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Dominique Wilkins Talks All-Star Memories and ’88 Dunk Contest

  • The Hall of Famer says Jordan might have had home-court advantage in iconic duel.
  • Wilkins never prepped for a dunk contest and explains why superstars no longer compete.
NBA/Design: John Regula

On Saturday night in Cleveland, Obi Toppin, Cole Anthony, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Jalen Green will compete in this year’s Slam Dunk Contest. 

From Zach LaVine vs. Aaron Gordon to Nate Robinson vs. Dwight Howard, All-Star Weekend’s main attraction has produced some legendary rivalries — but Dominique Wilkins’ 1988 showdown against Michael Jordan in Chicago still reigns supreme.

After some controversial scores from the hometown judges, Jordan defeated Wilkins in what is widely considered the greatest Slam Dunk Contest in NBA history.

Though he would miss out on that title, Wilkins previously won the contest in 1985 and would win it again in 1990. “The Human Highlight Film” is a nine-time All-Star and was first-team All-NBA in 1986 — the same season he won the league scoring title. The Atlanta Hawks retired his No. 21, and he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. 

Wilkins is working with Michelob ULTRA to bring back “NBA Jam” for this weekend, with commemorative cans and a retro ‘90s arcade.

Wilkins discussed his battle with Jordan, how All-Star Weekend and the contest have evolved over time, and why he’s working with Michelob ULTRA to bring back “NBA Jam.” 

When were you aware that your duel with Michael Jordan in 1988 would become so legendary?

Well, first of all, Michael and I were competitors to another level. We wanted to compete no matter what, and we raised each other’s level. We knew it was a special contest, but we didn’t know it was going to be that special in the years after. Man, he was something else. And it’s hard when you hear comparisons with him because he was one of a kind.

Some people say that Mike might’ve gotten home-court advantage in Chicago. Did you see it that way?

A little bit [laughs]. Whenever you’re going against a great player like that in their hometown, they’re always gonna have a little home-court advantage. And I’m sure it would have been the same if I was in Atlanta. So, you know, that’s the nature of the beast. 

What was your preparation like for the dunk contest?

Preparation for the dunk contest? I never went through a preparation. Everything was spontaneous. Everything I did, I thought about it at the dunk contest itself. I never worked on that stuff at all. And I know that’s hard for a lot of people to believe, but I never did.

That’s crazy. So even if you were just messing around in practice and threw down a dunk, you wouldn’t file that away? 

Well, no. Because most of the dunks that I executed were game dunks. At the dunk contest, I did dunks that I would do in a game. So, you know, I never worked on it. When I was going against Michael Jordan, neither did he. Those were dunks that we were doing every night.

It feels like the dunk contest has changed a little bit then, because guys are doing these big, choreographed dunks now. How do you feel about that evolution?

The problem is when you stage stuff like that, you take away the element of surprise. That “wow” factor. Even though you execute the dunk — and they’re very athletic guys in this league, of course — we take a little something away when people see it coming. It’s when they don’t see it coming that really makes it spectacular, where you can get the fans out of the seats.

Why do you think fewer superstars participate in the dunk contest now?

I think they’re maybe afraid to lose. The only way that you know you’re the best is to go against the best. And win or lose, it doesn’t really matter, because years later, they’re still gonna be talking about it. Michael and I competed over 30 years ago, and people still talk about it to this day. So it didn’t matter if we won or lost. It’s become kind of like a folk story now with me and Mike. So I’d just like to see more superstar guys get in it. 

What’s your favorite All-Star Weekend memory?

Probably the one with Michael and I [laughs]. That’s probably the most memorable because we both had a great game in the All-Star Game the next day. That was a great weekend. That weekend was, will always be, the No. 1 on my list because of that – the atmosphere, the temperature in that building. Man, it was electric.

What was your attitude like playing in those All-Star Games?

The All-Star Game was about showing your talent and your skill against the best players. And I tell ya, we competed in those All-Star Games. We wanted to know who the best was: the East or the West. We competed because it was bragging rights for the summer. We looked forward to the All-Star Games.

What’s it been like to see brands like Michelob get more involved with the dunk contest, and the weekend as a whole?

One of the things that’s exciting when you talk about a dunk contest, when you talk about all the festivities, and see how things have changed: If you look at and see what the sponsors have done with the players, they’ve become a family now. And what Michelob has done by making these commemorative cans with images and catchphrases for people to enjoy the whole weekend — all these kinds of things go hand-in-hand, and I wish all this stuff was around when we were playing. 

Your big-play style lent itself well to the action in “NBA Jam.” Why do you think it translated so well?

Well, I played the game at one speed, and that was all-out. That’s the only way I knew how to play. And so I always wanted to bring excitement to the fans. Yeah, of course I wanted to win the game each and every night, but I wanted to get the fans involved. And so it was just kind of a natural thing for me. It’s nothing that I put any extra time into working on — it was just who I was. God had blessed me with an ability to play the game above the rim and be exciting. So I’m very fortunate to have a long career and do some of the things that I’ve done.

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