In its glory days, the NBA Slam Dunk contest was won by the likes of Michael Jordan and Dominque Wilkins, superstars who used the platform to make the spotlight cast upon them burn brighter.
Since the early 1990s, though, many Slam Dunk competition winners have largely faded into obscurity (see: Cedric Ceballos, Harold Miner and Jeremy Evans). Zach LaVine hoped to use Saturday night’s appearance in the individual showcase as a springboard to larger stardom.
"Growing up, I’ve always wanted to be in a dunk contest. So, being in the Slam Dunk contest is a dream come true," LaVine told TNT prior to Saturday night’s telecast.
The night’s result: a star turn in which the Minnesota Timberwolves rookie wowed the crowd at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, unleashing the kind of high-flying exploits that could make him a household name before long. LaVine overwhelmed Orlando’s Victor Oladipo in the championship round to become the event’s second-youngest winner.
Yes, at 19, LaVine was the youngest competitor in this year’s contest. He had also unleashed the fewest amount of regular-season dunks (23).
The 6-foot-5 UCLA product had jaw-dropping athleticism on his side, however. LaVine’s 46-inch vertical leap was better than that of his three competitors on Saturday night, though Oladipo (42 inches), Giannis Antetokounmpo (approximately 40 inches) and Mason Plumlee (36 inches) are certainly capable of reaching rare heights.
"When I do get into the air, it’s momentary flight," LaVine noted, "so it’s a rush of emotion. It’s one of the best feelings in basketball."
More than one reputable media outlet considered LaVine the favorite on Saturday night. And LaVine didn’t disappoint on his first dunk. Walking onto the playing floor accompanied by the Quad City DJs, who promptly sang the theme song to 1996’s "Space Jam," LaVine posted a perfect score of 50. To do so, he lobbed the ball, corralled it off a carom, went between his legs in the air and hammered it down with his right hand.
LaVine’s second dunk? Another perfect score of 50. This time, the Timberwolves rookie again bounced the ball high off the floor, wrapped the ball around his back while in the air and again hammered it home right-handed.
After his third dunk garnered a 45, LaVine finished with a flourish. On his second attempt in the final round, LaVine took a ricocheted pass off the backboard’s stanchion from Minnesota teammate Shabazz Muhammad, caught it, went between his legs and rammed it through the rim, earning him an event-clinching 49.
"Guys wanna get everybody on their feet," LaVine noted on TNT. "I feel like I can do that."
Indeed he did on Saturday night, drawing frequent perfect-10 scores from basketball royalty such as event judges like Julius Erving.
Now, LaVine will attempt to augment different numbers, in the regular-season’s second half, like his 7.6 points per game scoring average. LaVine and the Timberwolves (11-42) return to action at home against Phoenix on Friday, Feb. 20.