One Moment in Time: The 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 12, 2010
If there was one sporting event from the 2000s that I wish I could have seen live, this probably would be it. I don’t even mean live as in live in person at Oracle Arena–although undoubtedly that would have been especially righteous–but rather, just watching it at home on TV as it was happening. Not being much of an NBA fan at the time, I obviously didn’t see it until much, much later, by which point I had heard about it so much that I figured actually watching it so far after the fact would be extremely underwhelming. Not so. When I finally saw the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest on an NBA TV marathon rebroadcast of every Slam Dunk Contest in history (God bless NBA TV for doing this every year, by the way), it still had me jumping out of my desk chair. You can take your World Series comebacks, your Super Bowl upsets, your potential Triple Crown winners. Give me Vince Carter and a windmill 360.
Despite perpetual accusations of over-hype, I think the Slam Dunk Contest might still be one of the most underappreciated events in all of pop culture. Where else in pro sports are you going to find anything even remotely like this? I mean, sure, there are plenty of other individual skill competitions, but none like the Slam Dunk Contest. None where players are asked to perform what is, in essence, the simplest task one can complete on the court–to simply deposit the ball into the basket, using no skill but height, vertical leap and knowledge of how gravity works–but to use whatever athletic talent and mental ingenuity they possess to make that task seem as difficult as humanly possible. So dunkers are called on to deploy their gifts to negate the basic nature of the task–to use marginal height, to leap more horizontal than vertical, to attempt to deny the laws of gravity. It’s the one time in sports that athletes get to display something close to legitimate artistic self-expression. The canvas may seem limited–after all, how many ways can you put a ball in a basket–which invariably leads to pundits declaring the Slam Dunk Contest “dead” every two or three years (only to declare it “back” every two or three OTHER years). But players keep finding new difficulties, new dares, even new on-court dramas to bring to the proceedings, leaving it never less than riveting. Simple-minded, single-goal-oriented contests like the home-run derby and the three-point shootout, while still viscerally exciting, end up seeming somewhat shallow by comparison.
And that’s not to say that the slam dunk contest isn’t visceral itself. The beauty of the competition is that it combines showmanship and artistry with the pure, heady rush of straight scoring–like an NFL receiver contest that judged competitors for their combined touchdown reception and celebratory dance. (Why couldn’t they do this at the Pro Bowl, by the way. On this combined level, no dunker this decade could match Vince Carter at the contest ten years ago today. He was stunning in motion, immaculate in execution, and absolutely incendiary in conclusion. His hold over the Oracle Arena crowd that night was like a preacher at a gospel revival, with each dunk a new moment of revelation. Three dunks he had that night–the windmill 360, the through-the-legs off the bounce, and the hanger in the rim–would easily rank among the top ten dunks in Contest history, if not (as either Kenny Smith or Reggie Miller suggests in the original broadcast) the top five. The last one I find to be particularly special, since it eschewed the typical roof-raising effect of 99% of great dunks by leaving fans so stunned–it was such an alien sight to see VC still up by he basket seconds after the dunk, somehow dangling by the elbow,, that I don’t think most people even realized what he had done at first–that they were dead quiet, their mouths too frozen agape to make much noise. It’s a particular scene that no regular-season or even post-season performance could ever quite compare to.
But with all the transcendental glory of Half-Man, Half-Amazing’s showing, what’s easily to lose sight of when remembering the 2000 Dunk Contest is that a couple other performances were also classics. Tracy McGrady, Carter’s then-Toronto-teammate and always-cousin, was nearly as magnificent in his high-flying, and landed a few long-distance jams that would have gotten him the win in just about any year of the 1990s. Steve Francis, the diminutive Rockets point guard, made his claim as being the best little-man jammer since Spud Webb with a couple aerial assaults that even Nate Robinson might not have been able to pull off. Even the Hornets’ Ricky Davis got off some nice double-clutch and between-the-legs numbers. And Philly second-year guard Larry Hughes, in a reminder that no freestyle slam is ever really complete without at least one performing completely bombing on stage, failed to complete a single successful dunk in his first two rounds, causing even teammate Allen Iverson to cackle a little bit in the stands. It was truly a night to remember for all involved.
And that brings up another point about the Slam Dunk Contest, which illustrates what a unique place it holds in NBA culture. Look at that list of names up there. Vince Carter. Tracy McGrady. Steve Francis. Ricky Davis. Larry Hughes. And I haven’t even mentioned Jerry Stackhouse yet, the sixth and final contestant of that historic evening. Notice anything about that roster? That’s right–they make up a practical who’s who of the low-character, me-first, score-happy-pass-less-so stars of the 2000s. Each of them averaged 20 points a season at least once, all but two of them made multiple all-star teams, and absolutely zero of them ever won a championship (or got anywhere close as a team’s franchise player). Even Tracy McGrady, probably the most talented and least despicable of the bunch, never made it out of the first round in the 2000s. If you were going to put an all-decade team together of players whose ability to score and sell jerseys was inversely proportional to their ability to win basketball games, that lineup would almost certainly be your starting five and sixth man, maybe with Allen Iverson offering spiritual guidance from the bench.
But you know what? At the Slam Dunk Contest, that’s perfectly acceptable. These guys aren’t here for their passing or their defense or their leadership abilities–they’re here to Put Ball in Basket, in the most electrifying and crowd-pleasing way humanly possible. It’s what most of these guys were meant to do for their whole lives, and with just a couple of occasional exceptions, they’re the best in the world at doing it. Another thing that sets the SDC so far aside from other sports’ exhibition competitions is the way it embraces its own cutlure, the way lineages can be traced through contest history from J.R. Rider to Jason Richardson to J.R. Smith. It’s Josh Smith taking off his jersey to reveal a Dominique Wilkins throwback underneath. It’s Nate Robinson bringing Spud Webb out to try to dunk over. It’s absolutely everyone trying to take off from the free-throw lane a la MJ, usually meeting with mixed results. It’s a proud legacy that continues to grow and perpetuate itself every year, and its one that never apologizes for what it is.
And that’s why the Slam-Dunk Contest will never really be “dead,” and it’ll never really be “back” either–it’ll always just be there, existing like an NBA parallel dimension. An alternate universe in which Cedric Ceballos and Kenny “Sky” Walker are immortals, in which Harold Miner really did live up to the Baby Jordan comparisons, and in which Dominique can legitimately go toe to toe with Michael any day of the week. And while in a game of five (err, six)-on-five, these guys would be so busy battling over shots that they could probably get run off the floor by a semi-focused high-school prep team, when it comes time for All-Star Weekend they’re the Dream Team.
Happy tenth anniversary, Vince. God, I can’t wait for this weekend to start.