easy to control.

Merriweather missed a dunk in the final round and lost the competition to Georgetown’s Rodney Pryor. But whatever, we know Merriweather really won. This is what the college slam dunk contest is about: making folk heroes out of kids from schools you’ve never heard of, even if their teams weren’t good enough to win a game in March Madness.

It’s Comically Underproduced

The NBA Slam Dunk Contest is designed to make every dunk look good, even if a dude throws one up that is totally disappointing. The arena lights go dark, the PA announcer yells something, and cool music plays.

The college slam dunk contest is held at a school located somewhat near where the Final Four is being played. Thursday night, it was at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. Grand Canyon is known for turning college basketball into a party, but nobody should party for crap dunks.

That was Wisconsin’s Vitto Brown. While other contestants were launching themselves through the roof and dunking on foreign planets, he chose to touch the backboard while completing a routine slam. The crowd was so underwhelmed that you could could hear Brown’s feet landing on the floor and the ball bouncing away. This is how it should be: Let’s not dress up bad dunks like the work of superheroes.

The college contest also makes prop dunking — the bane of the NBA version’s existence — difficult. The players don’t have the time or financial backing to set up unnecessarily complex backstories for their dunks. They have 45 seconds to dunk, or else. The only true prop dunk was attempted by Flack, who tried dunking the ball out of an attendee’s prosthetic leg:

We never learned who Flack’s volunteer for this was. We just learned that a prosthetic limb is a rather unwieldy holder for a basketball. And by the time Flack figured that out, he didn’t have time to attempt a legitimate dunk. He had good enough hops to win the contest, but the prop killed his chances.

The Entire Event Is Played Under the Gaze of Depressed Denny’s Mascots

Denny’s sponsors this event. Did you know that Denny’s has mascots? Well, it does, and they all look distressed by the fact that they are pieces of anthropomorphic breakfast food.

The pancake is trapped in a permanent scream of terror; the egg is downright miserable.

Last year, these mascots brought us the greatest moment in professional or amateur dunk contest history, when Mississippi State’s Craig Sword tried (and failed) to dunk over the pancake:

Mostly, they just stand there — watching, always watching.

I would say they should be the contest’s judges, but I don’t want to give them a voice. I know they would just use it to scream.