Critics Wish The NBA's Dunk Contest Had More Star Power. They're Wrong.

Midway through the season, the NBA hosts its All-Star Weekend festivities, featuring a slate of low-stakes competitions. The most polarizing is the dunk contest.

A Lakers basketball player's torso upside down in a net

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This is Keeping Score, where Albert Samaha dissects the juiciest dramas of the sports world.

Every year, midway through the season, the NBA hosts its All-Star Weekend festivities featuring a slate of low-stakes competitions. The most polarizing is the dunk contest, in which a handful of players try to impress a judging panel with aerial acrobatics — basically like Olympic diving that ends with a ball in a hoop instead of a splash in a pool. 

The winner of this year’s dunk contest, which took place last Saturday, was Mac McClung

Not familiar with McClung? Neither were the many NBA fans who don’t follow high school basketball. McClung, who reached mild internet virality thanks to his gravity-defying dunks as a teenager in 2017 and 2018, is now a fringe player who has spent much of his pro career in the NBA’s minor leagues. 

Not long ago, players like McClung wouldn’t have been invited to the contest, which used to be reserved for bigger names. But times have changed, to the chagrin of a certain kind of old-school hoops fan. One of them, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, said this week that LeBron James, the NBA’s biggest star, had “ruined” the dunk contest. James has infamously never participated, despite once saying he would. By Smith’s reasoning, other stars have followed James’s lead. Even the league’s best current dunker, the explosive Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies, has said he has no plans to participate in the contest. 

For those NBA fans, this reluctance to compete in a meaningless spectacle embodies all that is wrong with the league: allegedly entitled athletes who lack the unquenchable competitive spirit of the game’s most unimpeachable icon, Michael Jordan

You see, Jordan competed in the dunk contest three times, winning twice. In 1988, he went head to head against fellow star Dominique Wilkins in a memorable showdown widely considered to be the greatest dunk contest of all time. 

The lore of that event casts a shadow from which no high-flying NBA superstar can escape. But it’s an unfair standard. 

The dunk contest had only been around since 1976, and nobody was regularly soaring for dunks in basketball games until Elgin Baylor did it in the 1960s. The dunks Jordan amazed people with in 1988? They were original and beautiful, but anyone who executed them today would draw yawns, like if Thomas Edison set up a meeting with Google engineers to show them his lightbulb. 

The dunk contest gets harder every year because we viewers grow numb to each advancement of the craft. Innovations come fewer and further between. In 2000, Vince Carter put together the greatest dunk contest performance of all time with a series of jams featuring never before seen spins and tricks, including one in which he jumped so high that he dipped his forearm into the net and hung from the rim by his elbow — Jordan himself called it “the most amazing dunk” he had ever seen. This year, when Jericho Sims of the New York Knicks hung from the rim by two elbows, the crowd barely cheered

Standing out in the dunk contest requires an increasing level of creativity and a corresponding amount of thought and time. Do Lakers fans really want James spending hours each week choreographing a high-flying act outlandish enough to awaken our jaded souls? 

Instead, why not let the McClungs of the world earn their way to the spotlight by honing their aerial art while the bigger stars cheer them on?

“He solidified himself,” James said of McClung in a press conference on Sunday, “as one of the greatest slam dunk competitors we’ve ever had.” ●

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