Over All-Star Weekend, SLAM caught up with dunk contest legend Spud Webb at the Panini Suite in New Orleans’ Benson Tower. It was Saturday afternoon, just hours before the nighttime festivities were set to begin, and I had to ask Spud about 1986 and the event that turned the rookie into a legend. As someone who eagerly anticipates the Dunk Contest, I was interested in hearing about the lead-up to that historic moment.
So what was Spud doing the night before?
“I was on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” he told me, “I wasn’t even in Dallas [the location of All-Star that year].”
Based on Webb’s performance, it would be natural to expect that his routine had been expertly rehearsed. That Spud had been fixated on this event all season long. That the 5-7, 130-pound guard had been perfecting his jumps, timing, and throw down ability.
But in reality, Spud was out there simply doing the same dunks he had been doing for the last five years. Just no one knew about it. That includes his major contest competitor (and teammate with the Atlanta Hawks), Dominique Wilkins. A player that Webb called “the best dunker in the League, probably the best dunker ever.”
Webb, who was down in NoLa signing trading cards and helping to promote a new app that Panini is launching, had other things to worry about than preparing for a potential appearance in the Dunk Contest during the 1985-86 season. He had already been waived by the Detroit Pistons earlier in the season, and was focused entirely on making sure it didn’t happen again. “I wasn’t sitting around after practice dunking or trying to work on a dunk to do. I was over there with Doc Rivers and John Battle and those guys trying to learn how to get over pick-and-rolls, rotate, and that sort of stuff,” said Webb.
So it’s true, Wilkins had never seen him dunk before they participated in the 1986 contest. The reigning champ, who had defeated Michael Jordan in 1985, was just as surprised as everyone else by what occurred.
Amazingly, the diminutive Webb could not palm the ball, and had to rely on his “repertoire dunks.” The 360. The backwards pump. The one-legged, long-distance, takeoff. The double-clutch two-hander. The off-glass righty hammer. And of course, the high-lob, catch-it-at-the-peak reverse. It was clinical.
Spud didn’t rise to prominence alone that evening; his shoes did too. The 12-year NBA vet was an OG in the sneaker game, agreeing to a deal with Pony during his rookie campaign. The red, black, and white City Wings, which he rocked the night of the contest, eventually assumed the colloquial name “the Spuds.” To this day, Webb still gets asked by fans where they can get ‘em.
In 2006, twenty years after his breakout, Spud helped another small dunker achieve glory on the All-Star stage. Donning his old Atlanta Hawks No. 4 jersey, the former champion stood in front of the basket, bounced the ball off the hardwood, and watched 5-8 Nate Robinson soar overhead, one of Nate’s best dunks from his three dunk contest appearances:
“We practiced one time,” Spud explained, “Nate called me and we met at the gym. I think we were in there like one minute. He said ‘stand here’ and grabbed the ball and jumped over me five times and didn’t touch me once.”
The torch had been passed.
More than just an All-Star Saturday Night star, Spud averaged 9.9 points and 5.3 assists during his career. His best statistical season was with the Kings during the 1991-92 season, when Webb appeared in 77 games and posted 16.0 points and 7.1 assists per. He currently ranks 84th in all-time assists with 4,342. As someone who managed to find success at such a rare height for the league, Spud shared his thoughts on the play of 5-9 Isaiah Thomas in 2016-17:
“That’s the way you want to play. The up-and-down, pick-and-roll, the way they play these days is a guard game. You see a guy with that much talent taking advantage of it, it’s great… I even watch him on TV at night when I’m sitting at home because that’s what you always want, to play by those rules that they play by now. No hand checking. No bumping. No nothing [laughs]. When you’re that talented, you can be successful like him.”
If there’s one thing that Spud proved, it’s to not sleep on the little guy.
Just ask Dominique.