The Best Is Yet To Come

NBA fans have long clamored for the inclusion of non-NBA players in the Slam Dunk Contest. On Sunday night, the League stepped closer to making this dream a reality.

The League and its broadcast partner TNT gave a non-NBA player nearly 30 seconds of airtime when they showed footage of the 6-1 Jordan Kilganon performing a reverse baseline dunk for the ages during a commercial break in the fourth quarter of the All-Star game.

The twisting throwdown elicited sideline whoops from Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and others, which TNT cameras showed, and plenty of praise from the game’s broadcasters. “Where was he last night?” said Reggie Miller, alluding to Saturday night’s dunk contest. “We could have had a three-way tie.”

Miller was only half joking.

Previously, the idea of a pro dunker getting a primetime spot on an NBA national broadcast had largely been thought of as likely as the Lakers winning the 2016 Championship. Why would one of the world’s most wealthy sports leagues allow free advertising for someone not a part of it?

While professional dunkers don’t yet have official direct ties to the NBA, they are developing significant ties to its powerful business partners. Consider there would have been no reason to provide Kilganon a national platform on Sunday unless TNT wanted to boost his celebrity for a very obvious reason: Kilganon is one of 32 dunkers featured in a new reality TV series called The Dunk King that will air during this spring’s Western Conference Finals. The four-part series will follow the dunkers as they compete for a $100,000 prize.

That’s a huge jump from the $1,000 to $15,000 prizes which are the current standard in the pro dunking world. As Turner Network Television ramps up promotions for the show, expect the mass appeal of dunkers like Kilganon to skyrocket from their current social media grassroots to a new stratosphere. No doubt, TNT executives hope Dunk King will do for these YouTube sensations what American Idol did for up-and-coming pop stars.

If the show succeeds and inspires new seasons, then the idea of including pro dunkers in a Dunk Contest moves from fantasy toward legitimate business opportunity. It will, after all, be in the best business interest of TNT to tout The Dunk King and its stars in the promos of the actual NBA games it airs. And with Turner Sports a big part of a nine-year, $24 billion deal that will enrich the NBA, what’s good for TNT is generally good for the NBA.

If TNT really wants to take The Dunk King to American Idol-like heights, it should throw down another prize for the winner besides money: an opportunity to compete in the NBA’s dunk contest. This provides a win-win cross promotion for the NBA and TNT. The dunk contest would provide a ratings boost to the show, while the show will provide months of anticipation for the dunk contest.

Players as well as fans already support the idea of expanding the dunk contest field. Last year, Shaquille O’Neal posted on Facebook he wanted to see Kilganon in this year’s contest. Former NBA Slam Dunk winner Jeremy Evans told SLAM he also welcomes the idea: “It would just be a bigger challenge,” he said. “They have different tricks and ideas that we’re gonna have to prepare for.”

Most NBA players want to compete against the best in the world, regardless of the league they do or don’t belong to. They want this even though they know the pro dunkers have thousands of extra hours of practice on them. Kilganon, for instance, has apparently been working for years on a Holy Grail-esque 360, between-the-legs-twice dunk. Were he able to unleash that in a contest, it’s almost guaranteed no NBA player could match him. Even matching his signature “Lost and Found” dunk will be hard enough.

But notice almost all pro dunkers are in the 6-feet or under range. While every bit as explosive as the best NBA dunkers, they are nowhere near as long. That is, if they had the height of professional basketball players, they would probably be making a lot more money right now as professional basketball players. For comparison, look at the 6-5 Zach LaVine and 6-9 Aaron Gordon. No matter how much training Kilganon does, they can pull off stunts Kilganon can’t because he simply isn’t long enough.

Gordon’s “sit” dunk during Saturday night’s contest is a prime example.

In the end, pro dunkers and NBA high-flyers would each bring their own distinct advantages to the contest. For years, fans have waited to see how they will employ them against each other under the bright lights. After Kilganon’s primetime promo in advance of The Dunk King, that wait shouldn’t be much longer.