1985: An NBA Slam Dunk Contest Retrospective

by Sandy Dover

It’s February 2010, 25 years since Michael Jordan broke out and revolutionized the game of basketball, and in doing so, one of his defining moments in his breakout year was the 1985 NBA Slam Dunk Championship…but I’m not going to get on Michael’s e-balls for the sake of it. MJ is merely the jumpoff point to revisit the past and observe the events that in retrospect became a changing of the guard of sorts.

I repeat: this is a revisiting and not a play-by-play of the moment iMichael Jordann time.

It’s funny, when the SportsCenter highlights are shown of that exhibition contest, we have usually seen quick clips of dynamic compilations of all the dunkers that night deliver fantastic aerial assaults. Noted and true, but upon my having watched the ’85 Contest on NBATV HD, and it was a different feel altogether. The players weren’t as enthused being there; the crowd was more audible and there wasn’t any menacing, asinine music playing; and in general, the players looked different. This was a time when the contests weren’t yet as acclaimed as they were now, and the legends of the event were yet to be truly developed. Rap and hip hop music weren’t the background to high-flying in the League and the players weren’t the muscular behemoths that they are in present day. Even the shoes were quaint, if not downright mundane (all-whites with team hues as the trim colors—it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the kicks were about as square as a pack of white tube socks).

Many things stand out about the players themselves, which in fact, makes the entire Slam Dunk Championship stand out. Larry Nance was the defending champ from ’84, having won with a reverse two-ball dunk. He was mainly stoic and having already won, looked about as motivated to jump as Charles Barkley is motivated to leave his leather recliner while downing a jelly donut.

Orlando Woolridge got some brief time in, and emphatically was beat out of the contest. Darrell Griffith, the “Skywalker”, showed his stuff, and didn’t look nearly as short being a 6-4 shooting guard as one would think he would standing next to guys 6-9 and 6-10. Terence Stansbury would make his initial appearance with an array of 360s and awkward tomahawk jams, which were highlighted further from his “Statue of Liberty” dunk—this was merely the first of missed opportunities in the affair.

Julius Erving had gotten a bye in the contest to move along to the second round of the gala, and while he was there seemingly for Michael Jordannostalgic purposes, “The Doctor” did show a pulse. Of course, he bowed out having gone through all of his old stuff (the cuff dunk, the free-throw line dunk, the reverse jam from-the-wing) and even bothered to try and win off of the same dunk that Nance won on the previous year.

Young MJ came along and soared for a little while in his signature black and red Air Jordan warm-ups, before stripping down to his matador red Chicago Bulls road uni. An awkward side jam here, a remix version of Dr. J’s cuff dunk there, a reverse slam and a truer-to-form edit of The Doctor’s free-throw take-off gave him the honorable title of…first loser. Had you known better, you might not have thought that Jordan cared much to be there (certainly Isiah Thomas was building a case against the young rookie, as the point guard was shouting winning suggestions for Michael’s final round competitor as he sat on the hardwood floor).

Of course, most aficionados (or lazy Googlers) already know that “The Human Highlight Film” Dominique Wilkins won his first title that very event, upstaging everyone with his patented two-leg launch-offs that turned into Shawn Kemp predecessors at the rim, and he was easily the one that seemed the most serious about winning the crown of king of the NBA’s dunk elite. The sheer power of ‘Nique is magnified when you consider how sleek he was. At least 20 pounds under his more famed silhouette, he moved more like a jaguar leaping into the air and pounding the ball down.

I looked at this entire thing on television, and was amazed at how nonchalant and seemingly unimportant the whole thing seemed to be. The crowd was mesmerized, but the players seemed so cool, I was waiting for Mr. Freeze to come out and let everyone know that he spiked all the guys’ Gatorade with a delayed-action suspended animation concoction.

Nate Robinson was my favorite to win the 2010 contest, but I didn’t have any expectations for him. Those who have watched the changes in the dunks, players and various formats of the championships can attest to varying degrees of interest and apathy. I myself have both loved and disdained many of the February classics, since I first started watching in 1995. Nothing will probably top the 2000 and 2008 events, and though I abhorred 2001’s showing, nothing has struck me with the boredom of 1985.

It’s unforgettably forgettable.

Sandy Dover is a novelist/writer, artist and fitness enthusiast, as well as an unrepentant Prince fan (for real). You can find Sandy frequently here at SLAMonline, as well as at Associated Content and Twitter.