Birthed in the American Basketball Association on January 27, 1976, and integrated in 1984, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest is the premium form of gravity-defying, high-flying air-sucking acrobatics in modern sports— at least, it used to be. What has happened to the greatest spectacle of All-Star weekend has deflated the memory of legendary showdowns 10 feet above the ground, and provided a waning experience for fans— young and old— of basketball.
Last year’s All-Star Game reached a new all-time low with 5.94 million total viewers, down 18% in viewership from the year before; even worse was that the famous Slam Dunk Contest, the former highlight of the entire weekend, was sandwiched between halves of the game to keep viewers eyes’ fixed on their televisions in a feeble attempt to hide the decline in the product.
While legends of the game like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dominique Wilkins used to be familiar faces in a rotation of the game’s biggest stars and box-office draws, today’s contests cater to younger, lower-profile players with nothing to lose and everything to gain— a model that is certain to blow the entire competition to smithereens.
The Slam Dunk Contest Stinks
The 2022 NBA Slam Dunk Contest will feature rookie Jalen Green, second-year Cole Anthony, 28-year-old Juan Toscano-Anderson, and last year’s runner-up, sophomore Obi Toppin. While Anthony and Green are full-time starters for their squads (both of which are in last place in their respective conferences), Toscano-Anderson and Toppin have started a combined seven games of a possible 96. Gone are the days of headlining acts taking their talents to tantalizing heights above the rim.
Toppin’s unsuccessful bid at the trophy last year ended in the final round with an Eastbay (between-the-legs) dunk from a stride inside the free-throw line, an impressive dunk by normal standards but fairly dull in such an event. Kenny Smith confirmed the mundaneness of the dunk as the first to react on the television broadcast, simply letting out a deflated “Okay.”
There was a time when criticism was directed to stars who did not accept invitations to participate in the contest, the most notable of which would be LeBron James, who seemed to defy gravity multiple times in every game that he played. Now, the thought of an All-Star caliber player, much less an All-Star in itself, participating in the showdown is quickly met with laughter.
In The NBA’s Defense…
The best case that the NBA can make against allegations of a stale event is that the 2016 Slam Dunk Contest, starring two then-non-stars in Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine, has a serious case to be titled the best ever. Both athletes kept producing perfect 50’s after perfect 50’s leading to a sudden-death dunk-off that took multiple rounds to settle. LaVine eventually walked away with the trophy, his second in as many years.
As great as the pin in All-Star weekend’s cap was, it created a precedent that the Slam Dunk Contest can survive, much less thrive, without the game’s greats in attendance.
Perhaps the most iconic Slam Dunk Contest moment ever is Vince Carter walking down the court after a successful alley-oop Eastbay, if not Michael Jordan’s tongue-out, free-throw line jam, or 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson battling it out with 6-foot-10 Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. As incredible as the talent and athleticism of today’s players are, and as much potential as the 2022 participants have to put on a great show, they are unfortunately corroborating the demise of one of the greatest events in sports.
Fixing the Problem
In an era of player empowerment and individual freedom, the NBA needs to find a way to increase the competitiveness of the Slam Dunk Contest. Having already addressed the All-Star Game’s issues to an extent with new fourth-quarter rules and a prize pool for the winning team, commissioner Adam Silver should be thinking about how he can coax past or present All-Stars into competing for the Slam Dunk title, falling back on other captivating stars and not young, energetic guys that have not grown much of an audience.
It was obvious that there was a problem when the contest was moved to fit between the halves of the game, and there needs to be a remedy to the situation. Allowing the Slam Dunk Contest to continue on its current trajectory is acquiescing to the degradation of fond memories and future possibilities of the sport of basketball.
Cole Anthony, Jalen Green, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Obi Toppin, this is not your fault— but the NBA is using you to plug a hole in a ship sinking faster than it can stop.
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