High Definition

by February 09, 2010

by Brad Graham
(With additional reporting by Jeff Fox)

2010 – The Silver Anniversary
This Saturday night marks the Silver Anniversary of the NBA’s annual Slam Dunk Competition. The 2010 installment will take place at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, TX, with high flyers Shannon Brown, Gerald Wallace, defending champion Nate Robinson and either DeMar DeRozen or Eric Gordon competing for the right to be named the L’s best dunker.

(SIDE NOTE: That is, unless LeBron James surprises everyone by becoming some sort of last minute mystery dunker… In fact, it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities to see LBJ come running out from the stands, blocking one of Wallace’s attempts from behind, collecting the loose ball, dribbling (full steam down the court) before taking off from behind the foul line for a perfect two handed windmill – stealing the 2010 title and fulfilling his promise to compete… What? It could happen. A guy can dream, right?)

Before the “Dunk Off”; before Nate Robinson attempts to do what Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Jason Richardson and Harold Minor couldn’t – win three dunk titles – we felt it only fitting to flick through basketball’s history books and remind ourselves why we care about all 24 NBA Dunk Competition’s and their winners.

1976 – The (Brief) History Lesson
In 1976 the American Basketball Association found a new way to showcase the talents and athleticism of its stars by creating a competition that was more Olympic Diving than basketball contest.

Taking place in Denver, Colorado, ABA headliner Julius Erving was crowned the first Dunk Contest champion by leaping from (just inside) the foul line to create one of sports most iconic moments. If nothing else, Dr. J and the ABA introduced the world to the modern dunk contest, allowing future generations to dream about a new basketball aptitude.

Fittingly, the contest was introduced the same year the NCAA lifted its blanket ban on everyone’s favorite two pointer. Despite the ’76 season proving to be the ABA’s last, its gift to the game was soon swallowed up the NBA (once the two leagues merged) but the dunk contest remained dormant until David Stern resurrected it in his first season as Commissioner (’84), which also happened to coincide with Jordan’s arrival; just the ticket the contest needed.

Mimicking the flight path of its participants, the NBA’s All Star Saturday Night showpiece has soared to awe-inspiring heights, fallen back to earth and risen again (only to stumble). Its winners have enjoyed wide-ranging levels of fame (prior to participation) and contrasting levels of success (after their dunk coronation). Many have used the spotlight as a step towards transcendence while others purchased a fake I.D, sneaking into the 15 minutes of fame club, only to be thrown out later that night and denied access next “Weekend”.

10 Random But Interesting NBA Dunk Competition Facts
01. 1987 was the first year the NBA Dunk Competition was broadcast live.
02. Including this season, 96 different players will have competed in the NBA’s 25 Dunk Contest’s
03. 18 different Champions have been crowned with the Atlanta Hawks being the most successful franchise sporting four champions: Nique in ’85 and ’90; Webb in ’86 and J-Smoove in ’05.
04. Michael Jordan holds the record with seven perfect “50” scores.
05. Kobe Bryant remains the competitions youngest winner at 18 years.
06. Cedric Ceballos could see through the blindfold.
07. Kenny Walker’s 148.1 (in the ’89 Final) is the highest score recorded in any round.
08. The strangest Dunk Competition participants are: Ralph Samson (’84), Allan Houston (’94) and Doug Christie (’96).
09. Dominique Wilkins (1984, ’85, ’86, ’88, ’90) and Clyde Drexler (1984, ‘85, ’87, ’88, ’89) are tied for the title of most times competing with five.
10. Vince Carter’s showing in the 2000 competition still has 18,845 people shaking their heads in amazement.

