Why I just can’t quit the NBA Slam Dunk Contest

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The 2022 NBA Slam Dunk Contest was another disaster in a long line of them. But I just can’t give up on the dunk contest yet.

Saturday night’s NBA Slam Dunk Contest was not good. A litany of meandering preambles, missed attempts, and underwhelming finishes made for another in a long line of underwhelming dunk contests in recent years. The Knicks’ Obi Toppin won practically by default with the Warriors’ Juan Toscano Anderson unable to complete his final dunk. It was a fittingly anticlimactic end to a disappointing contest.

Not since 2016, when Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine matched each other dunk-for-dunk has there been a memorable or particularly interesting dunk contest. Since then, there have been six contests of varying quality, contests with individual moments that were cool, but failed to add up to much. The thing I remember most clearly from these last few years is John Collins’ strange tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen and even that I remember less for the dunk than for the gloriously surreal theater of it all. It ruled, but I’m skeptical it really provides much of a blueprint for how to address what is currently ailing the dunk contest.

Compared to the other All-Star Saturday events, the dunk contest has both the highest ceiling and the lowest floor. The skills challenge, with its shifting format and low stakes is sometimes more confounding than compelling. And though it’s hard to imagine what a truly thrilling skills competition would entail, there’s bound to be something enjoyable in the midst of that strange obstacle course. But those joys are short-lived. Yes, it was very cool seeing Evan Mobley and Darius Garland nail shot after shot in the opening round, but it was a fleeting delight. Devoted as I am to Northeast Ohio, I doubt this is something I will be recounting and celebrating with my friends in years to come.

Some have proposed that the NBA make the three-point competition the capstone event of Saturday night, since it is the event that now features the most stars and is also much less likely to disappoint than the dunk contest is. But what are the most iconic moments of the three-point contest’s history? Craig Hodges making 19 in a row? Larry Bird walking away, finger raised, after clinching the competition with his final Money Ball? These moments are certainly great, but the highest highs of the three-point contest pale in comparison to what the dunk contest is capable of. This shooting competition may not ever truly bum fans out, but it also lacks the capacity to leave them in awe.

There is nothing like the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, at its best and at its worst

The dunk contest is the place where basketball can, for a strange moment, become performance art. If you do not think of Gerald Green’s Birthday Cake Dunk as a cornerstone of NBA lore, or smile upon remembering how Jeremy Evans dunked over a painting of himself dunking, then we are fundamentally different people. I’m a man who owns a shirt commemorating Dee Brown’s 1991 No Look Dunk, after all. It is the rare space in professional sports where a player is free to create outside the parameters of a strict rulebook, where unbound creativity is encouraged. And when that freedom does not lead to something new, something awe-inspiring, the disappointment is compounded because of all that excess opportunity being wasted.

The thing about players having that much freedom is that, coupled with it, is the freedom to fail. There is no safety net for those Saturday night dunkers apart from the fact that, with limits imposed on how many missed dunks one can have, one can now only fail so many times before being yanked off stage. It’s a vulnerable stage to perform on and that, as much as anything, may explain why so few stars seem eager to appear in the contest.

Of course, that is not to say that there is any shortage of suggestions on how the contest may be fixed. Most ideas will be impractical and many others will be silly gimmicks whose novelty would quickly fade. I understand the impulse, but I think such desires are misguided.

It is easy to wring one’s hands about the contest’s current lack of originality, both conceptually and athletically. How many more throwback jerseys only loosely related to the dunk at hand must we see? How many more times will fans be forced to watch someone dunk over a teammate or NBA legend? But these moments are all worth it for the potential of what could be, of what may someday come. Those unoriginal dunks will fade and the in-the-moment disappointment will evaporate, but the iconic, awe-inspiring ones will live forever. I do not want to take away the possibility of such moments.

It may currently seem like we have seen all the dunks that can be done, that there is no room left for innovation, and that the dunk contest will forever be a disappointing shadow of itself. But it has felt like this before. The contest’s quality has always ebbed and flowed, with one fallow period even leading to the league temporarily canceling it in the late 90’s. That is no guarantee that there is an iconic contest imminent, but that nascent hope for transcendence is why I, and so many others, continue to watch the dunk contest, even as we know that such contests are the exception rather than the rule. Where else can you see a man appear to defy gravity? Where else can you see a man blow out a candle in midair? Why would the NBA preemptively rule out the possibility for such moments? You can’t force magic. All one can do is create an environment that allows for its arrival.

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