The Non-Champions: The five greatest Dunk Contest participants who never won
JaVale McGee (2011)
As a goofy big man without All-Star credentials, McGee sticks out like a 7-foot sore thumb from the previous three names on this list. That’s OK, because there aren’t many lists or groups that McGee, who famously cultivated an alter-ego known as “Pierre,” would fit into anyway.
McGee, 26, has competed in only one Dunk Contest: the often-debated 2011 contest won by Griffin. Lacking in star power, name recognition and Kias, McGee nevertheless turned in an unforgettable performance that, start to finish, stands as one of the most creative in contest history.
As Griffin was dunking over a car and Serge Ibaka was removing a doll from the rim with his mouth, McGee opted for the simplest props of all: extra hoops and extra basketballs. The long-armed McGee put his wingspan to full use by dunking two balls into two hoops (2:30 mark in the video above) and dunking three balls through one rim in quick succession (5:30 mark in the video above). To up the degree of difficulty on the double-hoop dunk, he even threw a lob to himself off the backboard to get things started. As commentator Reggie Miller rightly noted on the broadcast (for once), few other players could execute McGee’s double feat.
In the final round, McGee made it impossible for anyone to write him off as a “gimmick” dunker. In one of the greatest dunks of all time to watch in slow motion (7:10 mark in the video above), McGee cuffed the ball as he ran in from the left corner, ducking his head to avoid the backboard as he completed a smooth one-handed reverse by scissoring his arm in a classic “rock the cradle” action. A (relatively) pedestrian final dunk — in which he got his head to rim level and tomahawked the ball through the hoop (8:30 mark in the video above) — gave way to a fan vote that was bound to favor Griffin, who was also competing in front of the home crowd in Los Angeles.
McGee’s thoughtful, well-constructed portfolio could have used one final exclamation point, but it nevertheless stands as an inspiring interpretation of the format. That he managed not to lose his composure when his attention-craving mother made a scene only makes his night that much more remarkable. All told, McGee is a must-have on this list of Non-Champions because he is the counterargument to anyone who claims that “every dunk has been done before.” The only true limiting factor is the imagination, and few can match McGee on that front.
Terence Stansbury (1985, 1986, 1987)
Few NBA players deserve a cult following quite like Stansbury, who went toe-to-toe with Hall of Famers in three consecutive Dunk Contests in the mid-1980s. If you haven’t heard Stansbury’s name before, don’t worry: The 1984 first-round pick started just 31 games with the Pacers and SuperSonics before heading overseas to play in Europe. Does it get any better than a player who competed in the Dunk Contest every season during a career that lasted only three years?
Relative no-namers like Jeremy Evans and James White have become commonplace in the Dunk Contest in recent years, but consider the field that the 23-year-old Stansbury faced as a rookie in 1985: Drexler, Orlando Woolridge, Jordan, Erving, Wilkins, Nance and Darrell Griffith. That’s Four Hall of Famers, a three-time All-Star (Nance), the 1981 Rookie of the Year (Griffith), a guy who averaged at least 20 points four times (Woolridge) and Stansbury, who averaged 7.1 points in 17.3 minutes for Indiana that year.
Just look at the promotional photograph above: Stansbury is practically squeezed out of the shot by Erving and Wilkins.
As it turns out, Stansbury was called in as a replacement for Charles Barley that year, according to the Los Angeles Times, and he made the most of his opportunity with his unforgettable “Statue of Liberty” signature dunk.
The dunk was beautiful and much more difficult than he made it look. Getting up a full head of steam from midcourt, Stansbury would rotate 360 degrees in the air before holding the ball out in front of him, like a torch, and dunking it (the first dunk in the video above). He wasn’t totally a one-trick pony — he had flips, scoops, double-clutches — but none of those efforts stood out from the pack quite like the spinning Statue of Liberty.
Stansbury broke out the Statue of Liberty again in 1986 and 1987, and he was on firm ground as a fan favorite by the dunk’s third iteration. Ultimately, he went down as an incredible appetizer for some of the most memorable one-on-one matchups in the contest’s history. In all three contests, Stansbury advanced to the second round before giving way to Wilkins/Jordan in 1985, Webb/Wilkins in 1986, and Jordan/Kersey in 1987.
A list of Non-Champions would be incomplete without Stansbury, who joins Webb as one of the contest’s early every-man underdogs. Although he has reflected on the “politics” involved in the judge’s scoring that favored Jordan, Stansbury’s presence in the event represents the ideal of the contest’s level playing field. Here, if nowhere else, an obscure player destined for a career that would take him to Belgium, France, Israel and Greece, among other places, was able to sit side-by-side with the greatest of all time.
Stansbury never went home a champion but, like the other names on this list, his contributions to the contest haven’t been forgotten, even after all these years.