TORONTO– Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon taught us that the solution to the NBA’s slam dunk contest was simply staging a true slam dunk contest, a spirited competition that highlights the sport’s ultimate expression of athleticism.
By testing their limits and pushing each other, drawing perfect score after perfect score from the judges, LaVine and Gordon took the dunk contest to unprecedented heights. This was better than Vince Carter‘s virtuoso performance in 2000; that was more exhibition than competition. And yes, this was better than the revered duel between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins in 1988 because LaVine and Gordon produced better dunks. Much better.
You can watch the 1988 dunk contest in its entirety here. When you see Jordan, Dominique and Clyde Drexler do windmill dunks from inside the dotted circle or from the low blocks, remember that on Saturday night, LaVine did a windmill dunk from the free throw line.
And of course, that dunk Gordon did when he grabbed the ball from Orlando Magic mascot Stuff, who was spinning around on a hoverboard, would have been impossible in 1988. Hoverboards didn’t exist back then. And neither did the Orlando Magic, an expansion franchise founded in 1989.
The reason the 1988 dunk contest has always been slightly overrated is that it lacked originality. Jordan and Wilkins essentially did a greatest hits collection, repeating most of the same dunks from when they squared off in the 1985 contest. Jordan also brought back the “Kiss The Rim” dunk he debuted in 1987.
Gordon’s goal was to break out four dunks that had never been seen in the contest before, and he succeeded. It took a LaVine slam that he’d never seen himself — a between-the-legs dunk from the free throw line — to finally finish off Gordon after their series of perfect scores forced two extra dunks in the final round to decide the winner. Gordon called it “insane” and the reason why LaVine was the worthy winner.
LaVine’s last dunk was an impromptu decision based on a suggestion from fellow contestant Will Barton. (Unfortunately for Barton, his own best performance Saturday night was his entrance to the music of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” complete with red leather jacket and zombie dancers.)
While LaVine had the winning dunk, the most amazing, most discussed, most retweeted dunk came from Gordon when he jumped over Stuff, grabbed the ball off his head, jackknifed his legs like a diver in the tuck position, put the ball under both legs and slammed it home. Some day it will be the ultimate testament to the greatness of this contest. Pull up a clip of that dunk and say, “See that? And that was from the guy who lost.”
Gordon sure didn’t seem like a loser, though. He practically earned co-winner status, with a trip to the interview room and a photo session with LaVine and the trophy.
The only area where Gordon failed was history. He referred to Dominique Wilkins as “Chocolate Thunder,” which was actually the nickname of the late Darryl Dawkins. Dominique was the “Human Highlight Film,” a moniker that seems so antiquated amid the streaming videos of today. And Gordon couldn’t cite the ’88 dunk contest, and really has no knowledge of it because, as he painfully reminded those of us who did watch the Jordan-Nique showdown, “I was born in ’95.”
So Gordon didn’t realize he was paying homage to Wilkins when he went baseline, brought the ball down between his legs and reversed it home. It was a Wilkins staple, although Gordon remixed it by putting the ball behind his head first.
“I didn’t really know that was one of his special dunks,” Gordon said. “That dunk is a really good way to show off how athletic I am. Some people go behind the head, some people put it between their legs. Not a lot of people do both.”
Wilkins saw the resemblance.
Aaron Gordon (@Double0AG) that pump dunk brought back memories! Well done =@
Dominique Wilkins (@DWilkins21) February 14, 2016
Wilkins also tweeted:
The dunk contest is back!!!
Dominique Wilkins (@DWilkins21) February 14, 2016
Wilkins had been one of the more vocal critics of the dunk contest, saying that it was hurting because the big stars were too afraid of failure to compete. And earlier in the day on Saturday, Kobe Bryant, who won the dunk contest as a rookie in 1997, expressed disdain for the props and gimmicks that had overtaken the event in recent years and said he longed for the days when the NBA’s big names participated in the dunk contest.
“We haven’t quite figured out what we want to do with it yet,” Bryant said. “Um, so hopefully it will get to a point where we start getting some more stars in the dunk contest.”
LaVine and Gordon showed it wasn’t necessary. There might be bigger names out there, but there can’t be better dunkers. LaVine said he came back to defend his 2015 dunk championship as a nod to the days when guys like Jordan and Wilkins competed multiple times. It was a nice shoutout to the old school. The contest itself was a salute to the new school. The 2016 dunk contest is now the standard against which the rest will be measured.