The Non-Champions: The five greatest Dunk Contest participants who never won
“The Point Forward All-Stars” will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members. This week, we go back in time to look at the greatest participants in Slam Dunk Contest history who never managed to be crowned champion. As we all know, it’s better to have dunked and lost than to have never dunked at all.
Previously: The All-Grateful Team | The East’s All-Letdown Team | The All-Atrocious Team | The All-Ignored Team | The All-Stocking Stuffer Team | The All-Recalibration Team | The All-Payday Team | The All-Gridiron Team | The All-Sanctioned Team | The All-Dunk Contest Team
This year’s Slam Dunk Contest will have a major, fundamental change: Rather than crowning a single champion, like every other Dunk Contest in the history of the world, this year’s competition will pit the Eastern Conference against the Western Conference, with the three team members of the winning side all earning the “champion” tag. After the contest, fans will vote on a “Dunker of the Night” title.
There are some thoughtful tweaks that should help the flow of the event, but this “champions” business isn’t just a matter of semantics; it’s an abomination. “Slam Dunk Contest Champion” is one of the best and most enduring titles that a basketball player can earn, and the conference format undercuts and distorts its value.
Per the contest’s rules, the only thing a player needs to do to become one of the “champions” is make a single dunk during the 90-second opening round. After that, he could throw the ball against the rim in the second round, get eliminated and backdoor his way into the “champion” tag as his conference teammates secure the title. Conversely, a player could dominate the opening round, pull off two incredible dunks in the second round, miss out on the “champion” tag because his teammates aren’t up to snuff and then watch someone else get “Dunker of the Night” from the fans.
Those are the worst-case scenarios, of course, and it’s possible that the new format succeeds in rewarding the best dunking team and that the fans properly vote for the “Dunker of the Night.” We’ll just have to wait and see whether controversies and snubs can be avoided, and how the post-contest attention and adulation are divvied up between the “Dunker of the Night” or the three champions.
One unintended benefit of the new format: It serves as a reminder that it’s possible to be an excellent Slam Dunk Contest participant without actually winning. Champions like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Vince Carter, Spud Webb, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin and Nate Robinson garner most of the discussion when the contest rolls around each year, but there is no shortage of quality players who came up short when it came to the judges.
Here’s a look at the five greatest Non-Champions: players who made their mark on the Slam Dunk Contest, even if they never brought home the title.
Tracy McGrady (2000)
Together with his cousin and Raptors teammate Vince Carter, a 20-year-old McGrady helped resurrect a contest that hadn’t been held since 1997. The 2000 contest placed No. 2 on The Point Forward’s list of the 10 best Dunk Contests, trailing only the epic showdown between Jordan and Wilkins in 1988. While Carter, the eventual champion, will always be the headliner, McGrady’s performance was worthy of plenty of love, too, and one wonders what would have happened in the decade-plus since if the two hadn’t put on such an electrifying show.
The standout quality of McGrady’s work in 2000 was his acceleration off the ground: He went from 0-to-60 in the blink of an eye, regularly getting his head near the rim as he performed various lob-style dunks. Past that, McGrady struck the proper balance between smooth execution and powerful finish, making the ferocious look effortless.
His first four dunks all earned approving scores from the judges — including a “50″ for a spinning double-clutch, two-handed dunk off a self alley-oop (3:20 mark in the video above) — and that body of work would have easily won him any of the Dunk Contests that were held in the 1990s. Who needs a blindfold when you can combine Wilkins-style windmills with Jordanesque levitation?
Like Carter, McGrady went out on top after the 2000 Dunk Contest, never competing again. That night in Oakland was so magical that it would have sent expectations for subsequent performances soaring to impossible heights, making it understandable that McGrady chose to simply drop the mic. That decision leaves McGrady as the best one-and-done Non-Champion in the contest’s history.