In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One and Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
The cast of high-flyers recruited to participate in the NBA’s annual slam dunk contest has become increasingly less star-studded in recent years, and the case will be no different Saturday, as Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine will defend his 2015 title against Will Barton, Andre Drummond and Aaron Gordon at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Long gone are the days of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins topping the rest of the NBA’s best for dunking supremacy, and the era of Kobe Bryant or Vince Carter or even Dwight Howard dominating the event feels, at times, like a distant memory.
Generally, the blame for that drop-off has fallen on the players, the most talented of whom have habitually declined what is surely a standing invitation from the league to join in on the fun. Perhaps, however, the problem with the dunk contest doesn’t lie strictly in the superstars’ failure to play ball. And maybe the lack of premier participation really isn’t a problem at all.
Sure, you and I and everyone else would tune in with delight if the dunk contest pitted LeBron James vs. Russell Westbrook (or simply featured more actual All-Stars; the Detroit Pistons big man Drummond is the only competitor who will also participate in Sunday’s game). But there may be a larger issue at play.
It may be more likely that we were spoiled by the names who made the competition what it is to begin with, beginning with Julius Erving, who became the original dunk contest champ 40 years ago.
The NBA didn’t officially introduce the dunk contest as a part of All-Star weekend until 1984, when Larry Nance won the inaugural event over Erving in Denver. Eight years earlier, Dr. J made history with a soaring free-throw line dunk that won him the ABA’s first and only dunk contest in the same Mile High City.
In 1976, the ABA was floundering, reduced to seven teams in what would turn out to be the league’s final season. The league had become so small by that point that the All-Star Game was reduced to a matchup of the hometown Denver Nuggets against the rest of the league’s top talent, but that didn’t stop officials from coming up with new ideas to not only whet the fans’ appetite for excitement but also encourage the NBA to welcome in some of its teams.
"We had to come up with a concept that would get everyone’s attention," former Nuggets executive Carl Scheer told the Houston Chronicle in 1996. "We were in serious trouble. We knew that it was our last year and we had to make a big impression.
"We felt the All-Star Game was our big showcase — our swan song, so to speak," Scheer continued. "We needed to have something dramatic to show the world, and the NBA, that our product was worthwhile for their league. We had to show that we had great players, great ideas, and great contests."
So it was decided that the league would host a dunk contest featuring the New York Nets superstar Ervin, Kentucky Colonels 7-footer Artis Gilmore, San Antonio Spurs teammates George Gervin and Larry Kenon, and Nuggets guard David Thompson. It was held at Denver’s McNichols Arena during halftime of the All-Star Game, and it proved to not only be wildly successful in the eyes of the 17,798 in attendance, but also helpful in facilitating the ABA-NBA merger the following offseason.
Dr. J flies from the free-throw line on his majestic dunk.
The rules of the contest were simple: Players had two minutes to complete five dunks from specific areas of the court. One of the mandatory dunks had to come from a standing position under the basket and another had to come from a spot 10 feet from the basket in the foul lane. The other three "freelance" moves, as they were described, had to come from each side of the lane and then from one of the two corners.
The dunks were rated on a scale of 5-10 by four judges — former New York Knicks player and longtime executive Vince Boryla, Nuggets fan Alberta Worthington, local high school basketball star LaVon Williams (who later won a national title at Kentucky) and concert promoter Barry Fey. The dunks were to be evaluated based on their "artistic ability, imagination, body flow and fan response," and frankly, Erving made the judges’ jobs pretty easy.
Gilmore went first, followed by Gervin and Kenon, but the competition was thought to really be between the rookie hometown star Thompson and Erving. During his turn, Thompson dropped in the first recorded 360 slam — a "twist-around slam dunk" as the announcer called it — but a miss on the fourth of his five tries hurt his chances at winning.
"He walked up to the free-throw line and started marking these steps off, going back to the other end of the court," Ron Boone, a Spirit of St. Louis All-Star in ’76, told the Houston Chronicle. "Well, you knew what was coming — ‘Oooh, he’s going to take off from the free-throw line.’ Everybody was on the edge of their seats watching. The anticipation was great.
"Then he went and took off," Boone continued. "His afro was big then, and it was blowing. He went up and threw that baby down and the crowd went crazy."
"I wish I knew that much at that time to be able to say that it was going to be as memorable as it was and it is," Erving said of the dunk in an NBA.com video last year. "I didn’t know it would be something that would be picked up by the NBA and carried forward and taken to new heights or popularity and challenge."
Michael Jordan takes off in the 1988 Dunk contest.
And maybe that history of superstars doing the unimaginable is what has left fans feeling so jaded toward the dunk contest today. However, even now, as the window for originality keeps closing, players — even lesser-known ones — are finding new ways to impress, and there’s no reason to think they won’t continue to do so.
LaVine was incredible last year as a rookie, and Drummond is a bona fide star. The D-Leaguer-turned-Nuggets-sixth-man Barton is as athletic as they come and the electric 20-year-old Magic forward Gordon has been compared to 2011 winner Blake Griffin — and with good reason. They may not be the best players in the league, but they’re amazing at what they do. So rather than dwell on who they aren’t, let’s just hope these newcomers can cash in a performance that does Dr. J proud.
After 40 years of innovation, it’s the least we should expect.