The Competitions (And Why They Matter / We Remember Them)

Champion: Larry Nance, Phoenix Suns
Runner up: Julius Erving, Philadelphia 76ers
Why it matters: First
Featuring a who’s who of legendary dunkers from Julius Erving to Dominique Wilkins; from Clyde Drexler to Darrell Griffith the first official NBA Dunk Contest party was crashed by a relative dark horse – the Phoenix Suns’ Larry Nance – who stole the crown with his collection of cradle and windmill dunks. Note: Nance was later shipped to Cleveland in a deal that netted Phoenix big man Mark West; Olajuwon’s Nightmare, Kevin Johnson and Thunder Dan Majerle.

Champion: Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks
Runner up: Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Why it matters: Nique vs. MJ – Round One
Dominique’s Dunk Competition duel with Michael Jordan begins. In Jordan’s first dunk contest he made it all the way to the decider before being eliminated by ’Nique. Before Wilkins came on the scene, dunkers were pretty much grouped into one of two categories: power dunkers or graceful, finesse finishers. Wilkins melded these two approaches, finishing graceful, aerial dunks with jackhammer force; a style Shawn Kemp kept alive after Wilkins’ dunk comp days were put to bed.

Champion: Spud Webb, Atlanta Hawks
Runner up: Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks
Why it matters: Unlike Godzilla, Webb proves size doesn’t matter
It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. Make no mistake about it, Anthony Jerome (Spud) Webb was a little guy, coming in at only 5-6 and wasn’t expected to win, let alone dominate. With MJ missing the event (due to an injury), Webb’s teammate and the defending champion, Wilkins, was the favorite to prevail in Dallas. Wilkins was no match for the high flying Webb, whose 360’s and self-alley oops changed the perception about what the NBA’s little man could do. Thanks to Webb, height was no longer a valid excuse in the NBA (or on playground).

Champion: Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Runner up: Jerome Kersey, Portland Trail Blazers
Why it matters: Mike’s timeless high flying legacy is given a boost
Air Jordan lived to his billing, taking home his first crown. It’s unfathomable now to think that it took Michael Jordan until his third year in the League to win a dunk title. After being beat by ‘Nique his first year and injured his second, the third year proved a charm for MJ. After barely sneaking out of the first round, Jordan found his form and went on to best a very determined Jerome Kersey. Jordan’s leaning windmill from the baseline remains one of the finest dunks ever.

Champion: Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Runner up: Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks.
Why it matters: The greatest dunk contest of them all
In front of his adoring Chicago masses, MJ fought off a ferocious aerial attack from ‘Nique to defend his title. Wilkins vicious yet graceful dunks were no match for Air’s iconic double clutch foul-line throw down. This contest helped a generation of teenage boys get over Farrah Fawcett, electing to plaster Mike all over their bedroom walls.

Champion: Kenny Walker, New York Knicks
Runner up: Clyde Drexler, Portland Trail Blazers
Why it matters: Relatively unknown uses platform to become instant celebrity
Who the hell is Kenny Walker? Up until this point, Dunk Contest champions were a known commodity – either a star player or personality. The Knicks’ Kenny “Sky” Walker falls into neither of those categories. Through his first few years in the League, Walker proved to be a solid contributor to the Knicks, his was a name didn’t register with casual fans. That instantly changed one night in Houston, as Walker, with his pure white bike pants and gold chain dangling, knocked off Spud and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler for the title.

Champion: Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks
Runner up: Kenny Smith, Sacramento Kings
Why it matters: Teacher > Students
‘Nique proved you’re never too old to dunk. At 30 years old, Wilkins became the oldest slam dunk champ, a domain ruled before and since by the 20 something crowd. In the process he knocked off defending champ, Walker, as well as his own heir apparent (at least in terms of dunking style), Shawn Kemp. It also marked the end of an era, as Dominique was the last of the original dunk contest participants to throw down in the event.

