How would dunk champs change the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest?
Vince Carter, Dominique Wilkins, Dee Brown and Donovan Mitchell weigh in
Imagine LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Blake Griffin participating in the dunk contest during the upcoming NBA All-Star Weekend. While such a reality is laughable now, five All-Stars took part in the dunk festivities in 1985: Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Clyde Drexler and Larry Nance. Another All-Star was a scratch due to injury: Charles Barkley. (His replacement was a little-known player named Terence Stansbury, who delivered the memorable “Statue of Liberty” 360-degree dunk.)
The 1985 NBA Slam Dunk Contest has gone down in history as arguably the best ever, as Wilkins outlasted a sweatsuit-wearing Jordan for the dunk crown in Indianapolis.
“We wanted to know who the best was,” Wilkins told The Undefeated. “It was as simple as that. And we wanted to do it for the fans. That was the biggest thing. That’s what everybody came to the All-Star Weekend to see. The dunk contest was a signature event.”
Not anymore. The last All-Star to win a dunk contest was John Wall in 2014. Of the 2019 All-Stars, Griffin, George and Damian Lillard are the only ones who have ever competed in the dunk contest.
On Saturday, the four dunk contest participants will include two rookies (Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo) and two second-year players (New York Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. and Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins).
Vince Carter, an eight-time All-Star and current Hawk, had perhaps the most memorable dunk contest performance ever in 2000. Despite NBA fans and media members hoping for a return, the 42-year-old will not be joining the competition this weekend and hasn’t watched much of it in recent years.
“I watch it here and there in pieces,” Carter said. “Outside of social media, my friends text me, ‘Did you see that, did you see that?’ I remember I watched a little bit of [Zach] LaVine and [Aaron] Gordon [in 2016].
“And I just so happened to walk by a TV to watch Donovan Mitchell’s dunk [in 2018]. It was funny. I was with my daughter and she says, ‘Dad, this guy got your jersey on.’ I didn’t watch the whole thing. But sitting there just watching it is just tough for me sometimes.”
Can the NBA Slam Dunk Contest ever be a star-studded event again?
The Undefeated asked dunk champions from every decade of the contest — Wilkins, Dee Brown, Carter and last year’s winner Donovan Mitchell — for their thoughts.
how would you change the dunk contest?
Vince Carter: I would do it like the old days, like you would do in streetball. Next man up, then once you go, it’s next, next, next, next. To me, the gimmicky thing is kind of overrated. Show them what you’re ‘cooking’ with. Don’t put the onus on a guy to have to use a prop or a teammate.
Just go out there and throw the ball out there. It’s your turn. And let that be that. And that’s kind of how it originated. That’s kind of how it organically happens on the streetball or basketball court.
Dominique Wilkins: I don’t know what you can do because the best athletes don’t want to get in it. That’s one thing you can’t change. As for the format, I like the old-school format. You go out there and get you a ball and let your imagination do its thing. Keep it simple.
Dee Brown: I would have more contestants. When I was in it back in the day, there were eight. That made it more exciting. Now it is four. I would have a winner-take-all at like $100,000. No second-place or third-place [money]. I bet you will get more players interested then. I would also include the G League players. They are part of the NBA, so why wouldn’t you? … The WNBA players are involved in certain things. We are all under the same umbrella.
And I hate to say it. The judges? You have to be able to dunk to be a judge. You have to have some kind of knowledge of what a good dunk is. I know they try to get the celebrity judges in there, but we’re talking about a dunk contest. I can’t judge a singing contest because I can’t sing.
Donovan Mitchell: I kind of like how it is. I would expand it to more players. Maybe invite some G League guys. That would be dope. [G League Memphis forward] D.J. Stephens is a guy under the radar, but he has the most bounce I’ve ever seen.
Why aren’t the elite players competing?
