Six ways to improve the Dunk Contest.
We should have known better. When you look at a Slam Dunk Contest that features Nate “The Leaping Leprechaun” Robinson as the favorite, you should be prepared for an underwhelming performance. No disrespect to Nate, who is the only three time Slam Dunk Contest champion, but those titles should come with an asterisk. His first title came because he was allowed seventeen attempts to make his winning dunk. His second win came in large part from Dwight Howard allowing the Knick to fly over him in a “Kryto-Nate trumps Superman” slam. The third title? Please. As far as I am concerned, it wasn’t DeMar DeRozan who lost. That dishonor falls to the fans who had to sit through the worst Slam Dunk Contest of all time.
It’s clear that what was once the highlight of All-Star Saturday is now desperately in need of a large amount of tweaking. Here are a few ways we can change the Slam Dud Contest back into an explosive event.
1. It’s time for “King” James to put up or shut up.
OK, let me say this: I am a LeBron fan. I own the 2002 “Chosen One” issue of Sports Illustrated and watched his pro debut against Sacramento with great anticipation. I even laugh at the his Nike puppet commercials. But enough is enough. Last year in Phoenix, LeBron claimed that he was going to enter the Dunk Contest, only to bail out at the last moment. I’ll say what others should say. LeBron, either put the mythical crown up for grabs or step off the throne. I watched at least two past Slam Dunk Contests this weekend in which “rumors were flying that LeBron would dunk next year!” Yeah, about that… At this rate, we may as well call LeBron “The Invisible Man” when it comes to backing up the hype in the Dunk Contest. A McDonald’s High School All-Star Game Dunk Contest trophy isn’t enough for me. Sorry.
Sadly, it’s a perceived no win situation for James if he goes into the competition. If he is victorious, critics will say he was expected to do so and will get no props. If he loses to inferior competition, the shine will have worn off of King James’ crown. I think this is one time in which perception doesn’t equal reality. A win by James will solidify his place among the fans, a la Michael Jordan. A loss can’t hurt him as much as he thinks. He would still gain respect for competing and putting his name on the line. He would be Apollo Creed to everyone else’s Rocky. James already has a rep for being afraid of criticism. Go back to how quickly Nike scrambled to make sure nobody saw footage of him getting dunked on by Jordan Crawford last summer. Gasp! LeBron is human! Noooo! As if we didn’t know this by watching his jumper. Sorry, LeBron. I hope this doesn’t ruin any potential future encounters. You are a great player and potentially one of the top five players ever, depending on how your career plays out. Now show us that you will sacrifice some ego for the good of the Association. It needs it. If you enter, they (the other superstars) will come. If you don’t, so be it, but the mind games have to stop, once and for all.
2. Put the D in Dunk.
By that we mean D-League. The NBA’s Developmental League has failed to get the respect some of the up and comers in the League deserve. It could get a little by having their best dunkers show up for the Slam Dunk Contest. Players who have been in the D-League like James White, who can actually dunk from beyond the free throw line (unlike almost every Dunk Contest contestant who tries), and Dar Tucker have hops that would be hard for the NBA stars to handle. The concept would work two-fold for David Stern. He could promote an otherwise overlooked league and push the NBA players to let it all hang out against “inferior” competition. If the NBA wins, Stern could truly say they are the best the world has to offer. And if you really want to open it up, allow the And 1 players to come in. Or just let Taurian “The Air Up There” Fontenette in and we will watch him drop 720s on everyone. Then again, that is exactly what the NBA is afraid of.
3. Make a team Dunk Contest.
The magic of an All-Star game is that it offers us a chance to see the greatest players ball together as teammates. Let’s apply that theory to the Dunk Contest. Each conference gets four representatives who will be paired up against an opponent from the other conference. In the event that one conference has more dominant dunkers, as is the case currently, we could just let the fans and NBA choose match-ups to make it more balanced. Going back to the D-League and AND 1 concept, we would include one match-up of amateur dunkers who will square off against each other.
