The five worst Slam Dunk Contests
By Ben Golliver
At its best, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest is a spectacle that makes you jump out of your seat, shove the person sitting next to you like you’re in a rave and scream random noises like Kenny Smith does. At its worst, the dunk contest can be a train wreck, a bore or a total conundrum.
The NBA has held 27 dunk contests since 1984, skipping the event in 1998 and losing All-Star Weekend to a lockout in 1999. This week, The Point Forward will count down the best and worst of them. Each contest was rated out of 50 possible points. The following five criteria were used, based on a 1-to-10 scale.
1. Star presence: Did big names participate? Did they do well?
2. “Wow” moment: How good was the best moment from the dunk contest?
3. Rivalry: Was there a back-and-forth between at least two of the competitors to build the drama?
4. Variety: How many unique or cool dunks did the various competitors attempt?
5. Legacy: Will the dunk contest be remembered for positive reasons?
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the five worst dunk contests. These five failed for all sorts of reasons: The format got in the way; one participant messed up everything; there wasn’t enough originality; effort from some competitors was lacking; and, worst of all, the results were flat boring. (We’ll do the 10 best dunk contests on Wednesday and the 10 best dunks in the event’s history on Thursday.)
5. 2005 Slam Dunk Contest
Star presence: 6 out of 10. A very promising field on paper. Pre-microfracture Amar’e Stoudemire, rookies Josh Smith and J.R. Smith and Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who was back after an OK showing in 2004 (see below). The potential was there for big things.
“Wow” moment: 10 out of 10. There’s no question that the 2005 contest should be remembered for one of the most innovative dunks in history. Stoudemire, approaching from the right side of the court, flung the ball hard off the backboard to teammate Steve Nash, who was positioned at the left elbow. Nash received the ball using only his head, directing a return pass to Stoudemire, who caught it smoothly and finished a spinning alley-oop. Gorgeous and 100 percent original. (See the dunk at the 2:40 mark in the video below.)
Rivalry: 6 out of 10. Josh Smith and Stoudemire engaged in a nice back-and-forth, doing their best to pick up the pieces after Birdman made an absolute mess of both of his dunks. Smith, the winner, relied very heavily on various windmills. He leaped over (and past) a seated Kenyon Martin to put in a windmill dunk off the bounce; donned a Dominique Wilkins jersey for another windmill in tribute of the Hawks’ legend and dunk-contest Goliath; and threw down a hammer after spinning the wrong direction. Stoudemire’s soccer dunk was by far his best; he added a simple two-hand reverse with a double-clutch and then a very nice two-handed reverse after passing the ball through his legs.
Variety: 5 out of 10. J.R. Smith had an underrated dunk in which he slipped the ball backward around his waist into his dunking motion. He added a reverse finish on an alley-oop that was nice but not jaw-dropping. In addition to his windmills, Josh Smith also went for the free-throw-line look: He got massive hang time but it was spoiled a bit because he took off from well inside the paint.
Legacy: 0 out of 10. The entire show was derailed by Andersen, who tried and failed and failed and failed to complete his first dunk and then tried and failed and failed and failed to complete his second dunk. Andersen just kept going and going, unwilling to simplify or really modify his attempts, tossing ridiculous lob passes from half court and then failing to convert a reverse alley-oop off the bounce. It was a total disaster. Stoudemire’s soccer dunk was great and it stands the test of time very well. Josh Smith was impressive throughout. J.R. Smith brought some solid material. They all take a clear backseat to the Birdman’s droppings.
Total: 27 out of 50. Never has a non-finalist so stained a dunk contest. All-Stars were openly laughing at Andersen from the sideline. Gilbert Arenas and LeBron James giggled from behind a Handicam. A mascot buried its giant head in its hands in shame. TNT’s Kenny Smith cracked, “He’s on TV more than Friends.” This was the most cringe-inducing episode in dunk-contest history.
4. 1996 Slam Dunk Contest
Star presence: 5 out of 10. No overwhelming names, but a few notables. High-flying rookies Jerry Stackhouse, the third pick in the 1995 draft, and Michael Finley, who would be back in 1997, were two names to watch. The 6-foot Darrell Armstrong carried the “little man” torch. Brent Barry was the first white competitor in five years. Fourth-year guard Doug Christie of New York and second-year guard Greg Minor of Boston rounded out a six-man field.
“Wow” moment: 7 out of 10. Barry’s free-throw-line dunk was memorable, no doubt about it. Who could forget the red windbreaker flapping as he ran, the smooth takeoff and the long extension? It wasn’t a new concept by any means but Barry himself, for obvious reasons, was new and that added an element of excitement.