Brown: No. 1, because of the money. These guys are making so much money anyway. Because of social media, you don’t need it. You can promote yourself. Back when we were in the dunk contest, you had to be there to see it, see it on TV or read about it in newspapers. That was it.
A lot of the top players build their own brand through social media. You don’t want to lose that awe of being a great player or great dunker by losing the dunk contest. It was competition to me. Everyone has their individual brand, which is bigger than the dunk contest.
Michael Jordan was in it, but that was a part of building his brand. It helped me build my brand. Dominique Wilkins and other guys, it was a part of building their brand. It’s not the same hit it used to be, maybe because the big names are not in it. If the big names are in it, it changes.
Wilkins: The big-time athletes won’t get in it. That is the first thing that comes to mind. But they got so many things going on besides that. … Everybody’s scared to fail.
Mitchell: It’s a lot to do that and play in the All-Star Game. You got to focus and practice for the dunk contest. It’s a lot on the body and the mind. The point of the All-Star Break is to chill. People don’t get that. Last year, I wasn’t an All-Star, but I did a lot and still felt tired. I couldn’t imagine doing the dunk contest and playing in the game.
I didn’t do the dunk contest this year because of my body. I wanted the rest. I wanted to prepare myself for the Rising Stars Game [on Friday]. You can’t do that and the Rising Stars Game. I remember how I felt last year. I felt like I played a back-to-back after I had eight days off. I just want to be the best that I can be for my teammates.
Carter: I don’t think there’s a remedy. It’s just how they’re feeling. I can’t answer that question. I just don’t know. That was just something I looked forward to. But in my mind, I didn’t know I would become a star player that night. Prior to it, I wasn’t a star player. I was [a high] pick. But after that night, my life changed. I also was in the All-Star Game, so it kind of goes both ways. [The dunk contest] was something I wanted to do. …
One time was enough for me. I didn’t want to be labeled as the dunk contest guy.
What impact does social media have on the contest?
Brown: It changed everything. The one person they show on [basketball] social media the most is Zion [Williamson]. He isn’t in the dunk contest or the NBA yet. You got the college players showing dunks. People overseas. Team Flight Brothers. High school kids. You get to see all types of dunks in real time. And then when the dunk contest comes, people say, ‘I see better dunks on social media, Instagram, this page, that page.’ Social media has diluted the dunk contest because they don’t feel like the best dunkers or top players are in it.
You can go on social media and find a guy that can do a 720-[degree dunk] or jumping over cars and go in between your legs. Once someone does it in the dunk contest, nobody is impressed anymore. Social media has watered down the dunks.
Carter: The pressures of social media have a lot to do with it. And some people may think different, but I just feel it. Me being in the dunk contest at that time, that’s not that hard. What people were saying around the world instantly was not a worry. Now, it’s instant. The pressures of it tends to get to us. I don’t care who you are. It’s the reality of it.
Wilkins: Social media is so big now, and there is always stuff going on out there. ‘Who you got?’ ‘This guy?’ All that nonsense. The guys sometimes get deterred from it because of that.
Mitchell: It’s huge. Some of the dunks guys do have been seen through social media. It kind of hurts it a little bit. If you start inviting guys that people don’t know and haven’t seen, that will be huge. Like Hamidou Diallo is going to be good. People don’t know about him. Terrance Ferguson should have been in it. John Collins is a good friend of mine. Those are guys that people don’t know that have some bounce to them.
I used things for social media like the two backboards [in the 2018 NBA dunk contest]. It also could be known as a wall in a high school gym and use it like two backboards. It creates an illusion and people are like, ‘Oh, shoot, I’ve never seen that before.’ You got to play into that … But if you do dunk and make it look easy, people are like, ‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ You got to add something to it. Having social media adds that effect to it.
Winning the dunk contest changed my life more than I could have imagined. We were on a 13-game winning streak and I was playing the way I was playing. But winning the dunk contest gets you a whole different section. You’re there with the greats. I grew up loving the dunk contest. My life is a whole lot different now.