An additional perk would be the naming of the teams. Why? Merchandising, son. Nike could jump in the mix and make limited edition jerseys for each team. And for the sake of sparking debate, we would even name them after the greatest player of all time and the cat who is most often compared to him. Maybe we would even make them honorary coaches. The rosters would look something like this.
Team Jordan vs. Team Kobe
LeBron James vs. Dwight Howard
Kevin Durant vs. Josh Smith
Nate Robinson (You have to include the defending champ) vs. Andre Iguodala (who has a chance to exact some revenge for the 2006 Contest.)
Taurian Fontenette vs. James White
Yeah, we’re thinking we might watch that event. Even now it’s easy to imagine Michael and Kobe mouthing off to each other on the sidelines. You know Michael would want to win this badly. The dude gets into a lather over playing Old Maid, for crying out loud.
Each round could be decided by combining the individual dunker’s scores after three dunks, highest score in each match-up winning. The team with the most individual winners from the match-ups is declared team champion. In the event of a tie, MJ and Kobe each choose a single player to face off. Or you could make it a knock-out tournament, with the winner of each match-up moving on to face another opponent until nobody from the other team is left. Throw in a round where all teammates have to help each other on a dunk and you truly have something never seen before in the Dunk Contest.
4. Don’t choose judges who aren’t great dunkers.
I was watching replays of the former Slam Dunk Contests and saw way too many judges that aren’t great at the art of flight. Having former greats from the respective city the All-Star Game takes place in is fun, but I don’t need to see someone like Dan Majerle be a judge in Phoenix. That’s like asking P. Diddy to judge a freestyle contest when Canibus or Jay-Z is available. The downside to this idea is that former great dunkers will be harder on the competitors, but the upside is that we don’t have to wonder why Chris Mihm made his way into the judging committee when it takes place in L.A. next year. Just kidding. I just wanted to make a Chris Mihm reference. Chris, you can pay me later.
5. Give us more than four contestants.
A field of eight players works. We need a Dunk Contest with some stars, some dark horses and some D-Leaguers. Variety, as the cliche warriors say, is a spice of life. This past contest we were offered a bucket full of vanilla. For those who are worried that the Contest will be watered down, we can fix this by making a time limit on dunks and a limit on how many misses each dunker can have. (Sorry, Nate. You won’t get to attempt that 50th try. Maybe mix in something you can actually handle.) A more diversified, disciplined and efficient contest will result in more excitement for the fans, as well as more players we can cheer for.
6. Nothing draws attention like money and shiny objects.
Commissioner David Stern is claiming the NBA will lose $400 million in revenue this season, a sad state of affairs. You would never know it though, given that fifth row seats for All-Star Saturday were going for a reported $400. I say we demand that Stern puts a lot of that money into incentives for the stars to participate. The fans deserve as much. Do whatever you have to do to get the best players dunking in the Contest. Some of the greatest entertainers in the game have made their name from this competition. Vince. Kobe. Dominique. Jordan. Offer the stars a hell of a lot of money and a car at half-court (that they can try to jump if they want) to enter. They can have the winnings matched with money that will go to charity. Shaquille O’Neal said the winnings should go to help the victims in Haiti. Sounds good to me.
Also, let the players choose music, lighting, outfits and how high they want the rim to be. I’ve never understood why you would put limitations on creativity in an event that lives or dies by it. Give us Cedric Ceballos dunking with a blindfold. Josh Smith can rock the ‘Nique jersey. Let this decade’s Superman, Dwight Howard, leap tall players with a single bound as he wears a cape. Hell, have Cleveland Cavalier players carry in LeBron on a throne as Shaquille O’Neal, Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall sing “She’s your Queen to Be,” for all I care. This event is about spark and spectacle. Show me more WWE and less WNBA. Sorry, Candace Parker.
The NBA may not know this yet but the event is on life support. As of now, it’s making the Winter Olympics look watchable. Give us the goods, Commissioner Stern, and we will come back for more. Fail to do so and the Slam Dunk Contest is going to continue to fall flatter than a Gerald Wallace dunk attempt. Which sounds better? You be the judge.