The 10 greatest Slam Dunk ContestsBen 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. The Point Forward already counted down the five worst dunk contests. Now it’s time to rank the 10 best.
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, here’s our list of the 10 greatest dunk contests. (Check back Thursday for the 10 best dunks in the event’s history.)
10. 1990 Slam Dunk Contest
1. Star presence: 10 out of 10. Dominique Wilkins, an all-time great in dunk contests, was back for a swan song after sitting out 1989 and losing an epic head-to-head matchup with Michael Jordan in 1988. Jordan, retired from dunk contests, was not in this field, but plenty of other stars and near-stars were, including Scottie Pippen, Shawn Kemp, Rex Chapman and the 24-year-old Kenny Smith. Defending champion Kenny “Sky” Walker, Billy Thompson and Kenny Battle completed the eight-man field. The latter two weren’t heard from after the first round.
2. “Wow” moment: 8 out of 10. Wilkins, even at his height in the mid-1980s, succeeded on consistency and power rather than a singular moment. That remained true in 1990. Arguably the best dunk came from Smith, who stood with his back to the basket at the free-throw line, passing the ball through his legs and off the backboard to set up a reverse, two-handed dunk. It wasn’t completely mesmerizing, but it was a little ahead of its time and sharply executed. (See the dunk at the 1:48 mark in the video below.)
3. Rivalry: 7 out of 10. The 1990 contest took on the feel of a poor man’s 1986 edition, when Wilkins dueled 5-foot-7 Spud Webb. In 1990, Wilkins’ shorter competitor was Smith, who had all sorts of bounce in his 6-3 frame. The 1986 electricity just wasn’t there in this one, though. Don’t blame Smith, who had a nice 360-degreee self alley-oop (2:30 mark below) to complement the dunk mentioned above. After all, there’s only one Spud Webb.
Wilkins stuck to his playbook of power slams, double clutches and windmills to secure his second title. His superior name recognition and reputation didn’t hurt.
4. Variety: 8 out of 10. Smith’s reverse had some company among the unusual offerings in 1990. Chapman had a pretty flip alley-oop pass over his head to set up a dunk (20-second mark), Pippen went to the Jordan playbook by dunking from the free-throw line (42-second mark) and Kemp flipped one to himself on his way to some reverse rainmaking (1:59 mark). Walker brought the whole package, too. He had a cuff reverse dunk along the baseline (2:10 mark), a 360-degree one-handed cuff dunk (2:20 mark) and a two-handed 360-degree dunk with a double pump.
5. Legacy: 7 out of 10. Wilkins’ victory enabled him to join Jordan as the only two-time winners at that point. ‘Nique, then 30, went out on top and cemented his status as one of the contest’s influential founding fathers. Just as Jordan’s 1987 win paled in comparison to his 1988 triumph, Wilkins’ 1990 title lacked the juice of his first success, when he took down MJ in 1985.
Total: 40 out of 50. This year shut the door on the early glory days of the dunk contest. All of the names that popped up regularly in the 1980s gave way to a new wave of dunkers in 1991. In that sense, it was fitting that Wilkins put a bow on the era by winning in 1990, especially after close losses to Webb in 1986 and Jordan in 1988. This contest amounted to a solid last stand by a deserving, relentless competitor.
9. 2003 Slam Dunk Contest
1. Star presence: 6 out of 10. The best player from the quartet wound up being Amar’e Stoudemire, but the headliners were defending champion Jason Richardson and 2001 winner Desmond Mason. Richardson’s powerful, complicated dunks and major hops made him a natural to build on the groundbreaking work done by Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady in 2000. Mason, meanwhile, is one of the forgotten stars of the contest’s history. A right-hander, his dunks often looked cooler simply because of his tendency to use his left hand. Richard Jefferson was the fourth entrant. No one is quite sure why he was invited and the good news is that he didn’t last long.
2. “Wow” moment: 10 out of 10. Richardson’s off-the-glass, through-the-legs dunk in 2004 was tremendous, but his best from 2003 just might have been better. Starting in the right corner, Richardson threw a high, bouncing lob toward the basket. He took off from the protected circle and secured the ball with his right hand and passed it through his legs, backward, to his left hand, before finishing a reverse dunk all in one motion. It was so sly that slow-motion replay was needed to see exactly what he had accomplished. That’s not a dunk you go out to the park and nail on the first time; this was a craftsman’s work. (See the dunk at the 2:58 mark in the video below.)
