The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.
The modern history of NBA All-Star Weekend is defined by a simmering anxiety about whether or not the event sucks and, if so, what to do about it. In the Association’s insurgent days, when it was hustling for the scraps left behind after audiences feasted on football and baseball and even boxing, when watching a live NBA game on television was close to impossible, the event’s reason for existence was plain: promote an underappreciated league and its players.
Today, the NBA is a cultural force. Teams are garnering historic valuations, and the players have more leverage and money than ever. The nightmare scenario for modern players, their teams, and the NBA, is getting injured in an exhibition game. Leaving aside this year’s successful Elam ending experiment, the result is listless, defenseless All-Star Games, followed by several news cycles of discussion about how bad they were.
No surprise, then, that the dunk contest has taken on outsize importance. It is the crown jewel of All-Star Saturday Night. If the dunk contest is a dud, as it often has been, then what the hell are we even doing here?
All of which brings us to this year’s dunk contest, a thrilling, non-sucking event, held on February 15, 2020. Or, roughly 150 years ago at the current pace of the world. After Pat Connaughton and a cringe-inducing Dwight Howard were eliminated, it all came down to a slam-for-slam duel between Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic and Derrick Jones Jr. of the Miami Heat. Gordon, whose 2016 battle with Zach LaVine was the greatest dunk contest ever and who can fairly be called a dunk contest specialist at this point in his career, came into the final round having thrown down two 50-point dunks.
The duel was notable for its heavy use of human props. I simultaneously love and hate this approach. There’s a limited number of ways the human body can contort itself and, at this point, we’ve seen them all. Adding a flesh-and-blood person to the mix, risking serious injury for basically no reason other than to make someone else look good, juices the stakes considerably. That said, I do not know why anyone would agree to be used as a dunk prop and I am certain that one day some poor soul will be maimed on live television when, I don’t know, Zion Williamson or whoever mistimes their steps and ends up compacting a dude’s neck vertebrae with his crotch. Alas.
Derrick Jones Jr., celebrating his 23rd birthday, opened up by windmilling between his legs over two people. Aaron Gordon responded by terrorizing Chicago native Chance the Rapper. Just look at Chance’s face as it makes the journey from nervousness to “I just peed myself” to “Thank god I’m alive” in less than two seconds.
Jones came back by leaping over a person, catching a pass off the backboard for yet another windmill. Gordon, eschewing a dunk boy, attacked baseline, caught a pass (thrown by Markelle Fultz) off the side of the glass one-handed, then spun 360, and dunked it. Players on the sideline, including Trae Young and Giannis Antetokounmpo, roiled. Every dunk a 50, all tied up.
Reggie Miller and Kenny Smith, working the microphones for TNT and echoing the thoughts of many watching, began agitating for a shared trophy. Thankfully, that did not happen. But I’ll get to that shortly.
Jones opened the extra round with his own baseline betwixt-the-legs windmill off the side of the glass. 50. Gordon dunked over Chance again, and by this point the rapper had spent so much time between Gordon’s legs that he should release an album about the player. Another 50. Jones windmilled from a step inside the free throw line. And there it was, a 48. For a moment, it seemed as if Gordon would benefit from Jones getting robbed by Candace Parker (9) and Chadwick Boseman (9, and really fucking tired of doing the Wakanda symbol). The sideline howled.
For his championship-icing dunk, Gordon gazed into the crowd and called Tacko Fall, all 7-foot-5 of him, to the court. (Shaq, his first choice, wisely declined.) Fall smiled nervously; he clearly did not want to go. But after what can only be described as ruthless bullying by his peers, Gordon, Shaq, the TNT production team, and probably Adam Silver, Fall reluctantly ambled to the floor.
Gordon then jumped over Fall and threw down a basic two-handed slam. Now, here’s the thing. Despite Kenny Smith’s declaration that Gordon “didn’t even touch him,” Gordon did, in fact, touch Tacko. He sat on Tacko’s neck like it was a bicycle seat.
But, whatever. Tacko is seven-and-a-half-feet tall. “If you dunk over Tacko, you win,” Smith said. It seemed a fait accompli. Then the scores came out. Two 10s and three 9s, one from Bozeman, Parker, and Dwyane Wade. Wade—Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade—cast the deciding vote, handing the trophy to, essentially, his teammate Derrick Jones Jr.
Now it was Gordon who had been robbed. Later it would emerge that the judges had agreed to end the contest in a tie, with Wade, allegedly, going back on the agreement. “We thought it was going to be tied,” Common told ESPN. “We were like, ‘This is a tie.’ … But somebody didn’t do it right. I don’t know who it is.” Parker, for her part said, “I ain’t throwing anyone under the bus … buttttt check the score card.”
Gordon, inconsolable at losing a fucking dunk contest, declared himself through with them. “Jumping over someone 7-foot-5 and dunking it is no easy feat,” he said. “It’s a wrap, bro. I feel like I should have two trophies.”
Be that as it may, this moment was unforgettable in large part because of the controversy. Look at past contests. Aside from Vince Carter in 2000, the only ones we remember are the ones where someone got screwed. Dominique Wilkins in 1988, losing to Michael Jordan because the All-Star Game was in Chicago. Aaron Gordon losing to LaVine in 2016. And Gordon, again in 2020, because Wade voted with his heart.