Rivalry: 4 out of 10. This wound up evolving into Barry versus 12 years of dunk-contest history and a world of stereotypes rather than a head-to-head face-off. Finley and Minor advanced to the second round as both offered some powerful, but straightforward finishes: Minor got his head to rim level a few times, finishing straight on and in reverse fashion, while Finley went to a windmill and a one-hand cock-back. After the final round began with misses for all three competitors, Minor put home a two-handed windmill and Finley went to another one-handed windmill off a self alley-oop. Aside from Barry’s efforts, nothing by any of the other five candidates made you jump out of your seat.
Variety: 2 out of 10. Originality is at a premium in dunk contests, and this one suffers because Barry attempted his famed free-throw-line dunk twice. He also stepped over the line both times. Yes, Michael Jordan also reverted to multiple free-throw-line dunks and was guilty of foot faults, but his efforts came within longer contests and surrounded by other elite acts of flight. Jordan’s in-air creativity on his 15-foot journeys also helped take the rub off the repetition.
The 1996 contest as a whole was stuck between eras, trying to replicate the good old days without really adding much. This group looked like it was out of ideas and had no props to aid its efforts. Christie had the most innovative concept of the night, kicking the ball over his head from the free-throw line and finishing it as a self alley-oop. But he took forever to get it right and it didn’t wind up looking all that cool. Stackhouse washed out early without putting up much of a fight — he did have a smooth cupping reverse — and Armstrong struggled with missed dunks, a problem that took its toll throughout the competition. This year simply lacked action, pop, pizzazz and volume.
Legacy: 6 out of 10. This contest remains memorable because its outcome was, frankly, surprising. Barry’s free-throw-line dunks came out of nowhere and stood out from a pretty bland field. He made history as the first white player to win the dunk contest and he fully deserved the victory. Barry is still the only white champion, a fact that gets brought up every time there is a new white competitor, reinforcing its historical uniqueness.
Total: 24 out of 50. That bit of history wasn’t enough to save this from being one of the worst contests (see for yourself below in a video with a Spanish announcing team). Its best moment was repeated a second time and was itself a reproduction of a better original; the rest was dreary. The 1996 competition contributed to the growing sentiment that everything had been done and that the dunk contest needed to be reimagined. Before complaining about how annoying all the props and gimmicks can be these days, go back and watch the full, sleep-inducing tapes from the mid-1990s. The grass isn’t greener on that side.
3. 2004 Dunk Contest
Star presence: 4 out of 10. Jason Richardson was back, attempting to win his third consecutive title. Gone from 2003, though, were dunk-contest stalwart Desmond Mason and the always-electric Amar’e Stoudemire. In their places: Fred Jones, Chris Andersen and Ricky Davis. Jones was a small and compact leaper. Andersen was an unknown (he hadn’t yet ruined the 2005 contest). Davis was less than a year removed from his infamous triple-double attempt, when he tried to rebound his own shot on the opposing team’s basket.
“Wow” moment: 9 out of 10. A fabulous dunk went to waste, just like Stoudemire’s collaboration with Nash did in 2004. Richardson pulled off a spectacular one-hand windmill through his legs after throwing the ball off the backboard. Super fast, super smooth, super strong, super athletic. It was everything that made Richardson great as a contest competitor. (See the dunk at the 11:50 mark in the video below.)
Rivalry: 4 out of 10. Jones earned a 50 in the second round with a nice self alley-oop to the far side of the hoop where he reached back gracefully, well above the rim, to flush it. Richardson then ran into some trouble, unable to complete a complicated self alley-oop with a 360-degree spin and a pass through his legs. After multiple failed runs at that one, he settled for a 360 windmill with an eagle spread. Pretty, but a letdown given what he had been attempting.
That’s when things got ugly. Jones’ second attempt in the final round involved receiving a pass from a fan in the stands. Somehow, after a few tries at the pass (the sequence begins at the 18-minute mark below), Jones deflected a failed catch off the backboard and through the rim. For whatever reason, that was ruled a dunk attempt and scored by the judges. Nice. That deflating moment was met with boos and it only got worse when Richardson, needing only 42 points to win, missed his final dunk, a 360-degree punch, and was unable to replace it because he had missed earlier tries. That last miss made Jones the champion by default. What a mess.
Variety: 5 out of 10. Decent but not mind-blowing stuff early: Davis completed a 270-degree one-handed dunk, Andersen did a two-handed spinning reverse, Richardson had a simple windmill from under the baseline to get warmed up and Jones went high on a cock-back self alley-oop. The others: Davis attempted one of the best dunks of the night — passing the ball through his legs backward in the air to set up a two-handed reverse — but he couldn’t finish it. Andersen threw one off the glass that looked less impressive than it was because of his height. Jones had a simple rock the cradle.
Legacy: 1 out of 10. The format totally, mercilessly killed this one. The worst ending in contest history. TNT’s Craig Sager spent part of the post-contest interview with Jones (beginning at the 22:30 mark below) begging LeBron James to participate the following year. Oof.