3. Rivalry: 9 out of 10. This was a solid dunk-off between Richardson and Mason that included traditional favorites and new flourishes. Mason rocked the baby (32-second mark), scissor-kicked while flying in for a one-handed jam (1:25 mark) and had his dunk of the night when he put the ball between his legs, almost as an afterthought, before finishing with his left hand (1:58 mark). His final dunk, a two-handed windmill, just wasn’t enough to keep up with Richardson, who repeated as champion.
Richardson went way up for a one-handed windmill to get a 50 (55-second mark), used a 360 windmill double-clutch hammer to advance (1:39 mark) and had a double-clutch reverse that abused the rim (2:22 mark). He shut the house down with the backward between-the-legs number.
4. Variety: 9 out of 10. As noted, Richardson and Mason supplied many new twists, pushing forward the idea that in-air combinations would become the future of dunk contests. Meanwhile, the 6-10 Stoudemire went through his legs while in midair (17-second mark), no small feat for a man his size. Jefferson’s efforts were pathetic. He tried and failed to replicate Vince Carter’s arm-through-the-rim dunk. Let’s never speak of it again.
5. Legacy: 7 out of 10. Richardson, regarded as one of the best modern contest participants, would surely get even more love from casual fans if he had blossomed into a perennial All-Star guard. Carter cast such a long shadow with his 2000 performance that the legacy factor for Richardson is limited a bit. Richardson’s dunks were marvels of timing and strength that hold up well, though.
Total: 41 out of 50. Contest enthusiasts should be very glad that 2003 worked out as it did, because Richardson had terrible luck with event rules. He won in 2002 despite a distracting “wheel” that participants had to spin to determine what kind of dunk they needed to execute. Lame. His 2004 appearance was ruined by dumb rules that messed up the ending and gave the title, unfairly, to Fred Jones. If he had executed some of his high degree-of-difficulty dunks in 2004 and competed under more sensible rules, Richardson easily could have been a three-time champion and been mentioned more regularly among the greats in the contest’s history. At least he has 2003.
8. 1987 Slam Dunk Contest
1. Star presence: 10 out of 10. Michael Jordan was in it. What else needs to be said? Jordan, who missed the 1986 contest because of injury, was seeking his first title after losing to Dominique Wilkins in 1985. His competition was power-dunking small forward Jerome Kersey, 360 specialist Terence Stansbury, future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, Ron Harper, Johnny Dawkins, Tom Chambers and Gerald Wilkins, Dominique’s younger brother. There was no shortage of star power and talent, but the absence of ‘Nique and 1986 champion Spud Webb took away some of the magic.
2. “Wow” moment: 8 out of 10. Without the head-to-head drama between Jordan and Dominique that defined the 1985 and 1988 contests, everything feels a touch flat when you look back on it. Jordan’s best moment in 1987 was his free-throw-line dunk; the slam improved on the one he offered in 1985 because he made it look a bit easier, but it lacked the “ooh, ahh” factor of his 1988 foul-line winner. At least you could see his tongue wagging clearly. (See the dunk at the 3:23 mark in the video below.) His sideways, hanging, leaning into the rim dunk was top-shelf too.
3. Rivalry: 9 out of 10. Kersey essentially played Dominique’s part in a stand-in role, flushing powerful dunks with his left hand, right hand and both hands to advance against Jordan. A chiseled, powerful forward, the 6-7 Kersey had enough hang time to rock the ball back and forth and kick out his legs to add style points to his delivery. He attacked the rim hard but didn’t have the Human Highlight Film’s length, which minimized the visual impact of some of his better dunks. Still, Kersey finished a clear second by going as hard in the contest as he would diving after loose balls for the Trail Blazers.
4. Variety: 8 out of 10. The mid-1980s contests just go on and on, demanding dunk after dunk from the participants who advance. Jordan did well to mix things up, using a rock-the-cradle move, a beautiful sideways gliding dunk that had his head near the rim (5:25 mark below), some reverse action, a double-pump spread eagle and his bread-and-butter free-throw dunk. Kersey kept up with all manners of reverses (including one off the glass, at the 3:14 mark), windmills and double-clutch moves, but the final round swung hard in Jordan’s favor before too long.
