It’s February 1988. Michael Jordan is slowly walking the length of the Chicago Stadium court as the home crowd’s noise begins to crescendo. The Bulls star is battling against fellow future Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins in a Slam Dunk Contest that will become an instant classic.
Jordan dribbles in a near-sprint to the opposite basket, plants his left foot on the free-throw line, launches himself at the rim, and throws down a flawless slam dunk — one of the most famous moments in NBA history, All-Star Weekend or otherwise.
Thirty-five years later, in February 2023, the NBA desperately filled out the event’s lineup with an undrafted, largely unknown 6’2” guard — who wasn’t even on an NBA roster.
“That’s crazy, they’re doing that off the G League,” Kevin Durant said on his podcast. “Mac [McClung] is an outstanding athlete, but what are we doing?”
McClung was called up by the Philadelphia 76ers the same day he got the invite. Kenyon Martin Jr., Trey Murphy III, and Jericho Sims will join him in this year’s contest.
No one would blame the average casual fan for being incapable of naming their teams.
The last time a player from that season’s All-Star Game actually participated in the Dunk Contest was in 2017, when the Los Angeles Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan competed.
The question now is whether the Dunk Contest carries any significance beyond representing a piece of nostalgia that…used to be significant — and whether it needs to exist anymore.
How We Got Here
Ironically, the contest began as a stunt.
In 1976, the American Basketball Association — trying to find a ratings edge in its battle with the NBA — decided to stage the first professional Slam Dunk Contest during halftime of its All-Star Game.
The first winner was Julius “Dr. J” Erving — who threw down a free-throw line dunk 12 years before Jordan.
“Here was my philosophy — dare to be great. Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Erving said later. “I just wanted to make a nice, soaring play that would get the fans out of their seats.”
The ABA merged with the NBA later that year, but the competition didn’t become a standalone event at All-Star Weekend until 1984, when Larry Nance won the first NBA Slam Dunk Contest — over Erving.
Wilkins won his first contest the next year, beating out rookie Michael Jordan and beginning a friendly rivalry that culminated in the legendary ‘88 edition.
“We knew it was a special contest, but we didn’t know it was going to be that special in the years after,” Wilkins told Front Office Sports last year. “Michael and I competed over 30 years ago, and people still talk about it to this day.”
The Dunk Contests of the ‘90s saw dwindling star power until rookie Kobe Bryant won the competition in 1997. But its waning significance was still so pronounced that the league decided not to hold a Dunk Contest in ‘98, and it was compounded by the lockout in ‘99.
When it returned in 2000, the main attraction was Vince Carter — that All-Star Game’s leading vote-getter and the unquestioned best in-game dunker. The former Toronto Raptor put on one of the greatest performances in Dunk Contest history.
His three iconic dunks — a reverse 360, a between-the-legs alley-oop windmill, and stuffing his entire arm through the rim — breathed new life into the event and impacted the evolution of the dunk itself.
In sports where the scoring is graded, audiences and judges always want more. The inherent problem with the Dunk Contest is the limits of the dunk and its progression.
Scores in competitive figure skating are given out subjectively based on an objective set of criteria — meaning that the most talented athletes are constantly practicing to both nail what they can do and progress to better elements. For example, last year, Russian Kamila Valieva became the first female figure skater to land a quadruple jump at an Olympics.
The NBA’s version of progression hasn’t been jumping higher, taking off from further behind the free-throw line, or adding 180 degrees; it’s been to get silly. Gimmicks have included blowing out a candle, dunking over a car or celebrity, or wearing a throwback jersey.
“The problem is when you stage stuff like that, you take away the element of surprise. That ‘wow’ factor,” Wilkins says. “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.”
The NBA’s version of judging, meanwhile, has been to award 9s or 10s way too early in the contest and far too often. On the flip side, Dwyane Wade went from celebrity judge to conspiratorial villain when he gave Aaron Gordon a controversial 9, denying him the chance to win the 2020 Slam Dunk crown.
Gordon has thrown down some of the most technically difficult dunks in the contest’s
history — but his dunk legacy is the guy who released a diss track at Wade for being robbed of a meaningless title.
Do Not Enter
For the NBA, the problem gets exacerbated when the best players in the world don’t participate and it becomes maddening considering any superstar could instantly elevate the dunk contest by simply entering.
LeBron James has never participated in a contest. In the mid-2000s, he lampooned his own attitude on the subject in a commercial for Nike’s “The LeBrons” campaign.
“I don’t do that dunk contest stuff,” James says in the ad.
James promised to do the 2010 Dunk Contest, only to back out later.
High-flyers like Russell Westbrook and Ja Morant have also declined to participate.
There’s obviously the narrative of injury risk, even though it’s mostly unfounded and in-game dunks are inherently dangerous themselves. But some former stars point to something else.
“I think they’re maybe afraid to lose,” Wilkins says. “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.”
“When I first used to watch it, all the best players in the whole NBA used to compete,” 1986 winner Spud Webb told Basketball Insiders. “First, they probably had more pride and wanted to compete or wanted to make the NBA better. Now the guys get paid so much money, they probably don’t care about the dunk contest.”
It says something that the competition’s only three-time champion is 5’9” Nate Robinson — who would never be considered one of the game’s great dunkers.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Controversy may be the only factor keeping the contest relevant. It seems the only way to avoid the Dunk Contest falling into total obscurity is for NBA superstars to compete.
The 3-Point Contest still generates enough big names to be significant. Arguably the best shooter of all time, Steph Curry, is a two-time winner. This year, five of the eight participants are All-Stars: Tyrese Haliburton, Damian Lillard, Lauri Markkanen, Julius Randle, and Jayson Tatum.
If it didn’t matter to the players, Karl-Anthony Towns wouldn’t have made it his mission last year to be the first big-man to win (which he did).
It’s indicative of the way the NBA has changed in recent years: Excluding this season, 3-point attempts per game have increased every season since 2011-12. In other words, the 3-pointer could be the new slam dunk.
Meanwhile, All-Star Game viewership has been consistently trending downward since the ‘90s: The 2021 edition — which wedged the Dunk Contest in at halftime — represented a modern low with just 5.94 million viewers.
Last year’s All-Star Saturday Night was the least-watched in at least 20 years with 4.24 million viewers, per Sports Media Watch.
For now, the league’s solution to the Dunk Contest is to rig Shaquille O’Neal with a special camera that will simultaneously capture the action on the court and his reaction to it. He’s famously great on camera at dunk contests — his reaction to one of Carter’s dunks at the 2000 contest is a meme decades later. So, that’s…something.
Here’s the greatest irony: If the NBA canceled the event after this year — despite the lack of star power — fans would most likely be outraged.
Maybe the league should take a page out of what it accomplished with the Dunk Contest at the turn of the millennium. Take a couple of years off, then come back with a vengeance, recapturing the event’s cultural significance and the goodwill of fans in a single move.
If a break can’t make the Dunk Contest matter again, it’s only a matter of time before more creative, potentially drastic, changes are needed to keep the once-beloved tradition alive.