Total: 23 out of 50. It feels wrong to put anything involving Richardson on this list, but there’s no avoiding it. The momentum that builds in dunk contests needs to end with a payoff. Here, it was nothing but a ripoff. It was maddening that Richardson’s off-the-glass dunk went unrecognized, that Jones never got the chance to finish the dunk on the pass from a fan and that a fairly solid group of overall slams was thrown out the window for format reasons. That Richardson was robbed of a third title only adds salt to this wound. Kudos to the fans for booing.
2. 2010 Slam Dunk Contest
Star Presence: 5 out of 10. Guess who? Nate Robinson. Again. The 5-9 guard with the giant hops was back seeking his third title. If we give it to him, will he just go away? There was a little buzz around two of his competitors, DeMar DeRozan and Shannon Brown, as both were known as big leapers. DeRozan, a 2009 lottery pick, was tagged as a major athlete during his recruitment to USC. Brown was a somewhat useful role player for the Lakers and an intriguing in-game dunker. Gerald Wallace, a 2010 All-Star, rounded out the field eight years after he competed in the 2002 dunk contest. He didn’t look like he wanted to be there.
“Wow” moment: 7 out of 10. DeRozan had the best slam of the evening, getting way off the ground to catch a pass off the side of the backboard before throwing down a windmill. Slow motion treated this one well, given how low DeRozan brought the ball down and how long he hung in the air. (See the dunk at the 1:20 mark in the video below.)
Rivalry: 5 out of 10. After watching Robinson duke it out with Dwight Howard in 2007 and 2009, the head-to-head with DeRozan was just lacking. A big issue was Robinson’s inability to complete a behind-the-basket attempt; he opted to settle for an easier look, popping the balloon a bit.
Variety: 4 out of 10. Brown offered a meek right-to-left, switch-the-ball-in-midair dunk and then completed a normal alley-oop (no bells and whistles) from Kobe Bryant. This was layup-line fare. Wallace, apparently awakened from a nap, did a simple two-handed reverse and then a reverse dunk off a bounce. DeRozan jumped over a teammate but pushed off noticeably to do it. Robinson caught a simple alley-oop from a teammate and finished it in routine fashion by his standards.
Legacy: 0 out of 10. We learned that Robinson, who was voted the champion by fans, is tall enough to jump the shark.
Total: 21 out of 50. This one failed in a bunch of ways. Most critically, it went to the Nate Rob well one too many times and he wasn’t able to deliver. Second, it featured two bad apples (Brown and Wallace) in a field of four, a ratio of lethargy that it couldn’t sustain. Third, it lacked a truly signature moment to save it from itself. Finally, and less important, it left the audience thinking that perhaps DeRozan had more to offer than he showed. Together there just wasn’t anything to hang a hat on. The pomp and circumstance — Robinson employed Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders to urge him on — felt like a total waste of time.
1. 1997 Slam Dunk Contest
Star presence: 8 out of 10. This is the quintessential example of how the presence of future Hall of Famers doesn’t necessarily equal good times. The field of six included two explosive rookies, Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen, but lacked any real drama. Bryant and Allen disappointed in their originality: Bryant tried a pedestrian double-pump two-handed reverse, and Allen did a yawn-inducing straight-on double-clutch. If you were expecting Michael Finley, Bob Sura, Darvin Ham or Chris Carr (who?) to emerge, you were waiting all night.
“Wow” moment: 5 out of 10. The best dunk came when Bryant, still a teenager, somewhat clumsily passed the ball through his legs in the air to close out his contest win. It fell short of Isaiah Rider’s 1994 East Bay Funk Dunk and it wasn’t particularly original at that point. (See the dunk at the 2:15 mark in the video below.)
Rivalry: 3 out of 10. The final round lacked meaningful drama; Finley and Carr weren’t going to ride self alley-oop windmills past Bryant.
Variety: 2 out of 10. Lame offerings all around. Lots of self alley-ooping with simplistic finishes and multiple reverse double-pump dunks without much flair. Ham had a nice reverse one-handed spin finish after slapping the backboard, but it wasn’t even enough to get him into the finals. Aside from his through-the-legs dunk, Bryant did have a nice one cruising underneath the rim.
Legacy: 2 out of 10. Let’s just say that this isn’t usually mentioned at the top of Bryant’s long list of career achievements. The best part of this dunk contest was pop singer Brandy cheering for Bryant in the arena. Bryant’s post-dunk flexing to the crowd is worth a chuckle, too.
Total: 20 out of 50 points. How bad was this dunk contest? So bad that the NBA did away with the whole thing the very next year. It doesn’t get any worse than that. It’s worth noting that this wasn’t Bryant’s fault and it’s no stain against him. At least he had the nerve to participate, which is saying a lot more than many of his fellow superstars (Kobe had a high profile, even as a rookie), and he clearly did enough to win. He needed a little bit of competition and it just wasn’t to be found.