In the early rounds, Stansbury did his trademark 360 statue of the liberty (46-second mark) and a scissor-kick self alley-oop finish; Drexler went off the glass for one (28-second mark) and performed an under-the-hoop reverse for another; and Harper threw a slightly goofy alley-oop (1:02 mark).
5. Legacy: 8 out of 10. The 1987 contest proved that even Jordan can get lost in his own shadow. This was far from a bad showcase or an unimpressive effort from him, but it simply didn’t hold a candle to 1988, when Dominique was back in the building, the contest was at Jordan’s home arena in Chicago and the drama unfolded perfectly for a smash ending. This will be remembered only as Jordan’s first dunk-contest title, not his best.
Total: 43 out of 50. The contest’s golden era stretched from 1985 to 1988 and this one winds up the weakest of the four, mostly because the head-to-head aspect that shaped 1985 and 1988 (Jordan versus Dominique) and 1986 (Spud Webb vs. ‘Nique) didn’t materialize to the same degree. This was a nice prelude to 1988, though, because it gave Jordan and Dominique one title each, setting up the next year as a showdown.
7. 1991 Slam Dunk Contest
1. Star presence: 8 out of 10. As mentioned above, 1991 marked a sea change, with all of the regular participants from the 1980s officially in dunk-contest retirement. That opened the door for an enthusiastic rookie Celtics guard named Dee Brown to emerge from an eight-man field that included 1990 participants Shawn Kemp, Kenny Smith and Rex Chapman, along with Kenny Williams, Blue Edwards, Otis Smith and Kendall Gill.
2. “Wow” moment: 9 out of 10. The 6-1 Brown had the most memorable dunk when he covered his face with his right arm to finish a “no-look” slam. (See the dunk at the 4:28 mark of the video below.) The 22-year-old’s shameless product placement — he pumped up his Reeboks before doing a lob dunk — was a good decade ahead of its time and is chuckle-worthy in hindsight. The 6-10 Kemp, the runner-up, produced the most jaw-dropping dunk when he double-clutched coming down the paint and kicked up his legs so high that it looked like he was riding an 8-foot-tall bicycle or running at a full sprint several feet off the ground (4:05 mark). The angles that his legs and arms took made you wipe your eyes in disbelief.
3. Rivalry: 10 out of 10. For two guys with no previous history and a fairly big disparity in on-court talents, Brown and Kemp staged a great two-man, back-and-forth contest. Brown relied more on the gimmicks than Kemp, who oozed athleticism, but the two made sure that the entire event took place above the rim. Kemp brought back a flip trick from 1990 and added a new over-the-shoulder flip to himself on a later dunk (2:34 mark). Brown did a two-handed windmill and a two-handed reverse double clutch that went down clear to his ankles (3:20 mark). Brown got creative with two balls, resting one on the back of the rim that he dunked after he put a first dunk through. He didn’t execute the double dunk smoothly, but it still represented a new look. He closed with a two-handed spinning finish on a bouncing self alley-oop that looked nice given his size (4:15 mark), followed by the no-look, arm-covering-face dunk to take home a well-deserved title.
4. Variety: 7 out of 10. Filling out around Brown and Kemp was Kenny Smith, who repeated his between-the-legs, off-the-backboard dunk from 1990 (four-second mark), had a 360 lob finish and completed a reverse dunk with a hard backboard slap (1:05 mark), something we should probably see more of in dunk contests than we have. Chapman went to his flipping bag of tricks (1:15 mark), just as he did in 1990, and added a lob off the glass.
5. Legacy: 10 out of 10. Brown carved out a lasting piece of contest history for himself with his relatively simple bag of tricks. Using his shoes, an extra ball and his off arm, he was able to add new elements to three dunks that are pretty easy to recall all these years later. The no-look dunk was a staple across American playgrounds for the better part of the 1990s and there’s a genius to its simplicity. That he beat the much taller Kemp, one of the most athletic players of his generation, adds to Brown’s aura and staying power.
Total: 44 out of 50. Brown wasn’t Spud Webb, to be sure, but he became the little guy you couldn’t root against as this contest unfolded. It helped that Kemp and Kenny Smith pushed him, improving the contest’s overall quality, but Brown had that “it” factor that so many dunk contests lack. This was the best 1990s dunk contest. The next guy to be as captivating and memorable as Brown was Vince Carter in 2000.
