A Brief History of the NBA Dunk Contest


Since Larry Nance took home the first trophy in 1984, the N.B.A. Dunk Contest has almost always been a staple of All-Star Weekend. In the ‘80s and ‘90s fans were treated to the dunks of Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, and other legendary dunkers. These men were some of the first great dunkers and thought up creative, smooth, and powerful dunks wowing crowds and making people continue to come back for more. No one could stay away from Jordan dunking from the free-throw line or even just Spud dunking. The dunk contest allowed all-around great players to showcase how great they were at one thing in particular, dunking.

The dunk contest was a showcase of athleticism and power. It existed within an era of above-the-rim basketball and was truly impressive. Then the late ‘90s came along, and in unusual late ‘90s fashion, decided to ruin the dunk contest. This, of course, is my opinion and depends completely on whether or not you believe Michael Finley’s cartwheel dunk in the 1997 Dunk Contest was the best or the worst dunk of all time. Of course, the fall of the dunk contest cannot be fully attributed to Finley. The quality had slowly been deteriorating, and the players who had previously dominated where only becoming older. Naturally they chose to spend their All-Star break resting, rather than pushing their bodies in the name of a cool dunk. This, of course, is how Ray Allen got into a dunk contest (this is difficult to believe considering the Ray Allen we most recently had in the N.B.A., but it did happen, and he was capable of occasional cool in-game dunks).

The 1997 dunk contest, the one that ended it all, really does have to be seen in order to fully grasp it. It featured Kobe Bryant, Michael Finley, Ray Allen, and three no-name players. A line-up is comparable only to the 2017 group consisting of DeAndre Jordan and Aaron Gordon, both of whom struggled and did not make it out of the first round. Their disappointing performances then allowed Glenn Robinson III and Derrick Jones Jr. (two players who, no offense, no one really cares about as players) to fight it out between each other. This crew was particularly painful after being treated to Aaron Gordon and Zach Lavine the year prior.

Following the 1997 dunk contest, the N.B.A. introduced in 1998 the now legendary W.N.B.A.-N.B.A. 2Ball Competition. In this, players shot from various spots on the floor that had been assigned a certain value. It was, as one could probably guess, not the greatest display of basketball greatness. After this, in 1999, no All-Star weekend existed due to the lockout. Then, finally, like a phoenix from the ashes, the dunk contest emerged, a new god, in the form of a three-headed beast, the heads representing Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Steve Francis. There, on that day, basketball was forever treated to some of the greatest dunks ever. Vince was one point shy of all perfects (thanks Kenny), and T-Mac and Steve flew. It was finally back. Fans could again watch exciting players do exciting things.

From here we were treated to the years-long rivalry of Superman (Dwight Howard) and his kryptonite (Nate Robinson). Dwight was the next Shaq, and Nate was tiny, only adding to the excitement of watching the two of them dunk. Then we were given the 2016 dunk contest, which was wild and Aaron Gordon was so strong. But, from here, we seem to be back in a late ‘90s slump. Last year was unimpressive. This year was better, but still so much room for improvement.

So how do we stop another 2Ball Competition from being created? Do we add more obstacles to the court? Do we continue to let DJ Khaled judge and come up with wildly different numbers than the other judges? Who knows. But one thing's for sure, bring back superstars and reactive cool dunks.