The Non-Champions: The five greatest Dunk Contest participants who never won
Shawn Kemp (1990, 1991, 1992, 1994)
Before the drug problems, weight problems and child-support problems, Kemp was the “Reign Man,” a 6-foot-10 monster who seemed a good 10 years ahead of his time, at least, when he competed in four Dunk Contests in the early 1990s. A less restrained, less polished successor to Wilkins, Kemp was a Goliath who consistently did battle with smaller competitors, a fact that many observers believe winds up being a disadvantage.
Kemp made his debut as a 20-year-old rookie at the 1990 Dunk Contest, which was won by Wilkins. His first attempt packed so much punch that it sent him flying to the ground, causing the television broadcasting crew to wonder whether he had hurt himself. By the next season, Kemp had ironed out some of the kinks, putting on a great show in a contest that Dee Brown, the ultimate David to Kemp’s Goliath, won with his Reebok pumps and his forearm-across-the-eyes “no-look” dunk.
Kemp’s performance was jaw-dropping without the gimmicks. In a contest full of memorable moments, Kemp’s mid-air bicycle ride was the most impressive (4:00 mark in the video above), and it holds up more than 20 years later, even though he’s stuck with the Non-Champion tag.
The 1991 event would prove to be the highlight of Kemp’s Dunk Contest career, as he didn’t advance out of the first round in 1992 and finished a distance third in 1994. In retrospect, his biggest weakness wound up being a lack of variety: He just couldn’t muster enough ways to set up his sledgehammer finishes that would hold the audience’s attention and overshadow the likes of Wilkins, Brown, Kenny Smith, John Starks, Cedric Ceballos, Isaiah Rider and Robert Pack. Credit Kemp, who made six straight All-Star appearances and three consecutive All-NBA teams in the 1990s, for competing again and again as his star blossomed. His complete lack of bashfulness when it comes to the Dunk Contest is sorely missing among the league’s biggest stars these days.
Clyde Drexler (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989)
There is only one man who tried and failed to win the Dunk Contest more times than Kemp. That distinction belongs to Drexler, a Hall of Fame guard who went 0-for-5 during the 1980s.
Drexler began his Dunk Contest career as a 21-year-old rookie, fresh off a successful college career with the famed “Phi Slamma Jamma” squads at Houston. By the time he called it quits, six years later, he was well into a stretch of seven consecutive All-Star appearances and — it must be noted — he had significantly less hair. Drexler was technically sound and consistent but he never quite had a signature moment to put him over the top. He favored precise looks — double-clutches, cock-backs, reverses and windmills — that were good enough to help him advance in 1987 and 1988 but not quite good enough to topple the monolithic Jordan. That matchup would prove to be a problem in the 1992 Finals, too, as Jordan’s Bulls prevailed over Drexler’s Trail Blazers.
The closest Drexler came to winning was 1989, a contest held in his hometown of Houston. That year marked the only time he advanced to the finals during the contest’s old three-round format. He got there with a pretty 360, in which he kicked up his legs as he spun (watch here at the 0:45 mark), and a smooth windmill. Once in the finals, Drexler missed his first two dunks and didn’t attempt a third, as Kenny “Sky” Walker had run (flown?) away with the victory.
That wasn’t the storybook ending Drexler was hoping for, but it wound up securing his title as the most prolific Non-Champion ever. That’s not a totally bad thing. By coming up empty on so many occasions and living to tell about it, Clyde The Glide will always serve as the go-to example whenever excuses are made for why someone like LeBron James shouldn’t participate.
The 1980s Dunk Contests were loaded to the gills with star power because players like Drexler were willing to put themselves out there, results be damned. Drexler lost to, in order: Larry Nance, Wilkins, Jordan, Jordan and Walker, while also competing against Julius Erving, Tom Champers, Spud Webb and his Blazers teammate Jerome Kersey (who, like Kemp, went 0-for-4 during his Dunk Contest career). Even though the individuals in those contests were Hall of Famers and accomplished dunkers, their collective presence year after year wound up producing a “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” scenario. So much of the mystique surrounding that era, which continues to accumulate more than 20 years later, derives from the murderers’-row nature of the lineups.
Maybe one day, a generation of superstars will take it upon themselves to recreate the high-stakes rivalry between Jordan and Wilkins. If that happens, there will need to be other stars who are willing to swallow their pride and compete for competition’s sake, like Drexler.