The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Slam Dunk Contest

2017's contest features fewer big names and contestants. That's a good thing.

Few players have come close to putting on a dunk contest show like Vince Carter once did. Credit: Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport/Getty

In the 1980s, the Slam Dunk Contest was was the event to watch during NBA All-Star Weekend, maybe even more than the game itself. So what happened? 

The contest originated in the American Basketball Association (which merged with the NBA) in 1976, before being adopted by the NBA eight years later. The inaugural contestants included names like Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Ralph Sampson and Clyde Drexler (who competed in – and lost – a record five contests over the years). Charles Barkley was supposed to compete, but dropped out at the last minute due to injuries. He was replaced by Larry Nance, who ended up winning that first contest.

A year later, in 1985, a rookie named Michael Jordan joined the fray, and the Jordan-Wilkins battles became must-see-TV over the next several years. Jordan was out of the contest due to injury in 1986, which paved the way for 5'7' Spud Webb to almost literally defy gravity and beat the 6’8” Wilkins for the title. Jordan would win back-to-back titles in 1987 and 1988 (the first player to do so), after which he retired from the competition for good. Jordan went out on top, putting on a performance that has yet to be usurped in the almost three decades since. The 1988 dunk contest remains perhaps the best of all time. These were the best dunkers in the league, competing against each other at the top of their games. The spirit of those early contests has never really been replicated.

The early 1990s saw a new crop of all-stars enter the arena, including Dee Brown, Scottie Pippin and Shawn Kemp. But as the decade progressed, the contest began to lose some of its luster. There was no contest at all in 1998 and 1999 – the latter thanks to the NBA lockout.

The 2000s started on an upswing: the 2000 contest saw perhaps the best single performance of all time by Vince Carter. Maybe the best part of the video below from Carter’s unrivaled performance are the reactions of the all-stars in the crowd, all of them with camcorders fixed squarely on the court. Kevin Garnett falls backwards like he's been literally blown out of his seat; Shaquille O'Neal can't seem to pick his jaw up off the floor. They are witnessing history, superhuman feats of athleticism, and they know it.

But it's been mostly downhill from there, with the dunk contest never really being able to find its way back to the greatness it once achieved. Somewhere along the way, the dunk contest jumped the shark. It went from creativity to gimmicky, and the best players in the league stopped participating.

Over the years, likely in an effort to keep the contest interesting, the league has added gimmicks to the contest that are below the athletes competing. When you have skilled, professional hoops players competing, there is no need for things like a Wheel to spin that dictates the kind of dunk the contestant must do; getting someone's mother onto the court; asking celebrities to play a role in the act; leaping over cars; blowing out candles; or wearing costumes. 

The constant format changes, perhaps an attempt at shaking things up, are also dizzying. The 2014 contest was notorious for the ridiculous decision to not have a single winner, but to crown three "champions" who competed together on an Eastern Conference or Western Conference team. The fans then voted for the "Dunker of the Night" title. That entry came on the heels of the most disastrous contests in history: the 2010 and 2012 dunk contests. In 2012, it was cut down to one round and the judges were nixed in favor of fans who could vote via Twitter, text, or web. 2010 was so bad that Charles Barkley commented that he hoped no one would win.

Part of the reason for the lackluster events is the dearth of big name talent that the contest attracts. Unlike its early days, big names like Dwayne Wade and LeBron James avoid dunking, feeling that they have everything to lose and nothing to gain by competing. "If I decided to do it then I would have to win," James said in 2012. "Otherwise it would be a waste of my Saturday night." Wade has been even more candid, having been quoted as saying, "I enjoy being a fan on the sidelines and not making a fool of myself." Of course, they're not wrong, and it's absolutely their right to not participate in the event if they don’t want to, but it definitely makes it harder to draw an audience and the caliber of competitor doesn’t live up to what the contest attracted in its heyday.

Last year's dunk contest showed surprising signs of life, however. Zach LaVine, returning from his 2015 victory, put on a show that rivals the best performances in dunk contest history. After running out onto the court and hugging Drake, he proceeded to light the court on fire and win the title again. 

This year features one all-star in DeAndre Jordan. He's going up against Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic (last year's runner-up), Derrick Jones Jr. of the Phoenix Suns and Glenn Robinson III of the Indiana Pacers. It's not exactly a dunk contest that's heavy on star power, and half the number of players that competed 30 years ago when Jordan, Drexler and Jerome Kersey took over the weekend in Seattle. But less could be better, and the stripped-down event that is only two rounds long, with each player getting two dunks, makes things move faster. But will it be enough to make the Slam Dunk Contest the event that fans can't miss over All-Star weekend once again?

It's possible. 

Gordon, who has been called the "Picasso of the Slam Dunk Contest," is good enough to make fans want to tune in, and Derrick Jones Jr. has kept his dunking talents hidden during his short NBA career, so there's some intrigue there. Overall, for the contest to continue its rehabilitation, the contestants will have to make the most out of the two dunks they're given in the first round. And while the small lineup doesn't offer as much as dunk contest's of yesteryear in terms of participants or big names, that might be exactly what it needs.