So, you’ve clicked on a link promising to tell you about the worst dunks in the history of the NBA slam dunk contest. I know what that means: You want to see Chris “Birdman” Andersen take 15 attempts to throw down two dunks in 2005:
But I can’t categorize Andersen’s dunks as the worst in the competition’s history. That’s less about Andersen and more about the many changes in format the contest has undergone in its 35 years of existence. In some contests, participants had one opportunity to make a dunk. In others, they were given time limits or the choice to replace one miss with a second effort. Andersen’s performance came during an unfortunate period when players were allowed to take as long as they wanted to complete a dunk. Andersen pushed that rule to its logical limit: The dunks were fine; it was the format that was at fault.
Or perhaps you clicked on this link expecting to see Darrell Armstrong’s reverse layup in 1996:
Again, I blame the format. See, Armstrong competed during the era when contestants were given 90 seconds to complete three dunks. The 6-foot-1 guard started strong, but tired over the first 85 seconds while trying to complete dunks that required lots of sprinting. As the clock ticked toward zero, Armstrong ran at the hoop with every intention of completing his final dunk. But he didn’t have the legs. Instead, he flicked the ball off the glass and into the basket, hoping to earn some points. This reflects poorly on the system, not the dunker. (Or layer-upper.) While I can laugh at Andersen and Armstrong, I don’t think either had the worst dunk attempt of all time.
The dunk contest is perhaps my favorite sporting event of the year. It’s an opportunity for players to think up the most innovative ways to display their athleticism, filled with moments of genius. Take 2008, when Gerald Green realized the coolest way to show how close he could get his head to the basket was to blow out a candle in a cupcake that was sitting on the rim. And just as entertaining are the uninspired failures by contestants who aren’t athletic or creative enough to do anything interesting. I cherish awful dunk contest dunks and have created my own scoring system to recognize the worst.
I’m grading each dunk attempt on a scale of 1 to 50, with 50 being the worst. Here are the four categories:
Degree of Ease (10 points): Many grading systems incorporate degree of difficulty. To find the worst dunk, we must seek out the opposite: Which dunk is the easiest to pull off? Points are awarded to the doofuses (doofi?) who showed up and just did regular-ass dunks.
Lack of Creativity (10 points): Some players create elaborate plans for their dunks. What I’m looking for are those who treated the dunk contest like an exam for which they forgot to study. Points are awarded to the player who got on a plane to go to All-Star Weekend, realized he hadn’t prepared to be part of a nationally televised dunking competition, and still decided to sleep through the flight instead of coming up with any schemes.
Lack of Enthusiasm (20 points): Showmanship is everything at the dunk contest. A perfect score of 50 is only given to contestants who manage to convince the crowd they’ve just thrown down a perfect 50. This category is split into two parts: I’ll award 10 points based on how unexcited players are with their own dunks, and 10 points based on how bored onlookers seem to be by a given dunk. (Shots of disappointed NBA players in attendance are a major plus.)
Lack of Execution (10 points): It’s not enough to throw down a simple dunk with no gimmicks while making judges and fans yawn. A truly awful dunk isn’t just easy, uninventive, and boring. It also has to be botched.
Without further ado, here are the five worst dunks in NBA slam dunk contest history. (Honorable mentions: Shannon Brown doing a generic alley-oop, Doug Christie kicking a weird backward punt before doing a normal dunk, and Tim Perry dunking slightly to the left of his head.)
5. Mason Plumlee Almost Clears Miles Plumlee (2015): 33 Points
Let’s start off with a completely forgettable dunk. Six-foot-11 guys have to do something unique to secure a spot in the contest. But being unique is hard for the Plumlee brothers, all of whom are identical spores taken from an ur-Plumlee created when Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski cut off one of his fingers and planted in it in the ground. Mason Plumlee highlighted this difficulty by bringing out one of his 10,000 identical siblings and poorly re-creating a dunk contest classic.
Degree of Ease: 4
Hypothetically, it should be tough to dunk while leaping over a 6-foot-11 person. That said, Plumlee chose the easiest method of achieving that feat. Other dunkers have completed alley-oops, gone through the legs or behind the back, or thrown down reverses while dunking over other people. Plumlee just went with a plain, one-handed throwdown.
Lack of Creativity: 7
Several other contestants have dunked over people, and while some picked human hurdles with meaningful backstories—like when Nate Robinson dunked over Spud Webb in 2006, or when Gerald Green dunked over Nate Robinson in 2007—Plumlee chose to dunk over his brother Miles. I could not be less interested in a Plumlee brother reminding us of the thousands of other Duke Plumlee brothers.
Lack of Enthusiasm (Fans): 6
I think Plumlee’s inclusion in the dunk contest was designed to rev up the hometown crowd in Brooklyn, where he was playing at the time. But the Nets don’t even get much fan enthusiasm for Nets games. Plumlee briefly attempted to hype up the crowd; the fans were not interested.
Lack of Enthusiasm (Player): 10
This isn’t the funniest or least impressive dunk in the history of the contest, but my goodness, it might set a record for worst reaction by the dunker. Mason no-sells the dunk. Miles gives a polite clap to his brother. And most embarrassing of all, Mason attempts to give Miles a high-five while Miles goes for dap:
This is the sort of handshake confusion that happens when a 47-year-old advertising agent has a business meeting with a 22-year-old musician. How in the world does this happen between two brothers, who lived in the same house, attended the same college, and play in the same basketball league?
Lack of Execution: 6
Dunking over his 6-foot-11 brother would have been impressive, but Mason doesn’t quite clear Miles. Even though Miles notably leans forward for the dunk, taking a solid 4 or 5 inches off his height, Mason still needs to push off Miles’s back to get over the top. Even with a slouching brother and a push-off, he doesn’t make it over cleanly. There’s a ton of leg-to-shoulder and crotch-to-head contact.
It’s bad enough that this dunk was a retread, done to death by more talented dunkers than Plumlee. But worst of all, Mason dragged his nuts over his brother’s skull on national television.
4. Michael Finley’s Cartwheel (1997): 35 Points
Finley didn’t try a cool dunk. Instead, he invented a sort of dunk biathlon, in which he performed a task completely unrelated to dunking and then dunked. He didn’t do a particularly good job of either.
Degree of Ease: 9
Finley does two things here. First, he does a cartwheel, which elementary school phys-ed students have been doing since the introduction of gym mats. Next, he attempts a routine dunk—not one in which he jumps high, or puts the ball between his legs—just a dunk. Finley seemed to think doing these two things together made them interesting. His logic was flawed.
Lack of Creativity: 6
Again, Finley attempts a regular old dunk. There is also a cartwheel attached to this, for some reason.
Lack of Enthusiasm (Fans): 6
Lack of Enthusiasm (Player): 4
I’ll give Finley this: The cartwheel got everybody fired up. Sure, everybody was laughing at him, but people were excited, at least.
Lack of Execution: 10
First of all, Finley’s cartwheel is one of the worst in recorded history. I think the defining element of a cartwheel is how vertical one’s body gets. I don’t think Finley’s legs ever go higher than parallel to the ground. His cartwheel looks like all the falling pandas in this video of falling pandas. His body seems too clumsy to realize that gravity might affect it. Then he misses the totally regular dunk he was supposed to complete after the cartwheel.
What makes this dunk so special is that it should’ve been stopped even if Finley were good at doing cartwheels. He should have told somebody his concept, and that person should have responded, “Hey, Mike, great idea, but maybe try doing a cool dunk instead of doing a pre-dunk trick and then a regular dunk?” But Finley absolutely sucked at doing cartwheels. That same person should have seen Finley practice this dunk and said, “Hey, Mike, again, great idea, but your cartwheel looks like my 6-year-old accidentally mistook Fireball for apple juice and got dangerously drunk before gymnastics practice. You really shouldn’t do this.”
Nobody stopped Finley, and bad dunking history was made.
3. Allan Houston Goes Off the Head (1994): 36 Points
Houston should not have been in the dunk contest. Anyone who remembers his career remembers him as a shooter, not as a high flier. But shortly before the 1994 contest, reigning champion Harold Miner suffered a back injury, so in stepped Houston. With little prep time and perhaps even less dunking ability, Houston put together a dull routine, capping it off with some comic relief:
Degree of Ease: 10
In 2005, Amar’e Stoudemire got a 50 for one of the more logistically difficult dunks of all time. He passed the ball so that it bounced off the backboard directly to the head of his teammate Steve Nash. Nash, a former soccer player, headed the ball back to Amar’e, who slammed it home.
If Nash looked like a professional soccer player delivering an accurate header, Houston looks like a sea lion booping a balloon at the aquarium. Then, after the booping, the dunk is extremely basic. As with Finley’s, this is a completely normal dunk preceded by an unimpressive physical activity.
Lack of Creativity: 8
Houston basically just freestyled out there. All three of his dunks in 1994 were based on doing something random before the dunk, then throwing down a light, straightforward jam. The head boop was the dumbest pre-dunk activity, as well as the most straightforward jam.
Lack of Enthusiasm (Fans): 7
Again, Houston mainly succeeded in making people laugh at him. Here are some faces of players during the first few dunks of his routine:
And here they are after the boop:
Lack of Enthusiasm (Player): 5
Houston tried his best to make this dunk look cool by hanging on the rim and kicking out his legs afterward. It didn’t work.
Lack of Execution: 6
Houston doesn’t bounce the ball particularly high off his head, nor does he bounce it in the direction of the hoop. This probably could’ve been done in one fluid motion—boop, jump, catch, dunk—but Houston needed to track the ball off his head, catching it while practically still on the ground.
2. Nick Anderson Touches His Head (1992): 37 points
There’s no good story with this one. It’s just a guy touching his head while dunking. If we’re memorializing lack of ambition and inventiveness, this is the all-time champion:
Degree of Ease: 10
The gist of this dunk is that Anderson runs his hand through his hair while dunking. That’s it. The announcer somewhat optimistically theorizes that Anderson was covering his eyes, as Dee Brown had the year before. But the video (and much clearer photo evidence) reveals that Anderson wasn’t blocking his vision. (The lone YouTube video of this dunk is titled “Nick Anderson Blindfold Dunk 1992.” If whoever runs the Pro Hoops Daily account is reading this, I humbly request that this is changed.)
Lack of Creativity: 10
I cannot stress this enough: This is just a completely standard dunk, except Anderson briefly rubs his head while dunking. He didn’t even pat his belly.
Lack of Enthusiasm (Fans): 4
Lack of Enthusiasm (Player): 8
The crowd gets excited about this dunk, with an instant reaction shot cutting to one fan holding up a “10” sign and another fan enthusiastically clapping. The only explanations for this are (a) the crowd also thinking that Anderson somehow covered his eyes, or (b) the crowd being ready to cheer for Anderson no matter what, since the event was held in Orlando that year, when Anderson was on the Magic. Just three years earlier, this city had no pro sports teams; I can’t blame Orlandoans for being happy to explode with joy for a guy dunking a basketball while rubbing his head.
Anderson seems pleased with himself, too. I think it’s possible that he just really liked his haircut and was proud to show it off.
Lack of Execution: 5
Touching your head while dunking is extremely easy for most NBA players. I’m giving him a 5 even if I don’t think Anderson could’ve dunked while touching his head much better.
1. Baron Davis’s Blindfold Misadventure (2001): 50 points
The first four dunks are all from early rounds of the competition. The dunkers weren’t good and didn’t have good ideas, thus resorting to easy and/or boring dunks they still couldn’t pull off. This last one, though, is the story of a would-be dunk champion who literally slammed his hopes of winning into the ground.
Davis could’ve won the 2001 contest by getting a score of 46 or higher on his final dunk. Instead, he did this:
Davis received a 32. (Somehow, this was two points higher than the minimum score of 30. Someone interview Julius Erving and Danny Ainge about why they thought Davis aimlessly hurling a ball nowhere near the rim was worth seven points instead of six.) Desmond Mason won the contest.
I have spent more time thinking about this Davis miss than I have spent thinking about any NBA Finals ever. It is, by leaps and bounds, the worst dunk in the history of the contest.
Degree of Ease: 2
Davis attempts the most difficult dunk in the history of the sport—a dunk during which he genuinely could not see the rim.
He was inspired by Cedric Ceballos, who won the 1992 competition (the same one in which Anderson rubbed his head) with a perfect 50, scored on a dunk that required him to run three-quarters of the court and dunk while blindfolded. It’s obvious to anybody with any critical-thinking skills that Ceballos could see through his blindfold. He changed directions at the free throw line because his initial run-up angle was misaligned from the rim—a decision he could not have made if he couldn’t see. Perhaps most damningly, he tilted his head upward toward the rim when preparing to dunk, keeping his eye level focused on the rim. Because he could see the rim.