Champion: Dee Brown, Boston Celtics
Runner up: Shawn Kemp, Seattle SuperSonics
Why it matters: The platform for selling sneakers is never the same
It’s gotta be the shoes. When Celtic guard Dee Brown bent down to pump up his black Reebok Pumps before dunking, ballers around the world rushed to their neighborhood Foot Locker to cop a pair for themselves. His leaning, eyes-covered dunk in the ’91 Final was enough to send the man-child Shawn Kemp home empty-handed (again) and continued the big-man bias in the contest that would last for another 17 years. Remember kids: Stay In School.

Champion: Cedric Ceballos, Phoenix Suns
Runner up: Larry Johnson, Charlotte Hornets
Why it matters: Athleticism gives way for the gimmick
Because it marked the beginning of the end for the Dunk Contest. Cedric Ceballos fought off a spirited attack by Converse pitchman, Larry “Grandmama” Johnson in the Final. The ’92 edition featured little in terms of awe-inspiring throw downs when compared to years past. The closest thing to a memorable moment was when Ceballos dunked blindfolded – a hotly debated topic to this day. Whether he could really see or not isn’t as concerning as the fact the contest had become more jester folly than Star Wars medallion ceremony.

Champion: Harold Miner, Miami Heat
Runner up: Clearance Weatherspoon, Philadelphia 76ers
Why it matters: The best athlete / dunker won
Minor was the first to bear the brunt of the unfair Jordan comparison. Despite only being a rookie, Harold Miner already had the “Baby Jordan” handle bestowed upon him from his days balling at the University of Southern California. Fittingly, the player Miner beat in the finals also was carrying around the weight of unreasonable expectations – Clarence Weatherspoon was dubbed “The Next Charles Barkley”. Miner’s powerful reverse double pumped and 360 cuffed windmill were so nasty that people in Utah are still begging for forgiveness.

Champion: Isaiah Rider, Minnesota Timberwolves
Runner up: Robert Pack, Denver Nuggets
Why it matters: Four words: East. Bay. Funk. Dunk
For the first time in years, a contestant pulled off a dunk that most people hadn’t seen before. When Isaiah “J.R.” Rider ran the baseline, elevated, put the ball under his leg before hammering it home, our collective jaws dropped. Charles Barkley dubbed it possibly the best dunk he’s ever seen. This turned out to be the troubled Rider’s career peak. It’s rare to see an athlete proclaim he’s going to win a competition against professional on draft day, more of it we say. Note: James Robinson’s shoes are currently on eBay.

Champion: Harold Miner, Miami Heat
Runner up: Isaiah Rider, Minnesota Timberwolves
Why it matters: Clash of the new dunk comp titans
Harold Miner reappeared in the dunk contest in ‘95 to reclaim his title from defending champ J.R. Rider. Unfortunately the contest was more remarkable for the amount of missed dunks, compared to the completed ones. The dunk contest was now officially on the decline. Miner repeated his best work from ’93 to reclaim the title and with no real star in sight, the Contest’s repetition showed. It’s repetition showed. It’s repetition showed. So what ever happened to Jamie Watson?

Champion: Brent Barry, Los Angeles Clippers
Runner up: Michael Finley, Phoenix Suns
Why it matters: Because white men CAN jump
The movie might claim that they can’t, but the Clippers Brent Barry proved that anyone can dunk, regardless of their race, color or creed. With his floppy hair and Clippers warm-up jacket covering his skinny upper body, Rick’s son killed it, giving the contest the Dr. J./Jordan treatment with his version of the free throw line dunk. Despite being somewhat of a one trick pony, Barry helped remind everyone that the Clippers’ curse doesn’t carry over into All Star Weekend.

Champion: Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Runner up: Chris Carr, Minnesota Timberwolves
Why it matters: The ugly truth about Kobe Bryant
Back in ’97, Kobe Bryant was still a skinny 18-year-old who was only months removed from taking pop singer Brandy to his high school prom. Regardless, he showed his killer but cocky instinct and cool, somewhat icy demeanor, knocking off older and more experienced competitors. Possibly the weakest dunk contest to date (although Darvin Ham’s touch the glass reverse dunk was cooler than Don Draper).

