The first All-Star dunk contest – the first formal dunk contest of any kind – is best remembered for something that didn’t actually happen.
The most recent, held Saturday night in Los Angeles, will be remembered for the dunks that didn’t win.
At the American Basketball Association All-Star Game in 1976, the league had a problem. To begin with, how do you have an All-Star Game when there are only seven teams left in your league, competing in one division? As detailed in Terry Pluto’s wonderful oral history of the ABA, Loose Balls (full disclosure: I was the book’s editor), the owners decided the game should pit the team in first place against the top players from the other six squads. Helpfully, the team in first place, the Denver Nuggets, played in the city already chosen to host the game.
Carl Scheer, the Nuggets’ general manager, was worried that the game alone would not be enough of an attraction to fill the arena. He booked Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich to provide the pregame entertainment, but he still wanted something more, something flashier. Jim Bukata, the Nuggets’ public relations director, suggested holding a Slam Dunk Contest. The idea was a natural, since it would showcase the incredible athleticism of its stars for a national audience. The contestants would be chosen from the players who were in town for the game, so the only additional expense would be the $1,000 prize and new stereo given to the winner.
The only question was, how do you hold a dunk contest?
They decided each player would do five dunks: one from a standing start under the hoop, one from the corner along the baseline, one each from either side of the lane, and one long one taking off from 10 feet away from the basket. The five participants were Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, David Thompson, Larry Kenon, and Julius Erving. Three of the five are now in the Basketball Hall of Fame; all played in multiple NBA All-Star Games after the merger.
According to Bukata, the most spectacular dunk of the night was performed in warm-ups by David Thompson, who cradled the ball in one arm, leaped high above the rim, and punched the ball down into the basket with his other hand. But the one dunk everyone remembers is by Dr. J, Julius Erving.
Erving had told the players to forget about the 10-foot line; he was going to take off from the foul line instead. Doug Moe, then an assistant coach under Larry Brown in Denver, bet him he couldn’t do it.
Erving stepped dramatically to the foul line, then took bouncing paces back to the far foul circle like a long-jumper checking his marks. He gathered himself, ran down the court, took off near the foul line, and slammed the ball home. He did not, however, launch himself from behind the foul line; on the tape, Moe can be clearly seen in the background, pointing to Julius’s takeoff spot half a foot over the line.
Erving may not have done it, but on Saturday night, Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder did. The 6-10 second-year center-forward from the Republic of the Congo clearly made it to the basket after taking off with his foot just shy of the foul line. In his second dunk, he rescued a child’s toy from the rim with his teeth while dunking. And neither of these were the showstoppers of the evening.
The night was supposed to belong to Blake Griffin, the highlight sensation of the first half of the season. After throwing one down and hanging on the rim by his elbow, Griffin dragged out the most shameless prop of the night, a car – the Official Car of the NBA, which will go unnamed here – and leaped over the hood to take an alley-oop from teammate Baron Davis, who was standing inside the car. The prop made it look more impressive than it was; the action itself was no different from dozens of dunks he’s already performed in-game.
The star of the night, however, was JaVale McGee, 7-foot center for the Washington Wizards - a 15-39 team for which he’s averaging 9.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. First, he lined up a second backboard alongside the regular one. Starting on the left side, holding two balls, he tossed one underhand off the left board with his right hand, leaped, dunked in the left basket with the ball in his left hand, grabbed the other ball out of the air with his right hand and slammed it home through the right rim.
Then, for his second dunk, he went Dr. J one better by throwing down three balls in one leap – one in each hand, and a third one passed to him by John Wall.
Those two creative efforts went a long way to justifying the continuation of this ‘70s relic. At the first contest, each player got one chance for each dunk. Today, he has two minutes to complete the dunk successfully. Most of the time, this leads to a tedious exercise; this year, considering McGee’s remarkable pair, it would be churlish to penalize him for not performing them the first time out.
Griffin won with the car – and the certainty that it would be mentioned ad nauseam by sponsor-pleasing broadcasters. But McGee’s dunks required far greater artistry, and will probably be remembered by NBA fans a lot longer than McGee himself.