6. 2011 Slam Dunk Contest
1. Star presence: 8 out of 10. Blake Griffin joined Dwight Howard as the only true superstars to enter the dunk contest post-Vince Carter in 2000. Griffin’s entry was the most anticipated in years. His in-game dunking exhibitions were legendary. He benefited completely from YouTube, Twitter and the viral-video phenomenon. He offered power at his size not seen since Dominique Wilkins. The contest was so hyped that details of his gimmicks began leaking out of the Staples Center in Los Angeles hours in advance of the actual show. He’s going to do what? Jump over a car? What?
JaVale McGee, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka complemented Griffin in a great field. None of the three were established stars, but the 7-foot McGee brought next-level quirkiness, DeRozan got his feet wet in 2010 and Ibaka was an extremely athletic wild card.
2. “Wow” moment: 10 out of 10. Yes, Griffin’s car jump stretched the boundaries of dunk-contest gimmickry past their breaking point. It was overly commercial, way over the top and technically not that much more impressive than leaping over someone seated in the paint. Disclaimers aside, it was totally riveting and outrageously ostentatious, and the alley-oop from Baron Davis was cleanly executed on the first try. Most important, it was unforgettable, immediately vaulting near the top of the list of indelible dunk-contest moments. (See the dunk at the 6:20 mark in the video below.)
3. Rivalry: 8 out of 10. The biggest knock on this contest is that Griffin’s star power dwarfed that of his competitors and a fan vote was going to decide the outcome. There was always an itchy feeling that McGee, who advanced to the finals, wasn’t going to be able to win a close contest; indeed, he was blown out in the fan vote despite an excellent showing. The lesson learned for future fan-driven contests is that there needs to be zero stars or at least two stars in the interest of fair play. Nevertheless, kudos to McGee for his performance. He put up a spirited fight and left many viewers feeling he got snubbed. (Others thought DeRozan was snubbed, too, highlighting the depth of this group.)
4. Variety: 9 out of 10. The variety was this contest’s strongest suit. All four guys showed out. DeRozan went smoothly through the legs off a pass from the baseline on one attempt (35-second mark) and executed a gorgeous self alley-oop cupped reverse (2:20 mark). Ibaka took off from the free-throw line on one attempt (55-second mark) and retrieved a toy from the rim with his mouth (!) on another (2:59 mark). Not bad for two guys eliminated in the first round.
McGee presented multiple new dunks. He found a way to dunk two balls into two different baskets with a toss involved (1:25 mark), and he dunked three balls in one jump with the help of an alley-oop (3:28 mark). Amazing. His other dunks: a Michael Jordan-style wrist cuff, in which he nearly hit his head on the backboard (4:37 mark), and an off-the-backboard alley-oop while gazing down into the rim. He ran out of steam a bit at the end, but it was still a bounty of goodness.
Finally, Griffin was Wilkins-esque in his early offerings — a two-handed 360 and a windmill off a catch — before replicating Vince Carter’s famous arm-through-the-rim dunk from 2000 (5:14 mark). He even held that one longer for an extended effect. The contest ended with the car dunk, earning Griffin his trophy.
5. Legacy: 10 out of 10. No yawning here, as 2011 assaulted the senses in every possible way and, for that reason, generated polarizing results initially. Griffin is a big reason for the polarization: He has millions of fans and also a large group of detractors. Polarizing, in this case, is good, because he delivered on substantial hype, created a moment that will live for decades and forced you to watch. That he paid tribute to Carter and, less directly, Wilkins was a nice touch for dunk-contest diehards.
Total: 45 out of 50. This was clearly the second-best contest of the gimmick era, trailing only the 2008 version, which featured Dwight Howard’s Superman act and Gerald Green’s cupcake dunk. For some, ranking this contest at No. 6 overall might feel too high, but this one should age very well because of Griffin’s presence, his signature moment, the high quality of the competition and McGee’s imagination.
