“America,” Charles Barkley intoned Saturday night, just before the NBA slam dunk contest began, “got a better chance of knowing who Dwyane Wade’s kid is.”
He was referring to this year’s slam dunk contestants, the most anonymous ever assembled for an event that . . . how to put this kindly . . . is well past its prime.
We know something about this. The slam dunk contest was invented in Denver, by former Nuggets general manager Carl Scheer. It was inaugurated in Denver at halftime of the final all-star game of the old American Basketball Association, in 1976.
Julius Erving, then playing for the New York Nets, edged David “Skywalker” Thompson of the Nuggets. Watching high-flying dunks was still novel back then. The dunk had just become a legal play in college basketball. When the ABA merged with the NBA later that year, Scheer’s innovation was lost in the tradition-bound older league.
Eight years later, in search of a little buzz for its own mid-season exhibition, the NBA brought its all-star weekend to Denver for the first time and added a dunk contest to spice it up. Dr. J reprised his soaring throw-down from the free-throw line, but Larry Nance won.
In the early years of the NBA version, many of the game’s biggest stars took part. Dominique Wilkins, The Human Highlight Film, won twice, in 1985 and 1990. Michael Jordan took back-to-back dunk titles in 1987 and ’88.
Spud Webb, at 5-foot-7, beat Dominique, his Atlanta teammate, in Dallas in 1986, providing both the appeal of the underdog and the thrill of the upset. Alas, the contest has rarely had either since.
Props were rare in those days. Gerald Wilkins, Dominique’s brother, jumped over a folding chair. That was about it.
By the late ’90s, the thrill was gone. Pretty much every way to dunk a basketball had been tried. Star players quit taking part. The league finally shut it down. There was no slam-dunk contest in 1998 or ’99. They brought it back in 2000 and got a brief bump from Vinsanity, named for Vince Carter, which preceded this year’s Linsanity, named for Jeremy Lin. Pretty much everything comes back around if you wait long enough.
Last year, there was at least one report that the contest was rigged for rookie-of-the-year Blake Griffin, who jumped over the hood of a car he endorses on the side. The contest was veering dangerously toward a cheap imitation of Cirque du Soleil.
This year it sank lower still. The contestants were Chase Budinger of Houston, Jeremy Evans of Utah, Paul George of Indiana and Derrick Williams of Minnesota. If you could pick any of these people out of a lineup, have a Cheez Doodle.
None has been in the league more than three years. Three of the four average fewer than 10 points per game. Evans, declared the winner in a fan vote (this year’s innovation), averages 1.7 points a game for the Jazz.
Introducing one of them, announcer Kevin Harlan began, “Not a lot of people know about him . . . “
Replied Barkley: “You can say that again.”
Having run out of new dunks, they jumped over players, motorcycles and, in one case, a short comedian. They are not only out of compelling contestants, they are out of ideas.
LeBron James suggests a $1 million prize to encourage marquee stars to participate again, a tacit admission that only bribery can breathe life back into this thing.
I have another idea. Some of the most compelling contests have been won by the shortest dunkers. There’s no thrill in watching tall guys dunk. Of course they can. Webb’s win was mesmerizing and 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson proved that short human trick could be duplicated, triplicated and quadruplicated when he won in 2006, 2009 and 2010, becoming the first three-time dunk champion.
Watching little guys dunk is fun. Watching tall guys dunk is boring. So make it a 6-foot and under contest. Because the NBA measures players with their shoes on, adjust it to a 6-2 and under contest, which would still leave it a 6-foot and under contest in real life.
Fifty-one players on current NBA rosters would have been eligible this year, including Rajon Rondo of the Celtics, Kemba Walker of the Bobcats, Jason Terry of the Mavericks, Ty Lawson of the Nuggets, Nate Robinson of the Warriors, Chris Paul and Mo Williams of the Clippers, Brandon Jennings of the Bucks, Jimmer Fredette of the Kings and Tony Parker of the Spurs. Here’s the full list:
Avery Bradley, 6-2, Boston
Rajon Rondo, 6-1, Boston
Jannero Pargo, 6-1, Atlanta
Jeff Teague, 6-2, Atlanta
D.J. Augustin, 6-0, Charlotte
Kemba Walker, 6-1, Charlotte
John Lucas, 5-11, Chicago
C.J. Watson, 6-2, Chicago
Daniel Gibson, 6-2, Cleveland
Rodrigue Beaubois, 6-2, Dallas
Jason Terry, 6-2, Dallas
Ty Lawson, 5-11, Denver
Andre Miller, 6-2, Denver
Will Bynum, 6-0, Detroit
Walker Russell Jr., 6-0, Detroit
Nate Robinson, 5-9, Golden State
Jonny Flynn, 6-0, Houston
Kyle Lowry, 6-0, Houston
Darren Collison, 6-0, Indiana
George Hill, 6-2, Indiana
A.J. Price, 6-2, Indiana
Eric Bledsoe, 6-1, L.A. Clippers
Chris Paul, 6-0, L.A. Clippers
Mo Williams, 6-1, L.A. Clippers
Derek Fisher, 6-1, L.A. Lakers
Mike Conley, 6-1, Memphis
Jeremy Pargo, 6-2, Memphis
Josh Selby, 6-2, Memphis
Mario Chalmers, 6-2, Miami
Norris Cole, 6-2, Miami
Brandon Jennings, 6-1, Milwaukee
J.J. Barea, 6-0, Minnesota
Luke Ridnour, 6-2, Minnesota
Jordan Farmar, 6-2, New Jersey
Sundiata Gaines, 6-1, New Jersey
Mike Bibby, 6-2, New York
Toney Douglas, 6-2, New York
Chris Duhon, 6-1, Orlando
Jameer Nelson, 6-0, Orlando
Ishmael Smith, 6-0, Orlando
Louis Williams, 6-1, Philadelphia
Ronnie Price, 6-2, Phoenix
Sebastian Telfair, 6-0, Phoenix
Raymond Felton, 6-1, Portland
Nolan Smith, 6-2, Portland
Jimmer Fredette, 6-2, Sacramento
Isaiah Thomas, 5-9, Sacramento
T.J. Ford, 6-0, San Antonio
Tony Parker, 6-2, San Antonio
Anthony Carter, 6-1, Toronto
Earl Watson, 6-1, Utah
That’s a lot of potential contestants. And if enough of these guys aren’t willing, embarrass them by showing this video of Webb dunking at age 47. Now, that’s entertainment.