How do NBA players handle reverence in the dunk contest?
by Pardeep Toor
No one event in sport has the ability to immortalize and ascend a player to heights unknown like the NBA dunk contest. It is one night that has given Dikembe Mutumbo so much joy (he always shows up) and made millionaires, who also happen to be (over) grown men, leap out of their seats and film the events like they are witnessing their child’s first steps.
The strength of the competition lies in imagery. The NBA dunk contest is a stage production that thrives on flash photography, rather than discouraging it, with the playwrights being the individual players. From Vince Carter’s declaration that “it’s over,” Josh Smith dawning a Dominique Wilkins jersey for his final act, Dwight Howard’s superman cape (and kids extra-small jersey) and Nate Robinson’s custom-made kryptonite shoes – the event is a fictitious spectacle that thrives on image as a path to transcendence in the League.
The ideal of course is Michael – who was able to weave the image from a single night into the cultural fabric of this country and the world — en route to becoming one of the most famous people and brands to ever walk the earth. Not everyone can be a Jordan but that’s the potential the dunk contest holds – the creation of an image that has no bounds or rules and whose possibilities are limitless.
It’s possible for iconic moments to occur within the context of a game or playoff series but it’s much more difficult. Of the Los Angeles Lakers three championship and four finals appearances in the early 2000s, the lasting memory is Shaq pointing back at Kobe with both arms in the air, mouth-wide open in an “O” shape and a hop in his step that just stomped the Portland Trail Blazers out of the western conference finals. Of Jordan’s six championships the image of him crying on the ground in the locker room is the one I will always remember.
But in the dunk contest, all eyes are on the actors. They have the entire court at their disposable, an international audience (no pressure) and the freedom to express themselves in any way they like. The results are timeless – Dee Brown’s no-look, Andre Igoudala ducking from behind/underneath the backboard, Brent Barry’s windbreaker, Nate Robinson’s many attempts (he will never out live that), Vince Carter’s through-the-legs and arm in the rim and Dwight Howard’s superman cape throw down from atop the rim … among many more.
Although precious in the moment, the perceptions of contestants and winners change over time. An entire generation now remembers Dominique Wilkins as only a dunker as opposed to a ridiculously good basketball player. The names Gerald Green, Fred Jones and Isaiah Rider hold no particular meaning outside of the Wiki on past slam dunk winners.
Then there’s Vince Carter – a dunk contest revolutionary who has contrasted his past glory with fade-away threes. Living off reputation alone, Carter earned numerous starting All-Star births as fans became fixated with the portraits of the 2000 dunk contest yet that’s the exact image that he has combated ever since. In Toronto, Carter famously declared that he “doesn’t do that any more,” when asked about his lack of drive to the hoop and dunking. Each year his game has regressed further and further outside the key and into three-point land. With the dunk contest behind him and his immortality in the League no longer at stake, perhaps Carter became complacent and content with his contributions to the folklore of the game. The endless YouTube highlights were enough of a niche accomplishment that he no longer needed to expand his ambition to scoring titles, MVPs and God forbid, championships?
Dwight Howard is closely following Carter’s lead – breaking barriers in a mock competition with cape flung over his shoulder, custom-made Superman emblem etched on his chest and the ball being “dunked” with such aggression that the moment is never to be forgotten. His image is immortalized but his game is receding as his points, rebounds, blocks and shot attempts per game have fallen from their mark last year. The dunk contest is not solely to blame but it does succeed in over-hyping a player’s mark left on the game – inflating their accomplishments.
The annual highlights, top-10 countdowns and celebrity judging opportunities will last a lifetime and in some cases beyond, but if that’s all a player is remembered by at the end of his career, then somewhere along the line he went astray.
In the case of Carter and Howard, the dunk contest becomes an illusion of success rather than an obstacle in the way of greatness. Jordan and Kobe are the ideals – those who used the dunk competition as a stepping-stone towards more. With the right combination of flare and voracity, the dunk contest is an easy path to instant success but what a player does after the dunk contest will do more than immortalize an image – it will create a legacy.