Where Damon Stoudamire gets his pot.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The NBA dunk contest continually ranks as one of the top moments in any NBA season and the hallmark event of All-Star Weekend. (As much as I enjoy Bill Laimbeer and Michael Cooper tanking half-court shots with WNBA players whose team names elude me at the moment...) My first memories of the dunk contest are as follows: the older guys at school putting the ball through their legs and sorta-dunking on the monkey bars a la Isaiah Rider (no word on whether they emulated anything from Rider's personal life); and watching my first televised dunk contest, the year in which Brent Barry defied the racial odds and beat out such NBA luminaries as Jerry Stackhouse & Michael Finley. (Rick got the scoring prowess, Brent the hops, Jon the, uh, broadcasting skills?)

For any basketball fan who is beginning, in childhood, to take awe of the game and its freakish levels of athleticism, the dunk contest becomes an annual event of pure indulgence: for a moment we take away all the notions of 'proper' basketball - as preached by coaches at any level - and eschew its constrictions in favour of basketball's equivalent of candy. The game frequently dazzles on any given night, but there's also the final three minutes of a game (which take a good twenty to thirty minutes to complete), the lackadaisical beginnings of the third quarter, and the overall gamesmanship (READ: defense) which requires teams to put away any notions of the spectacular.

Vince Carter, in an interview with the Toronto media several years ago, said he was going to stop dunking. That two points were two points. That, basically, dunking was a frivolous skill. (At this point, Vince was already wildly unpopular with the Toronto media and, days later, was dunking during games.) And sure, he's right - a dunk and a lay-in are worth the same on the score sheet. But a lay-in doesn't inspire, nor does it make the highlight reels or ensure any level of endorsement. The foundation of basketball is built on the spectacular.

My cynical eleven-year-old self noted that Barry, in his winning foul-line dunk, had technically taken off from inside the line, if one were going by the location of his toes. Yet it was still the stuff that sent kids to their six or seven-foot rims.

Over the years the dunk contest has gone through some great highs and the occasional lull, but the same enthusiastic sentiment remains. However, if I could find one fault in the current system, it's that the NBA is doing everything to discourage its superstars from participating. Sure, we occasionally get players like Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudamire, but we've had some underwhelming winners, players like Gerald Green who don't see any significant NBA minutes. The Dunk Contest, I believe, should be about the best dunkers in the league. So yes, Green deserves a spot. But there are players like Lebron James who possess otherworldly athletic abilities and vertical leap, yet would never go near the dunk contest, and frankly, are afraid to do so.

In the dunk contest years post-Carter (there's room for another jab at VC), the superstar player has shown apprehension with taking part. Let's take a look at Carter's dunk contest year: Vince Carter, Steve Francis, Tracy McGrady, Jerry Stackhouse, Ricky Davis, and Larry Hughes all participated. Regardless of how we all feel about their respective talents, the fact remains that four all-stars competed in that competition and two elite-level players. The contestants from 2008 featured Dwight Howard (a superstar), Rudy Gay (nice sophomore player), Gerald Green (one year from a career in Italy), and Jamario Moon (energy player, ultimately nothing special).

Another point: Jordan participated in the dunk contest on three occasions, Dominique Wilkens an astonishing five times. Dr. J participated in two during the twilight of his career and on neither occasion did he win. The dunk competition has become an exhibition for capable athletes who are largely one-dimensional, with maybe the room for one I-don't-give-a-fuck type superstar. And it's got more to do with the system.

What I loved about the Barry-era dunk contest was that you had 90 seconds to put together three dunks in the first round of competition, then 60 seconds for two dunks in the final round. Players would rattle off whatever they could in that amount of time. The pressure of nailing dunks on one opportunity didn't exist. You did what you could in the allotted time and saw how it panned out. Some things didn't work, others did. When some failed you had time to think up something on the spot and try it out. This was a free-wheeling era in dunk competitions.

But ultimately, the prospect of competing wasn't nearly as scary. The whole thing is hyped up so much these days, and rightly so, but with so few competitors and so little room for error, why would a superstar, someone of Lebron's caliber, risk embarrassment as a global audience tunes in? In Carter's day, there was at least some modicum of honour in winning the title. Now we're all too scared to step out and take some risks. The honour is still present, but the journey to that desired end result is difficult and not-at-all conducive to NBA stars. Let me repeat: Jordan competed in three of these things. The chances of Lebron competing in one is suspect. It's much more comfortable videotaping it, next to Damon Jones in a leopard suit, on the sidelines.

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