I Watch Every NBA Slam Dunk Contest, 1976-89

Saturday, February 19, 2011

NBA TV marathons are among my favorite sensual pleasures (this is where I smack my lips and talk about my pyloric valve).

They've cut up every Slam Dunk Championship into a half hour program; that's maybe the ideal length for a dunk contest; it's maybe the ideal length for a Super Bowl.  Let's see if we can get to work on transforming every event in the culture into 30 minute packages.  I'd watch if CSPAN ran a marathon of Presidential election nights in 30 minute episodes.  Or national calamities.  The full coverage of the Kennedy assassination in 30 minutes.  As long as Bob Neal anchors.

They had a compulsory round in '76, like figure skating.  Artis Gilmore's double axel brought tears to my eyes.  Steve Albert (I think it was Steve) announces the players before the contest, including Larry Kenon, nicknamed "Mr. K", which would have been a good nickname for Dwight Gooden near the end of his career after his license to practice medicine was stripped away; and George Gervin, who Albert called a "guard".  I don't mean Albert just called him a guard - I mean Albert said he was a "quote, guard."  That's maybe how to refer to a guard who doesn't guard anyone.  "Here's your 2011 Golden St. Warriors starting backcourt, "from Davidson College, the Point Guard, Stephen Curry; from Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi, the Quote Guard, Monta Ellis!..."

Erving wins, and rightly so, with the foul line dunk.

I didn't catch who the analyst was.  Let's say it was Hot Rod Hundley, "You know what I smelled?  A lot of stickem around a circle of guys."

Yeah, that's not what I smelled, chief.

That's going to allow for one of my favorite games when watching old sportscasts, Homoerotic Double Entendre Theater.

From '85: You know he's got a deep bag!
From '86: I like Roy Hinson....He's got an unbelievable stretch."

When the dunks returned in '84, it was with new judging criteria - back in '76, dunks were rated based on (1) artistic ability, (2) imagination, (3) body flow (4) fan response - but now changed to a more corporatized (1) creativity (2) style (3) athleticism - somewhere around '87 they stopped referencing judging criteria altogether "just watch the dunks, okay - put numbers in the air and move on with our lives."

Body flow is awesome.  Someone in the ABA offices was listening to some Doobie Brothers when he came up with body flow as an official judging standard for the dunk contest.  It Keeps You Runnin.  Yeah, it keeps you runnin'.  Hey guys, you know what I love about David Thompson?  The way his body flows.  You know he has a deep bag.

Nance wins, and deserved to - like the early era dunkers, he was a version of Erving, much more finesse than power - they were stylish dunkers; his reverse righthand windmill was the best dunk of the night.

Do you want to know the ideal height to win a dunk contest?  6 foot 7.  That's from, again, I'll say Rod Hundley.  Imagine all the stickem!

In '85 we get the debut of the forgotten dunker of the era, Terence Stansbury (replacing Barkley, who we are told was missing the dunk contest due to "personal reasons".  He never winds up competing in one, so whatever those reasons were apparently are ongoing.  Here's hoping he gets the help he needs soon.).  Stansbury hits a 360 degree Statue of Liberty dunk that becomes the best dunk to that date in a performance overlooked due to the arrival of the game changing Dominique Wilkins.  Whereas Dr. J and his progeny were finesse dunkers - 'Nique was all power, just rocketing his way through the mid '80s and really forcing Jordan, who also debuted in '85, to transform his dunk contest game from a more gentle showing in '85, to the heights he'd reach in '87/'88 where he brilliantly became a combination of both styles; Jordan essentially taking the best of what Wilkins could do, adding height and body flow, and building his dunk legacy.

Wilkins wins - taking 12 grand for his troubles, but Stansbury had the best dunk.

Hey, we meet the judges.  Martina!  Staubach!  This was the Spud Webb year, and maybe the year that caused the dunk contest to penetrate the culture when one considers its historical arc.  'Nique had the dunk of the night, a double clutch behind the back thunderslam from the preliminary rounds; I'll call it the third best dunk to date, and it really was just one among another dozen similar powerdunks that marked Dominique the best contest dunker through '86.  But the thing is - Webb was better in the final round; his 1 handed dunk the 4th best to that date; it's tempting to say Wilkins got jobbed by the Spudtastic frenzy "aw, he thinks he's people", a 2011 analogue our national acceptance of special needs reality star Snooki.  Girl got hops.  Can't take that away from her.  But the truth is, Webb was better at the end even though Wilkins dominated the competition..


Once the evening ended in 1987, this had become the best dunk ever.

And that was the second.

And that was the third.

Michael Jordan's 1987 dunk contest performance was the great leap forward for the art form; it was Gutenberg creating movable type.  Sports analysts have spent the last 20 years giving some variation of the "dunk contest is dead" post mortem after every All-Star weekend.  They're wrong - the dunks are more often fun than not, it's just that it can't always be the 1440's.

1988 was Ali/Frazier - but the one we didn't see; it's Ali from '65, all athleticism and body flow - against the ferocity, the thump/thump/thump of the best of Frazier.  The best heavyweight title fight of the 1980s?  It was Jordan/'Nique in the '88 Dunk Contest.

Jordan in '88 was Jordan in '87, he returned with the same repertoire, the same level of excellence, he returned for his coronation; he knew Dominique, he had already absorbed his sexy.  But he didn't know this Wilkins - it wasn't that suddenly Dominique found his inner Erving - instead, in '88, 'Nique's mean got meaner.   He hit Jordan with a reverse two hander in round one (BAM!) then a one armed windmill in the semis (WHAM!) MJ hit his own two handed reverse to slide his way into the finals and then got punched dead in the mouth with Nique's best contest dunk yet, a two hand windmill that you can see, albeit in slow motion, at 2:30 in here.

By all rights, that should have been the knockout.

But it wasn't - Jordan rose, hit his foul line dunk, and took the judge's decision.  If Wilkins, Marvin Hagler-like, had chosen to quit hoops right then and move to Italy, we all would have understood.

Kenny Walker hit a one hand 360 and obliterated the field.  Inspired, as Bob Neal and Rick Barry told us on multiple occasions, by his dead father.

You see that episode of the behind the scenes documentary about Oprah's show (it's terrific, honest) where she really wanted to put the IPad in her last "Oprah's favorite things" episode and said that it was too small a thing to pray for?

This was that - I don't know if you want to play the dead parent card on a dunk contest, especially post-Jordan.  If Kenny Walker was visited by a magical genie and given three wishes, my concern is he spent them all in 1989.

Top 5 Dunks of the 80s:
1. Jordan's one handed under the basket swooping dunk from round 1, 1987
2. Jordan's one handed dunk from the baseline, semifinals, 1987
3. Nique's two hand windmill, finals, 1988
4. Walker's one hand 360 cradle, 1989
5. Jordan's foul line dunk, 1987 (tie)
5. Stansbury's 360 statue of liberty, 1985

Maybe next year I'll come back and do the 90s.  Enjoy All-Star Saturday Night.

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