I was 6 when Vince Carter’s poetic dunk contest routine solidified his reputation as one of the greatest dunkers of all time. I didn’t watch it live and I probably didn’t see the performance in its entirety until I was in high school, but Carter’s dunk contest showing is one of my favorite pieces of sports-related art in my lifetime. I haven’t seen anything remotely comparable since, and with such an uninspiring field in this year’s dunk contest (at least on its face), it is safe to say Carter’s legacy is safe for another year, and likely another generation.
Perhaps this year’s group – reigning champ Zach LaVine, all-star Andre Drummond, athletic marvel Aaron Gordon and sixth man of the year candidate Will Barton – will outperform the modest prestige of the ensemble, but the common retort from fans when a group like this is announced is something like: “Where are the stars?”
A friend recently asked me if it was a matter of ego, if stars were too brand aware in this modern age to risk the humiliation of a first-round exit or, much worse, a failed routine. LeBron James is the most common example of a player who has fought off massive fan interest in his participation because he “has nothing to gain” from entering the contest. Maybe that is so, but what could LeBron, one of the two best basketball players in the world, possibly have to lose against this year’s field? He would have a red carpet to the finals off reputation; are the judges going to let Will Barton advance when he is competing? From there, all he would have to do is pull off one creative dunk in the finals and he would silence everybody who has pestering him to participate for good.
But there is, of course, something to lose. The power of the internet in the digital age is crippling, even for someone with a bulletproof reputation like LeBron. If he were to lose, James would instantaneously become the victim of a social media assault, any bloopers would lead SportsCenter’s not Top 10 plays for a year and the opening shot of the next edition of First Take would be of Skip Bayless wearing a Mr. Burns-like grin. His reputation would be harmed, not nearly as bad as it would if he flopped in the dunk contest and had no championships, but bad enough for someone as socially self-conscious as him to feel the impact. It’s another year’s worth of questions about whether he’ll return to the contest to redeem himself and another 100,000 #HOTSPORTSTAKES spewing the nonsensical and unrelated “LeBron will never be as good as MJ!” rhetoric.
There is another, underlying problem the internet has presented that makes the dunk contest an uphill battle for superstars like James: Access.
Take, for instance, Carter’s regimen. Or my second favorite dunk contest compilation: Kobe Bryant’s winning run as a rookie in 1997. The dunks, the reactions, the struts. It is all ingrained in my memory. Not because I had some intense connection to it in the moment, I am not sure I watched basketball back then, but because I’ve watched both competitions on YouTube enough times to cherish the choreography and re-create the scenes all on my own. The same goes for the individual dunks that live on for decades: Jordan’s free throw line leap, Dr. J’s tomahawks, Dominique Wilkins’ powerful windmills. Creative dunks might be the element of basketball best suited for enshrinement on YouTube, and the internet has allowed Zapruder film-era dunks from NBA legends to live on in a massive public archive.
How many of the most memorable dunk contest throw downs of all time came from the past decade?
Moreso than the actual dunks, what I recall about the last seven or eight dunk contests is the props. There was Blake Griffin and the Kia, Dwight Howard in a cape, Nate Robinson and Dwight Howard in a cape, Jeremy Evans and a painting, Paul George’s turning off the lights. Unless the idea is ingenious, like Gerald Green’s cupcake dunk, props are generally a losing proposition. In 20 years, will anybody remember Serge Ibaka rescuing a child’s Rumble the Bison doll from the rim with his teeth while dunking the ball? Are you sure any of that actually happened?
Access is responsible for this trend. If at any given moment fans can relive the first iteration of the most stunning athletic achievements in the sport, chances are a 2015 version with a selfie stick or hoverboard thrown in isn’t going to blow them away. If Barton re-created every dunk from Jason Richardson’s amazing 2002 routine, that would be incredibly impressive. But there is a massive hesitancy to do so. He would be called a poser and his dunks wouldn’t hold up over time or remembered as fondly as the originals. Some players have tried to skate around this with “tribute dunks” by putting on a throwback jersey and re-creating that player’s dunks. It makes for a cool moment, but do any of those dunks stick out to you as an athletic feat the way the prototype did?
There unfortunate reality is that there is a finite number of dunks, and the best ones have probably already been done. The most memorable dunk contest submissions are instantly (or belatedly in the case of the pre-2000s) trademarked and cataloged online. Any infringement on those works is plagiaristic and vacuous. It is content aggregation in its most aesthetically pleasing form.
There are essentially two avenues left to give fans the sensation of witnessing something never seen before: 1) Either a player tests human limits and accomplishes something that hasn’t been done before (like jumping from even farther behind the free throw line, setting a new hangtime or vertical record or something truly insane like a 1080 dunk), or 2) You incorporate props and bits and theater into the equation. I don’t mind the latter, but when it is all said and done, if the dunks are analogous to previous works or not entirely enthralling, the feedback won’t be fond.
There is an alternative option the fans would love to see and that would inject that new car smell into the Air Canada Centre and the all-star venues that follow: Superstars performing any version of any dunk, even if they have to put up with Kias and church choirs. It is inherently cooler to watch (prime) Howard and Griffin compete in the dunk contest than Evans and Iman Shumpert.1
But with so few avenues left unexplored, superstars like LeBron are in the detrimental position of having to imitate legends of yesteryear. So they are making the safe, and not totally objectionable, decision to concede to the luminaries of the game, for they possessed the most enviable quality in the search for finite creative expression: The power of going first.