Champion: Everyone who didn’t want to see Kobe win the contest again
Runner up: Who won 2-Ball would make for an excellent trivia question
Why it matters: All Flights have been delayed until further notice

Champion: Sanity (because it meant no more 2-Ball)
Runner up: NBA Players – could you imagine an overweight dunk comp?
Why it matters: All Flights have been delayed until further notice

Champion: Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors
Runner up: Steve Francis, Houston Rockets
Why it matters: Perfection in the form of a dunk
Dually marking the contest’s resurrection and its death, high riser Vince Carter’s awe-inspiring, brilliant performance helped bring the dunk contest back (with an authority that saw him eclipse MJ, ‘Nique and Dr. J) after its two year hiatus. Unfortunately his performance was so off-the-charts that no other competitor in the near future could come close to matching it, pushing the dunk contest back as much as he brought it forward. Air Canada was in full flight in Oakland, wowing with a 360-degree windmill that seems more dreamscape than reality. Perhaps the dunk most remembered is the chicken wing that left V.C hanging on the rim with his elbow. Steve Francis unquestionable helped push Carter with a collection of dunks that would have seen him walk away with the win (if only it were any other year).

Champion: Desmond Mason, Seattle SuperSonics
Runner up: DeShawn Stevenson, Utah Jazz
Why it matters: The gift and the curse
It became apparent that no one could top Vince. Just like musicians wouldn’t want to follow a James Brown performance, it seems unfair to force dunker to showcase their skill in the shadows of Carter. The young competitors tried their best though, with rookie Desmond Mason going home with the crown. His leap over forward Rashard Lewis was memorable, as was Baron Davis’ failed sweat band dunk – yes Baron, we can see the eye hole – one of the contest’s more comical moments.

Champion: Jason Richardson, Golden State Warriors
Runner up: Gerald Wallace, Sacramento Kings
Why it matters: NBA tampering at its worst
It appeared that a new dunking phenom had arrived on the scene. Fresh off the campus of Michigan State University, Jason Richardson took the NBA by storm with his ferocious dunking style. He topped fellow young guns Steve Francis, Desmond Mason and Gerald Wallace for the title. Marred by the ridiculously unfair dunking wheel, contestants are awkwardly forced to perform like a circus elephant. The less written and said about this, the better although J-Rich did show up big time in the Final.

Champion: Jason Richardson, Golden State Warriors
Runner up: Desmond Mason, Seattle SuperSonics
Why it matters: The invention of new dunks
J-Rich made it back-to-back, the first to do so since Michael Jordan took the title in 1987 & ’88. It appeared that defending a dunk title is rarest of NBA feats. With Jordan serving as one of the judges, Richardson pulled off two perfect 50 dunks, including an incredible bounce-alley-oop-through-the-legs reverse dunk that had Kenny Smith claiming he needed to be admitted for hospital. Mason vs. Richardson gave us a modern day ‘Nique vs. MJ, at in terms in dunk contest creativity and excellence.

Champion: Fred Jones, Indiana Pacers
Runner up: Jason Richardson, Golden State Warriors
Why it matters: Dunk contest creativity has an expiring shelf life
In J-Rich’s case, three is not a charm. Attempting to run the table for an unprecedented third dunk title (in a row), Richardson was thwarted by Indiana’s Fred Jones. Richardson put up a strong fight though, as his off-the-glass-through-the-legs dunk is one of the best dunk contest put downs of all-time.

Champion: Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks
Runner up: Amar’e Stoudemire, Phoenix Suns
Why it matters: Dunking legend spirits can be channeled
Smith officially brought the dunk contest back following everyone’s failure to connect with Fred Jones in ‘04. With the young dunkers coming up with very creative ways to throw it down, the contest became an electrifying stage once again. Josh Smith wowed the crowd with a leaning, soaring windmill while wearing a No. 21 Atlanta Hawks jersey. With Dominique Wilkins in the crowd, the contest saw a new wave of showmanship, homage and marketing possibilities.

