The slam dunk didn't die during the NBA's All-Star weekend last month, but the slam-dunk contest surely did. The fans in Miami Arena (as well as, presumably, a national television audience) found the three-point shooting contest infinitely more interesting, and even the huffing-and-puffing NBA Legends drew almost as many oohs and aahs as slam-dunk champion Dominique Wilkins and his fellow rim-rattlers. What gives?
Quite simply, we're dunked out. Drunk on the dunk. We see it endlessly. It's the sound bite for all seasons, the punctuation mark (!) that ends every sportscast every night. The other night I watched five straight dunks by San Antonio's David Robinson that were shown during halftime of an Atlanta-Cleveland broadcast. Yes, Robinson is a frighteningly good dunker, but he's also an excellent turnaround jump shooter and a terrific rebounder and shot blocker, elements that are far more important to his overall game than his dunking ability.
"The dunk is what the NBA has been about the last few years," says Laker coach Pat Riley. "That's what they use to sell tickets." And what the networks use to entice viewers. And what a certain weekly sports publication uses in its promotional videos. And so on.
Please don't misconstrue this as an antidunking polemic. I love the dunk, and if I were a coach I would want my players to dunk every blessed time they could. I like the percentage.
My point is that we have trivialized the dunk, which, like jazz, is an American art form. Below the professional level, a dunk is not all that common or routine. The vast majority of this world cannot dunk, any more than they can hit a Nolan Ryan fastball. Dunking, especially graceful, artistic slam-dunking, is not easy, not even if you're 7'7" Manute Bol. Try dunking on an eight-or even seven-foot basket. Go for both style and force without breaking your wrists on the rim or slamming your head against the backboard or spraining your knee when you land. Now dunk on a regulation 10-foot basket with a defender on you. Did you do it? Yes? Well, wake up, you're dreaming.
Somewhere along the way we've lost the capacity to appreciate the art of the dunk, even when the best dunkers in the world are doing it. Yes, Michael Jordan's presence would have jazzed up the All-Star contest—enter Jordan in a bake-off and America would take notice—but he wouldn't have saved it. Consider the dunks that went unappreciated. Charlotte's Rex Chapman flipped the ball behind his back and without even traveling, slammed it down. The crowd yawned, and the judges awarded him a 45.5 (out of a possible 50). Kenny Battle of Phoenix must have felt as if he were dunking in an empty gym; on his second effort, he turned his back to the basket as he jumped and brought the ball down between his legs before taking it back up and dunking. His score was 42.8. The fan response was about 1.8.
"Everyone always wanted me to come up with something spectacular, like those leaning dunks that look so good on tape," said Jordan, who has hinted that he may never again compete in a slam-dunk contest. "Look, it's tough to come up with that stuff." Said Wilkins, "I don't know what the fans want us to do. Jump over the backboard?"
That might be what it takes. The Portland Trail Blazers tried a gimmick, raising the basket after each round during their rookie game last August. Blazer star Clyde Drexler eventually won the contest at 11'1".
By sheer overexposure, we've turned an athletic work of art into a clichè. The NBA should scrap the contest for a year or two, and let America try to regain its appreciation of the slam dunk. Keep the three-point shooters and the old-timers, and fill the rest of the airtime with a game of H-O-R-S-E or a one-on-one tournament. And meanwhile, video editors, let's highlight some other aspects of the game.
That goes for commercials, too. Magic Johnson stars in one for the NBA's logo merchandise that I would like to change. He's the best passer in the world, the Laker leader, the NBA's top free-throw shooter last season. What does he do? That's right, the commercial ends with Magic slam-dunking.
Slam-dunking is high art when performed by the likes of Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone.