A wish list of 2020 slam dunk contest participants would likely include names such as Ja Morant and Zion Williamson, plus Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon for old times’ sake. There’s one name that Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young would add: his teammate, Vince Carter. Although Carter, now in his record 22nd and final NBA season, can still get up there, he is no ageless wonder. He’s 43, to be exact, and was drafted in 1998—the same year Young was born. And it’s that very year, 1998, that the NBA suspended the dunk contest after it had spent a decade on the decline. Electing not to hold the competition at Madison Square Garden, the NBA’s premiere stage at the time, was a testament to its dwindling relevance. Everyone knows the narrative from there: After the 1998-99 NBA lockout robbed fans (and the city of Philadelphia) of an All-Star Weekend in 1999, Carter—a first-time All-Star and one of the most exciting players in the league, much like Young today—revived All-Star Saturday Night’s marquee event and solidified himself as a star in 2000.
What Carter did at Oakland Arena 20 years ago was not only his most impressive feat in a year in which he also hurdled a 7-footer en route to a gold medal, but also the crowning achievement of his career. And that’s saying something. Carter isn’t merely a former dunk contest champ, he’s an eight-time All-Star who’s 19th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. The 2000 slam dunk contest will be referenced when he is inevitably enshrined in Springfield, Massachusetts, and it was the first moment of pride for the Raptors, just a few years removed from expansion-team purgatory. Carter’s performance isn’t simply part of his own hagiography, it’s NBA history. It was a boon for the league, a moment not just on par with Jordan and Dominique Wilkins’s legendary duel or 5-foot-7 Spud Webb defeating teammate Dominique Wilkins, but perhaps something greater.
A lack of star power and creativity effectively killed the dunk contest during the 1990s. Carter, however, was an ascendant star who attacked the rim the way Basquiat did a canvas. His dunks were bold, inventive, and polarizing. He has now played in four different decades, and many of his classic dunks remain as ingenious today as they were when he first pulled them off 20 years ago. Even today, it is the image of Carter, elbow deep in the rim, that looms over the competition in this millennium. For this reason—whether it’s with a brief video played in the United Center before the contest or maybe a full segment as part of TNT’s coverage—Carter deserves a formal tribute. As he bids adieu to the league he’s given his best for more than half of his life, we should recognize him for hoisting the dunk contest from its grave and into the modern era.
After becoming a phenomenon during the 1980s, the dunk contest peaked in the ’90s when Isaiah “J.R.” Rider made good on his draft day promise. It was 1994, and Rider, then a rookie guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, won the contest before his home crowd in Minneapolis with the same between-the-legs dunk he used to win the NCAA dunk contest a year prior. The “East Bay Funk Dunk” would be replicated for the rest of the decade: Rider attempted it again while defending his title in 1995, and it effectively won the contest for the late Kobe Bryant in 1997 as his prom date, Brandy, cheered him on. Part of why the NBA ceased the dunk contest is because everything had been done. Carter managed to elevate the East Bay Funk Dunk (in the Bay, no less) with his own take on it in 2000, and that was far from his most impressive display of the night. But as Carter told the camera immediately afterward, it was over. He owned the night after his first dunk, a one-handed 360 windmill where he spun the wrong way. That dramatically increased the degree of difficulty, yet Carter made it look easy.
Beyond Carter’s total fuck you to science, his energy was infectious. His bounce was just different, from the first three steps he took pre-dunk, to the three hops he took after landing it. He was alive and, by extension, so was the dunk contest. In the years before the contest was suspended, it had faced a lack of enthusiasm. There was a unique vigor to everything Carter did that night, and that energy reverberated around Oakland Arena. Carter was excited. Judges, Carter’s peers, and, most importantly, fans were excited. (It makes you wonder whatever happened to Shaq and Kevin Garnett’s camcorder footage from that night, because there’s no way the courtside commentary wasn’t amazing.) His showing was so outstanding that stellar performances by Tracy McGrady (who entered the contest begrudgingly, knowing it was futile) and Steve Francis are largely forgotten. Carter’s brilliance restored interest in the dunk contest among NBA fans and players alike.
