There was a time not all that long ago when the NBA Slam Dunk contest was the premier event of All-Star Weekend. The game itself was rarely competitive (at least not until the final few minutes) and even the good ones weren’t as exciting as seeing the League’s premier high-flyers go head to head. People still debate who really won the 1988 contest in Chicago between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins, while the details of the game (Jordan scored 40, the East won by five) have more or less been completely forgotten.
In recent years, this has changed. The last truly memorable contest took place in 2000, when Vince Carter obliterated a field of worthy challengers including then-teammate Tracy McGrady and a truly stellar Steve Francis. The next few years featured some highlights—most notably two-time champ Jason Richardson—but mostly blah contests. The big names didn’t enter (Carter never even defended his title) and inexplicable rule changes stripped away even more of its allure. Last year’s winner wasn’t even a person, it was a conference. How can a conference win a dunk contest?
Well, it’s not too late. The rules were terrible last year, but the contestants weren’t. With three actual All-Stars (Damian Lillard, Paul George, John Wall) the competitors were right, just the contest itself was wrong. We’re here to help. Here are 10 changes to bring the dunk contest back. Again.
More rounds, more contestants
The correct number of rounds is three (going straight from the first round to the final is a bit, shall we say, abrupt), the correct number of competitors is eight. Four make it to the second round, then the final is mano e mano. Nique vs. Jordan is the ultimate example of this, but other contests from that era were similarly compelling—like Nique vs. Spud Webb in ‘86, Dee Brown vs. Shawn Kemp in ‘91 or Larry Nance vs. Dr. J in ‘84. The format switched to two rounds back in ‘93, which streamlined things—but why?
Treat former champs with respect
Spud Webb, as noted, won one of the best contests ever, beating defending champion (and Hawks teammate) Dominique Wilkins in 1986—putting down two perfect 50s in the final round. He should never be treated as a prop, as Nate Robinson did by jumping over him in 2006. Former champions should either be judges, commentators, or honored guests. Period.
Have the right judges
Judges don’t necessarily have to be all former champions or contestants—they’re not the only ones who know dunking—but most of them should be. There have been dunk contests for 30 years now (not including the initial ABA one in 1976), so there is quite the pool to draw from. If Michael Jordan and Julius Erving are unavailable, invite guys like Desmond Mason or J.R. Rider. We’re sure they’d be down.4 of 11
Let the fans be fans—and that’s it
Fan voting is how players who are injured and have not played a single game wind up All-Star starters, so why would the NBA want fans voting on anything else? The fans were given the dunk contest vote in 2008, and well, enough of that. Let the judges judge, let the fans watch, and if they want to be part of a voting process tell them to register. President is more important than slam dunk contest winner anyway—well, except maybe in 2000.
Get rid of the props
There are no chairs (or thrones or phone booths or KIAs) on NBA courts during games, why should they be there during the dunk contest? Props are distractions that take away from the actual dunks. Ben McLemore dunking over Shaq becomes about Shaq, Blake Griffin dunking “over” a KIA turns an already commercialized event into an actual commercial. Trust the dunkers to shine on their own and they likely will.
Things have gotten better since Nate Robinson and Chris Andersen set personal records for futility by trying certain dunks again and again and again and again and again and again until even the ball was ready to go home. Back in the day you could replace one miss per round. One. This was a good idea. Bring it back.7 of 11
Have an actual winner
Dunking is the ultimate individual act in basketball (save for alley oops), which means having a “team” win a dunk contest is amazingly awful. Last year’s dunk contest was doomed from the start, knowing no one contestant would actually win. For all the promoting the NBA does of individuals, this is the one event where that is exactly the right thing to do. Let one guy lift the trophy and wear the crown at the end of the night.
More Dikembe Mutombo
Dikembe is the Dunk Contest Zelig, visible in the background of most contests, sitting courtside with a scorecard in each hand and a big goofy grin on his face. The other All-Stars are always fun to watch during the contest—Gary Payton and Shaq were consistently great—but Dikembe is an all-timer. He should really be courtside at every All-Star Weekend event, but his attendance at the dunk contest needs to be mandatory.
All-Star event = All-Stars
This is one thing they’ve finally gotten right. Last year was good in the sense that the right people were involved. It’s not just about having the best dunkers, but actual All-Stars with name recognition. For every Zach LaVine or Gerald Green, there has to be a Paul George or DeMar DeRozan. As for LeBron, let’s stop talking about him, OK? It’s 2014, he’s 29 years old, it’s not happening. Sorry.
Raise the stakes
Last year’s “Team East” win resulted in a $100,000 donation to the American Heart Association and U.S. Fund for UNICEF. Which is heartwarming and all, until you consider that John Wall alone made $7,459,925 last season (he’ll make twice that this year). Start playing with real money, NBA. Make the prize money $2 million, half to charity and half to the winner. Even the boldest names would come out for that.