I love the Dunk Contest. I always have. The athleticism, anticipation, and excitement are largely unparalleled in sports—that is, when the competition is done right. Thus, as I witnessed the shambles of this year’s edition, I wondered how things could have gone so wrong. Though the contest was created to showcase the league’s most exciting stars for the enjoyment of the fans, it has devolved into an unwatchable charade of high-flying clowns, no more gripping than the trashiest of reality television programming.
Maybe you were still able to enjoy it, but right when TNT analyst Kenny Smith opened by interviewing P. Diddy to plug his new network, it was clear that the evening was heading downhill. Chase Budinger’s Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump costume was good for a quick laugh, but five minutes of build-up to see him dunk over the sub-six foot Diddy was simply a letdown.
I’m not one of these guys who loves to reminisce about growing up watching Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins go head-to-head every year in the ‘80s. I wasn’t even born when those guys were blazing the trail for a whole generation of dunkers. However, I did grow up watching Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire, Dwight Howard, and at least a dozen more former and current stars strut their stuff on All-Star Saturday. When you stack those names up against the 2012 field of Chase Budinger, Derrick Williams, Paul George, and Jeremy Evans, there’s no denying the event’s talent has been diluted.
The players, not the league, are at fault for this trend. LeBron James, undoubtedly the most glaring omission from the list of contestants since he entered the league in 2003, sets the precedent for NBA stars to dodge the event. LeBron even announced on television that he would be competing in 2010 before withdrawing his name from the field to allow himself to “rest,” despite mustering the energy to play in the All-Star game the next day. James, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, and Dwyane Wade have all shielded themselves under the guise of being self-proclaimed “game dunkers,” which, despite the hollow logic, apparently excuses them from the competition. What LeFraud and his boys are missing is that the dunk contest is not for the players, but for the fans. It’s a way for players to give back for the support they receive throughout the year, not for them to stroke their already ballooning egos.
Furthermore, even with their average ability, this year’s contestants didn’t even seem prepared to compete. Williams took more than ten tries on his final dunk attempt to realize that he was physically incapable of completing the off-the-backboard, between-the-legs move he was trying to do, as if he had never even practiced it. Budinger’s second dunk was an almost identical imitation of a power-windmill done by Williams earlier in the contest, as if he hadn’t been watching or had no backup plan. Not only do the competitors have less ability now, but their approach to the event is disrespectfully haphazard for one of the great NBA traditions.
Yet improving the field of contestants is only part of the problem for the Dunk Contest. The showmanship and props, which used to be tastefully sprinkled into the event, have now overwhelmed it. While it used to be cool to see Gerald Green blow out a birthday candle over the rim or Dwight Howard easily jam on a 12-foot hoop, now almost every dunk needs some kind of gimmick, often subtracting from the overall product. Paul George’s glow-in-the-dark dunk would have been awesome, if he had just taken off the neon Velcro and turned on the lights so people could actually see what happened.
To fix this mess, let’s start with a few basic rules. No more motor vehicles, stickers, costumes, or rap moguls in the Dunk Contest. Period. Instead, let’s give every dunker two or three minutes to just dunk, not once, but however many times and ways they can or want in the allotted time. Not only will this allow “game-dunkers” to just improvise as they would in the run of play, but players won’t have the time or incentive to build excitement with props and gimmicks before ultimately letting us down. Secondly, tell LeBron, D-Rose, and the rest of the “game-dunker” crew that they can’t play in the All-Star game unless they help save the Dunk Contest and partake next year.
Ideally, the negative publicity generated by the 2012 Dunk Contest will encourage a better product next year, but I’m not optimistic. The props will still be there, and the stars will still opt out. The only consolation I can take away from this year’s spectacle is that it probably can’t get any worse. Well, at least let’s hope not.