Although Carter never returned to the contest, rising stars did. Baron Davis entered in 2001 and made the first of two All-Star teams the following year. Francis returned in 2002, the same year he made the first of three consecutive All-Star teams. Amar’e Stoudemire participated as a rookie in 2003, then again in 2005, when he made his first of six All-Star teams. The contest was fittingly known as the Sprite Rising Stars Dunk Contest by then. John Wall won in 2014, one day before playing in his first All-Star Game. He went up against Paul George, who was about to play in his second consecutive All-Star Game. Without Carter’s star-making turn in 2000, it’s possible you wouldn’t have any of the aforementioned examples, or Dwight Howard grasping for the stars as Superman in 2008, or Blake Griffin jumping over a Kia in 2011. He made household names want to be in the dunk contest again, which made people want to watch it again. Carter’s impact on the dunk contest is monumental, particularly among those who followed in his massive footsteps.
“I see all the [camera] flashes go off and I’m thinking, ‘Damn, this is what I used to watch all the time.’ And Dominique, Spud was there. Jordan. Dr. J. All of these people I’ve watched,” Carter told The Undefeated in 2018, recalling the moments after winning the dunk contest. “Now I’m in the circuit doing it for the next kid, the next dunker.”
The current average age in the NBA is 26. Where Carter grew up idolizing Dr. J, MJ, and Wilkins for what they did in the dunk contest, today’s players grew up dissecting Carter’s every move in the same way. They weren’t alive when Jordan and Wilkins faced off in Chicago in ’88, but they’ve grown up in an era when Carter’s presence rightfully looms over the dunk contest. The proof is in the contest itself. Then-Raptors swingman Terrence Ross won in 2013 on a tribute to Carter, donning a replica of the jersey the legend wore the night he became a legend. Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell did the same in 2018, shedding his own jersey in favor of a Barney-era Carter jersey before replicating Carter’s first dunk from the 2000 contest, known as “the Superfly,” and his mannerisms—down to the “It’s over.” “I figured it was only right to pay him a tribute,” Mitchell, who called Carter “one of [his] favorite dunkers of all time,” told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
Aaron Gordon, who went head-to-head with Zach LaVine in the best dunk contest in recent history, picked Carter over Jordan, Erving, and Wilkins to compete against LaVine, Ross, and himself in his dream dunk contest. Hornets forward Miles Bridges, whose power and explosiveness are reminiscent of Carter at times, lists the 2000 dunk contest as his favorite despite his youth. “In 2000 I was only 2 years old, so I just watched the reruns,” he told The Undefeated before competing in last year’s contest. “That’s my favorite one because Vince Carter and T-Mac are definitely in my top five for players and I enjoyed watching that one.” It took just a handful of dunks to make Carter a generational icon.
How do you properly repay a savior? Because that’s what Vince Carter is. The dunk contest (and, to an extent, the NBA) owes him a lot. He made it matter again, and that made him canon. What he did in the 2000 dunk contest is one of the first landmark pop culture moments of the 21st century—just consider how it’s been name-checked through the years in hip-hop. Grizzled Gen Xers like Onyx, millennials who caught it in real time like Bow Wow and Toronto native Drake, and Gen Zer Roddy Ricch (who, like Trae Young and Miles Bridges, was born the year Carter was drafted) have all made reference. So before Carter receives the inevitable tribute from the Raptors in his final game in Toronto on April 10, he should get a league-sanctioned commendation at the dunk contest this weekend. If it’s not with a video, maybe he can serve as a judge. There’s certainly precedent for a retiring legend to preside over a dunk contest: Michael Jordan, beret and all, was a judge in 2003, the year he walked away for good.
Vince Carter should receive something similar, if not more official. Carter, like Jordan, is 6-foot-6, but the shadow he cast over the dunk contest is immeasurable.
Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.