5. 1985 Slam Dunk Contest
1. Star presence: 10 out of 10. On paper, this was the deepest dunk-contest pool ever. It’s almost comical. Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Michael “Air” Jordan. Dominique “Human Highlight Film” Wilkins. Clyde “The Glide” Drexler. Larry Nance, who won the NBA’s first dunk contest the previous year. Toss in the very underrated Terence Stansbury, Orlando Woolridge and Darrell Griffith and this is just an embarrassment of riches. In practice, deepest didn’t quite equal best for two reasons: Erving was two weeks shy of his 35th birthday, and Jordan, just a rookie, didn’t appear to take this contest totally seriously. That left 1985 as a hint of the greatness to come rather than a finished product.
2. “Wow” moment: 10 out of 10. This contest hinged on the extended final-round duel between Jordan and Wilkins, but the best dunk just might have been Stansbury’s 360 statue of liberty. Nobody executed a 360 quite like Stansbury, whose quick, tight spin makes him almost look like a figure skater. He completed his full turn so fast off one foot that he was able to get his shoulders back square to the basket so that he could eye the basket from nearly rim level. He then completed the flush, not rushed in the slightest, before landing smoothly. Stansbury brought this dunk back in later contests and for good reason. This was special. (See the dunk at the 2:30 mark in the video below.)
3. Rivalry: 10 out of 10. This was chapter one of the greatest rivalry in the event’s history: Jordan vs. Wilkins. The punishing Hawks forward prevailed here thanks to the same virtues that defined his dunking career: consistency, power and more power. Jordan simply appeared too nonchalant early, opening the competition in a red-and-black warmup outfit and not really turning on the cutthroat competitive desire he became known for in later years. His best dunk came when he cuffed the ball and cruised in from the side (5:39 mark), but it lacked the showy oomph and looked a bit too much like an in-game dunk. Jordan’s other efforts included a simple up-and-under and a free-throw-line dunk (10:45 mark) in which he stepped on the line and strained to complete it. Jordan’s foul-line dunks in 1988 were much prettier and appeared more effortless. As the contest wore on, Jordan resorted to a simple double clutch and a two-handed reverse off a bounce. He then went back to a double-clutch cuff-style dunk for his last effort.
Wilkins won the war of attrition with a steady stream of punches, windmills and reverses. He got up high, showed great dexterity and always pummeled the rim. A two-hand windmill (14:43 mark) finally gave him the title over Jordan, setting up an epic rematch in 1988.
4. Variety: 8 out of 10. The two finalists were probably asked to complete too many attempts and this competition felt a bit repetitive toward the end as Jordan and Wilkins went back into their bags to pull out similar tricks. If Wilkins has one fault it’s that his dunks tend to run into each other: His one-handed windmill is different from his two-handed windmill, but neither sticks in the memory forever. That’s a small negative by-product of being a consistent dunker. Here, unlike in 1988, being very good consistently was a ticket to victory.
Stansbury’s efforts were also solid. Along with the full running 360, he also had a flip alley-oop to himself with a pump fake to accentuate it at the end (8:07 mark). He shouldn’t be lost as a footnote in dunk-contest history. Erving pulled off a simple two-ball, two-handed routine that looks really dated these days. Drexler’s dunks in later contests were more creative than his 1985 fare.
5. Legacy: 8 out of 10. The lasting impact of 1985 was two-fold: Wilkins, one of the contest’s Mount Rushmore personalities, earned his first title and was set up as a target for Jordan. Unfortunately for Wilkins, 1988 will live on longer than 1985 because of who Jordan became and because His Airness’ approach offered more accessible aesthetics. That shouldn’t take anything away from Wilkins’ performance in 1985, though, which was thorough, convincing and an important building block for the contest in later years.
Total: 46 out of 50. With the benefit of hindsight, 1985 was the dunk-contest equivalent of Jordan getting “cut” from his high school team. Jordan was the more natural, graceful dunker, and yet the crowd preferred Wilkins’ workmanlike, sledgehammer approach. Jordan seemed to need the humbling. Always in search of a challenge, Jordan found a great one in this contest, realizing he would need to invest a little more attention and hone his craft if he wanted to win later competitions. Thankfully, the loss to Wilkins kept him coming back for more rather than hightailing it to the safety of the sidelines.
4. 2008 Slam Dunk Contest
1. Star presence: 9 out of 10. These days, it’s hard to imagine Dwight Howard playing a key role in anything except a soap opera. But times were different in 2008, when his likability hadn’t yet fallen off a cliff. Howard headed up a no-weak-links four-man field that included defending champion Gerald Green and high fliers Jamario Moon and Rudy Gay.