Davis could not. It turns out dunking without sight is almost impossible.
Lack of Creativity: 10
It’s bad enough that this was a carbon copy of a dunk from a previous dunk contest. But what seals the lack of creativity crown is that Davis apparently didn’t think through the logistics. He either assumed that Ceballos had really been blindfolded in 1992 and that dunking without vision was easy, or he wanted to cheat and failed. After all, we can see the slits in Davis’s headband—Kenny Smith nearly busts a lung laughing about them on the broadcast—but Davis wasn’t wise enough to cheat successfully.
Lack of Enthusiasm (Fans): 8
I’m not sure they were bored—stunned? confused?—but it definitely wasn’t a good thing.
Lack of Enthusiasm (Player): 10
Davis’s post-dunk reactions are perhaps the most baffling part of this entire baffling experience. At first, he seems genuinely surprised that he’s missed. Next, he turns to his dunk partner, Charlotte teammate David Wesley, to confess that he really couldn’t see through the blindfold. My guy: We know. When interviewed by Craig Sager, Davis sheepishly explains that Wesley was supposed to stop him if the dunk was going poorly. My guy: Of course it was going poorly.
And now is where we add some Ceballosesque 20/20 hindsight to the situation. In a 2017 interview with The Starters, Davis said that the missed dunk was all part of his plan. He wanted to miss a dunk attempt first to trick the crowd into thinking he couldn’t see, then make a dunk to win the contest. But after chucking the ball into the ground, dunk contest officials told him he couldn’t have another try. (Davis muddled the situation by admitting he was surprised that he couldn’t see, suggesting that perhaps the hypothetical second dunk would not have been a success.)
If Davis’s master plan to win the contest was actually foiled by over-literal enforcement of rules nobody cares about, why didn’t he protest? He just goes back to the bench with an “aw, shucks!” attitude. He’s so chill about the whole thing. That does kind of check out, because Baron Davis is a top-10 all-time Chill Dude. But still: Why not protest even a little? Davis’s “aw, shucks!” demeanor about his failure is hilarious if he really thought he could make the dunk, and confusing if he had a grand plan.
Lack of Execution: 20
I’m giving Davis two perfect 10s for lack of execution. Because whether taken on face value or given the context, this was horrendously done.
Judging this solely as a dunk, it is the worst attempt in the history of the contest, or the league as a whole. The broadcast view, shot from behind Davis, doesn’t show how much he missed by. Here’s a profile view grabbed by Got ‘Em Coach:
Davis misses the rim by, what, four feet? He wasn’t even dunking in the right direction. On a literal level, this is the worst dunk contest dunk ever, because it was the least accurate of all time. It might also be the only dunk contest dunk to miss the entire basket-backboard-stanchion apparatus.
And as a gag, Davis’s dunk is somehow even more embarrassing. I accept three possible interpretations of what happened. The first is that Davis genuinely believed Ceballos could not see, and thought his feat would be easy to replicate. The second is that Davis was trying to fool everybody by cutting eye holes in his blindfold, but couldn’t see through the holes, and went ahead with the dunk anyway. I can’t think of a better example of lack of execution than trying to cheat and failing.
But even if we accept Davis’s interpretation of what happened, he still should have done better. If his plan was to do one bad dunk to trick the crowd and then do one amazing dunk to win the contest … shouldn’t he have explained that to somebody? Players now bring out cars, musical acts, and entire baskets—stuff that obviously has to be approved by the league in advance. Davis couldn’t have had somebody OK his ruse? Or at least checked whether a second dunk attempt would be allowed?
One of these explanations suggests Davis was gullible, another that he was stupid, and the third that he was merely ill-prepared. It’s possible he was all three. I don’t know which is the worst, or which is the most accurate—but we don’t need to know. By any standard, this was the worst NBA Slam Dunk Contest dunk attempt of all time, the sort of glorious failure that makes the event one of the most entertaining in the sports world.
You can have your players lifting up trophies. I’ll take Davis hurling a basketball into the ground nowhere near the vicinity of a rim. There’s always an explanation for how and why players achieved great successes; I will spend the rest of my life parsing the reasoning behind Davis’s disaster.