Champion: Nate Robinson, New York Knicks
Runner up: Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia 76ers
Why it matters: Two winners, one trophy
The return of Spud Webb, sort of. No, Webb didn’t lace up the high tops and throw it down again but he did make an appearance, helping 5’9” eventual champ Nate Robinson with one of his dunks. Andre Iguodala was equally deserving as winner but the sentimental favorite, Robinson, took the trophy back to NYC, 20 years after Spud collecting his hardware.

Champion: Gerald Green, Boston Celtics
Runner up: Nate Robinson, New York Knicks
Why it matters: History repeats, which helps sell sneakers
The men in green are back. It would be another year before the Celtics were officially back, but in ‘07 Gerald Green gave them their first dunk contest champion since Dee Brown in ‘91. His leaning, eyes covered dunk over fellow competitor Nate Robinson was a thing of beauty. The competition also featured the greatest judging panel ever with Julius Erving, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Dominique Wilkins and God himself, Michael Jordan awarded scores to the mortal contestants. Rumor has it that Green wanted to jump over a parked car while Nate Robinson wanted to leap a poker table, complete with Playboy Bunny dealer, which is fitting given the Vegas setting but the NBA wouldn’t allow it.

Champion: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
Runner up: Gerald Green, Minnesota Timberwolves
Why it matters: A franchise player takes the crown
The ’08 edition also matters for following three reasons: 1. It marked the end of the big man bias. No longer were big men looked down upon in dunk contests as Dwight Howard famously donned a Superman shirt and cape for the greatest (non) dunk in the contest’s history, becoming the tallest champion at 6’11”… 2. The introduction of fan voting automatically became a cause for concern as Gerald Green (not nearly as popular as Howard) was awarded given the silver medal by fans way before the events final even took place… 3. The Dunk Contest became another reminder that you shouldn’t try this stuff at home as Green jumped up and blew out a candle atop the rim (in round one) only to outdo himself by dunking without shoes on in the Final.

Champion: Nate Robinson, New York Knicks
Runner up: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
Why it matters: Anything you can do, I can do better
Sparkplug Nate Robinson, dressed in his Knicks’ green St. Patrick’s Day get up and rocking neon green Nike’s leap frogs defending Champ Dwight Howard to claim his second title. The David vs. Goliath analogies were fitting and once again, fan voting somewhat marred the event as Howard’s off the side of the backboard wasn’t given due credit. Although, Nate’s leap of faith over Howard was symbolic of his take over and the continuation of the over hyped, exhausted Superman theme added to the charms.

YouTube Link:

Champion: ?
Runner up: ?
Why it matters: Can the NBA’s 25th dunk contest sustain fan interest without any true star power? Is this really the new beginning of the end for the competition? Can a rabbit be pulled out of the dunking hat, giving Nate Robinson an unprecedented three dunk comp crowns? Is the Dunk Off all gimmick or the best possible hype machine? Will LeBron James’ absence override the competition, making it a Kanye West (microphone grab from Taylor Swift) level of interruption to the competition? Guess we’ll find out this Saturday. Stay tuned to TNT for the answers (unless of course you’ll be in Dallas, watching the event in person, at which point we suggest that you wave to the SLAM family over in the media stands).

NOTE: Someone seriously needs to write a comprehensive coffee table book illustrating the color and unevenness of the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest (complete with breath taking portraits) especially now that the competition is about to enjoy it’s Silver Anniversary… On that note, Please send $10 to the “Complete History Of The NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest” coffee table book project. This soon to be the “must read book” of the 2011 summer will be available exclusively on the Apple iPad.

Brad Graham’s a hoop culture aficionado currently attempting to flee the desolate wastelands of the once proud Australian basketball scene. He can be reached via email on [email protected]