2. “Wow” moment: 10 out of 10. Howard’s run through this contest rivals the best of the best in dunk-contest history. At least three of his dunks were jaw-droppers. The signature moment came when he donned his Superman cape to fling the ball down through the net from about 6 feet away. Few dunks look as amazing in frame-by-frame slow motion. It was probably the most audacious dunk ever attempted and, by some miracle, the ball went through rather than clanging hard off the rim. Even the most cynical and old-school anti-props viewer had to marvel during this one. (Howard begins the cape-and-dunk act at the three-minute mark in the video below.)
3. Rivalry: 8 out of 10. Howard and Green both competed in the 2007 contest, but Howard didn’t advance to the finals. Green’s lack of star power hurts the rivalry, at least compared to the best of the best from the 1980s, but their two-man show here was something else. Maximum creativity, great use of props and no forgettable efforts. Nothing but classics.
4. Variety: 10 out of 10. The variety was absolutely off the charts. Howard showed just how far a little preparation can take you. In addition to his Superman dunk, he had two particularly impressive technical dunks: a left-handed windmill from behind the hoop (he missed one at the 40-second mark but completed it at the 55-second mark below) and an ingenious dunk in which he touched the ball off the backboard with one hand and then dunked it with the other before landing (five-minute mark). He made both high degree-of-difficulty dunks look easy.
There there was Green, whose cupcake production (1:35 mark) ranks at the top of the list of best dunks in a losing effort. Slow-motion and video replay helped sell the greatness, as the candle flickered out perfectly just before he finished his slam. Oh, by the way, he finished a between-the-legs, off-the-bounce windmill (4:40 mark), too, and then did it again, without the bounce, while wearing only socks and no shoes. Obscene.
Moon (who punched a 360 hard) and Gay (who finished a nice cruising dunk from the baseline) held up their end of the bargain and set the stage for the final show. There was nothing to complain about with any of these.
5. Legacy: 10 out of 10. Howard sits side by side with Vince Carter in 2000 for the most creative performance in contest history and he easily reigns as the best big-man dunker ever. Regardless of how the rest of Howard’s career plays out, this contest will undoubtedly stand the test of time. Where future big men take the contest bears watching. In 2011, JaVale McGee was the first heir to Howard’s insanity and that worked out great.
Total: 47 out of 50. This edition was the strongest argument yet that props can further the enjoyment rather than serve as a distraction. Green’s cupcake, Howard’s cape and the small hoop Howard used next to the real hoop (6:03 mark) late in the contest were all value added. Re-watching this contest makes you wish props were always this useful and effective. It’s unfortunate that Howard’s participation and massive success didn’t spur other major stars to hop in immediately afterward. Perhaps he set the bar too high.
3. 1986 Slam Dunk Contest
1. Star presence: 9 out of 10. Michael Jordan was not present in 1986, setting up a showdown between defending champion Dominique Wilkins and his diminutive Hawks teammate, Spud Webb, who was listed at 5-foot-7. The eight-man field also included contest regulars Terence Stansbury and Jerome Kersey, who was making his first of four straight appearances. Gerald Wilkins joined Paul Pressey, Roy Hinson and Terry Tyler in completing the group.
2. “Wow” moment: 10 out of 10. Webb’s whole presence almost qualifies as a “wow” moment, given his stature. He often looked like a man taking an elevator to get himself to rim level, and he stretched and strained in ways not seen before or since. For the best of his best, he bounced the ball hard off the ground so that it caromed off the backboard; he then swooped in for the catch and finish at the absolute apex of his leap. So elastic. His smooth finish was punctuated by just how far he had to fall to come back to earth. Webb had his hometown Dallas crowd eating out of his hands, as you would expect, and his happy-go-lucky approach to the event only made his success more enduring. (See the dunk at the 2:20 mark of the video below.)
3. Rivalry: 10 out of 10. Dominique Wilkins found himself in the two most memorable face-offs in contest history, here against Webb and in 1988 against Jordan. His competitiveness shined through in the final round as he perfectly balanced his desire to maintain his throne with an understanding of the developing Webb-centric story. He pounded dunk after dunk, pushing Webb to the very end for the crown.
