Welcome to Pro Basketball Jeopardy — I’ll take no-names for $500.
Answer: Jason Richardson, Gerald Wallace, Desmond Mason.
The question: Who are three unknown players who have combined to dunk maybe once on national TV this season but are inexplicably going to make up 75 percent of the NBA’s annual Slam Dunk Contest?
It’s true. Thanks to a ridiculous blunder by the league and a series of weak excuses from its elite players, either Jason Richardson, Gerald Wallace or Desmond Mason will be named at least the second-best dunker in the NBA. Maybe even Slam Dunk champ, if — God forbid — Steve Francis hasn’t got his hops going for him on All-Star Saturday night.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Slam Dunk Contest, as part of a new All-Star Weekend extravaganza in 1984, was supposed to re-energize professional basketball, which at the time was fraught with low attendance numbers, even lower TV ratings, and commonplace drug use among NBA players. So Commissioner David Stern brought in the master dunker Julius Erving, the up-and-coming dunkers Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler, and the unlikely champion dunker Larry Nance. Dr. J took off from the foul line, The Human Highlight Film threw down his trademark windmill, Clyde glided into superstardom, Nance sky-walked his way to an upset victory, and the NBA was back in business.
For years following that inaugural dunk-fest, the dunk contest was the highlight of All-Star Weekend. ‘Nique and a young, gravity-defying Michael Jordan battled it out in classic duels of force versus grace. The jaw-dropping performance of 5-foot-6 Spud Webb gave hope to all the less-than-tall basketball players out there. Dee Brown covered his eyes and Cedric Ceballos wore a blindfold on the way to their trophies. Even the currently unemployed Isaiah Rider, on his home court in Minneapolis, pulled off an unprecedented between-the-legs slam that has since been used by two other dunk champs.
But that Minneapolis contest was eight years ago.
Then, plagued by a lack of high-profile players (which is not the same as a lack of highly skilled dunkers) competing and the lockout-shortened season in 1998, the NBA thought the Slam Dunk Contest had reached its revenue-gaining nadir and in 1999 inexcusably pulled the contest from its All-Star Saturday lineup. “NBA.com Slam Dunk,” as it is now so eloquently called, made a briefly impressive return in 2000 when Vince Carter nailed three perfect dunks, but disappeared again last year when it seemed like a bunch of rookies got together to have some fun putting the ball through the hole while being on television at the same time. Some old-school players held up some arbitrary numbers, and Desmond Mason just happened to have the highest number at the end of it all.
And now that the NBA has reduced the playing field to a mere four contestants, it has also reduced the likelihood of an exciting dunk contest to nearly nothing. Of course, if your four contestants were Carter, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, as well as Steve Francis, there might be some fireworks involved. But Vince doesn’t want to be labeled as a dunker, Kobe doesn’t want to hurt himself and his chances for a yet another championship, and T-Mac probably just realizes it won’t be any fun without Vince and Kobe.
There’s a rumor going around that each contestant will have to spin a “Wheel of Famous Dunks” and attempt the dunk his spin lands on. Not only is that the last and most unbelievably idiotic thing I ever thought I’d see at a dunk contest, but how are Richardson, Wallace and Mason going to be able to even attempt what Erving, Jordan and Carter have done?
You can mess around with the format of the dunk contest all you like, but the only way it’s going to regain the same awe-inspiring status it once held is by bringing the dunkers — the real dunkers — back. Do something (anything!) to prevent them from whining their way out of what could be the most exciting event of the season. Show them more love, give them more money, take away their money — I don’t care. Just bring back the Slam Dunk Contest that I know and love.