4. Variety: 9 out of 10. Stansbury’s contributions tend to get overlooked but they shouldn’t. He executed his patented 360 statue of liberty and also jumped over two people sitting in the paint (31-second mark below), sparking a huge crowd reaction. Ultimately, this was Webb’s show, and he did well to mix it up with a straight-on double clutch (1:15 mark), a reverse with a scissor-kick off the bounce (1:25 mark) and a 360 stuff (1:59 mark). Dominique was consistently devastating, threatening to snap the rim with every windmill and reverse.
5. Legacy: 10 out of 10. This contest stands the test of time for three reasons. First, Webb is the ultimate easy-to-root-for underdog. Second, Webb represents the “all men are created equal” aura that has helped give dunk contests their variety over the years. How many other short dunkers have followed in his footsteps? Third, there’s the sportsmanship angle, which shouldn’t be forgotten. Webb and Wilkins pushed each other to an unforgettable exhibition because neither let up or copped out to try to save face. Just a good old-fashioned 15-round bout.
Total: 48 out of 50. This was David slaying Goliath using two legs and a ball. If Jordan made millions of boys want to pick up the sport, Webb democratized the game for the height-challenged. He did so through pure merit: Nothing was given to him, and he rose to the occasion when one of the contest’s all-time greats tested him multiple times. His reward has been lifetime recognition as one of the event’s icons, and he’s the first name mentioned when a new competitor shorter than 6 feet joins the fray.
2. 2000 Slam Dunk Contest
1. Star presence: 9 out of 10. The dunk contest came back with a bang after a two-year hiatus because of lagging creativity and a lockout. Two Raptors who represented the future of the NBA — second-year guard Vince Carter, a first-time All-Star that season, and 20-year-old Tracy McGrady — were headliners alongside Steve Francis, Ricky Davis, Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes in a potent six-man field stacked with scorers. Stackhouse had dunked in 1996, and Davis would dunk again, in 2004. This would be the only appearance from Carter and McGrady; they accomplished so much here that a sequel wasn’t needed. It’s unfortunate, but not unfair, that this crew will likely be remembered more for failing to reach its collective potential than for its abilities at the time.
2. “Wow” moment: 10 out of 10. Carter and McGrady smashed through walls of creativity that had seemed impenetrable in previous years. Between the two of them, they arguably offered more excitement in 2000 than in the previous six contests combined. The peak moment was Carter’s daring decision to dunk his forearm through the rim. Carter let his right arm plunge through the basket, catching the crook of his elbow on the rim so that he hung an extra beat off the ground — an original and breathtaking dunk. (See the dunk at the 47:15 mark in the video below.)
3. Rivalry: 10 out of 10. Carter has received his just due for his astounding performance, but let’s not sell McGrady short. His long bounciness and in-air tricks helped set the stage for the modern era of dunkers; Jason Richardson, for example, did well to carry the torch. McGrady just pounded the rim from way off the ground, ratcheting up the degree of difficulty by tossing in circus self alley-oops with spins (check out the 34:02 mark below for one of them). That he and Carter were teammates and interacted throughout the competition added to the enjoyment, a la Spud Webb and Dominique Wilkins from back in the day.
4. Variety: 10 out of 10. The mid-1990s contests weren’t known for fresh ideas, but this contest featured great new dunk after great new dunk. Carter had a reverse spin 360 that was technically perfect, practically on a Jordan level (15:30 mark). His spinning windmills had Origami-level precision. Francis, listed at 6-3, chipped in with some high-flying self alley-oops that looked great with his explosive leaping ability (check out the 25:20 mark and the 49:50 mark). In addition to his elbow dunk, Carter’s other indelible moment came when he passed the ball through his legs off a bouncing alley-oop pass from McGrady, completing the dunk before landing and pointing both hands up in the sky. (The sequence begins at the 37:10 mark.) This was like calculus compared to the seventh-grade algebra that was Kobe Bryant’s through-the-leg offering in 1997.
5. Legacy: 10 out of 10. The biggest impact: degree of difficulty. Carter and McGrady were capable of such tight contortions in the air and such smooth ball-handling that they unlocked avenues for finishes never seen before. Richardson, Gerald Green, Nate Robinson, Paul George and others have all followed in their footsteps in combining huge leaping ability with technical touches that add up to a more advanced package.
Total: 49 out of 50. This was true innovation and, importantly, so much fun. That Carter never competed again only adds to its myth: He pitched a perfect game in his only career start. He also revealed just how lacking the charisma factor had been in previous dunk contests. His regal confidence and smooth flight recalled Jordan, at least in this controlled setting, and he served as a reminder to future dunkers that how they carry themselves plays a part in how well their offerings are received. Unfortunately, many of his successors have not heeded this reminder.
1. 1988 Slam Dunk Contest
1. Star presence: 10 out of 10. If 1985 was the deepest dunk-contest field of all time, 1988 can claim to be the best. Defending champion Michael Jordan, former winners Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb, and Clyde Drexler and Jerome Kersey were all back after previous appearances and each man was in the prime dunking window of his career. Otis Smith, who advanced out of the first round, and Greg Anderson rounded out the seven-man field.
It’s almost impossible to put the quality of this field into a modern context. Repeating this competition today would require the presence of the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Blake Griffin and Nate Robinson, but it would also require participation and/or victory in a previous contest from each of those stars. Remember, Jordan, Webb and Wilkins were the last three champions, and MJ had a score to settle with ‘Nique, who beat him in 1985, their last meeting.
2. “Wow” moment: 10 out of 10. What’s that saying? “They couldn’t script it better than this.” No contest built to its climax better than the one in 1988. Dunking at home in Chicago Stadium and on the cusp of his rise to global superstardom, Jordan was the obvious protagonist. The table was set beautifully for his winning slam, which is one of the most-watched dunks in basketball history. Needing 49 points to defeat his rival Wilkins to win the contest, Jordan earned a perfect “50″ for a free-throw-line slam. Although Jordan’s foot was on the line, his in-air body contortions sold this one. He brought the ball back behind his right ear while kicking his legs in a modified spread eagle. The combination gave the appearance that he was practically hovering on his descent, a new feel for free-throw-line dunks. As if making up his mind to shift out of hover mode, Jordan reached forward to finish the slam, packing it smoothly through the rim, much to his own delight. (See the dunk at the 3:15 mark in the video below.)
3. Rivalry: 10 out of 10. Jordan vs. Wilkins is the most iconic rivalry in the contest’s history. They are nearly perfect foils: star versus star, guard versus forward, smooth versus power. This was the continuation of a duel that started in 1985, and both were fully invested in winning.
4. Variety: 10 out of 10. In the early rounds, Jordan hung out in midair for a one-handed reverse; Drexler bent hard at the knees as he coasted in for a straight-on windmill; Wilkins double-clutched a reverse, taking the ball down below his knees; Smith executed a 360; Wilkins threw down a shocking 360 with one hand (55-second mark below); and then Jordan did his first free-throw-line dunk (1:02 mark). That was only the beginning.
The final round was just full of iconic dunk after iconic dunk. Wilkins went high off the glass to hammer a one-hand jam after catching the ball well away from the paint (2:06 mark). Jordan executed a graceful hanging double-pump reverse with his head near the rim (2:17 mark). Wilkins nearly broke the rim with a tomahawk windmill from the baseline (2:32 mark). Jordan rocked the cradle, almost casually finishing a two-handed, double-clutch dunk after scissor-kicking his legs. Wilkins murdered the rim again with a two-handed windmill. And then, finally, the free-throw-line finale.
While Jordan did the free-throw-line dunk twice and some of Wilkins’ efforts were a little repetitive, there was a volume issue to consider. These guys dunked and dunked and dunked in this contest, going back and forth multiple times.
5. Legacy: 10 out of 10. There will never be another Jordan and there will never be another 1988 dunk contest. He was the perfect hero, Wilkins was the ideal adversary and there was plenty of other talent on hand. The implications on the sport of Jordan’s growing popularity and fame were massive. How many future dunk-contest participants — let alone basketball players as a whole — wanted to be like Mike? A countless number. How many were held against Jordan as the gold standard? All of them.
Total: 50 out of 50. As good as it gets. The staying power of this dunk contest is amazing. Jordan’s charisma is so far ahead of its time and Wilkins’ power is on par with anything going today, Griffin included. No gimmicks, no props, no teammates, no cumbersome rules, no overly annoying commentators. Just dunks. The mano-a-mano battle was on such a high level that all the other contrivances and distractions that came in future dunk contests were necessary because this one wasn’t going to be topped without them.