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The Death of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest?

It sounded somewhat promising at the outset. I, for one, was willing to give it a chance.

However, what sounded like a clever change that could have helped resuscitate a cultural event on life support, may have helped further in sending it to, what may be, an all-too-necessary grave.

The NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest has been basking in its own historical glory for what has seemed like years, now. Since the turn of the millennium, exciting and memorable dunk contests have been few and far between. From a lack of big-name competitors to an overall lackluster display of dunking ability, the slam dunk contest has suffered from a variety of factors that have equated to a lack of interest in, plainly speaking, big guys dunking a basketball for 45 minutes.

This new format – one installed by the league shortly before this year’s dunk contest – was supposed to change all that. It was meant to infuse more excitement into the exhibition, and give a measure of freshness to what was seen as a stale tournament.

If that was the case – boy, did it fail to deliver.

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Our thoughts exactly, Skylar. [Courtesy AwfulAnnouncing.com]

This was in no way the fault of the participants (except, maybe, Warriors G Harrison Barnes). The fact is, some of the dunks pulled off were contest-worthy: from Damian Lillard’s between-the-legs dunk in the freestyle round, to a between-the-legs dunk from defending Slam Dunk champion Terrence Ross with assistance from recording artist Drake, to a 360 between-the-legs dunk by Paul George (take note of the references here for later) – all were venerable show-stopping dunks.

Even Kings rookie G Ben McLemore put on a show with Shaq for his only planned dunk of the night – complete with the Diesel sitting on a throne (though the lead-up was awkwardly painful to watch).

And, despite many of the participants needing multiple attempts to complete their dunks – with the exception of John Wall’s contest-ending reverse dunk from G-Man – the dunks were, for the most part, pretty good – in some cases, very impressive.

Most of the problems came with everything else.

First of all, the format was clunky, at best: despite the many explanations, it was still confusing for much of the audience, both in the arena and at home. Why is it East vs. West? What happens if one conference doesn’t sweep their matchups? What happened with scoring the dunks? In fact, as these obstacles of confusion were forming by the minute, as demonstrated in social media like Twitter, you could almost hear columnists like Ben Golliver of SI.com yelling to the heavens, “We told you so!!

It also didn’t generate any excitement from the fans in the stadium whatsoever – despite those impressive dunks by guys like George, Lillard and Ross, the audience seemed unprepared for them, and the reaction to them was listless, at best, bordering on sheer indifference.

The blame for a clunker of a contest could be spread around rather evenly. No offense to de facto host Nick Cannon – who, I’m sure, is still doing well with his “America’s Got Talent” gig – but he certainly didn’t help things last night. His impromptu riffing made him come off more as a novice to the game of basketball, let alone to the Slam Dunk Contest, than anyone who could produce hype for the event. It was almost as if he didn’t even understand the format clearly enough to host it. Not necessarily his fault – it just goes to the unneeded complication of the format.

Then there were the judges: three this time around, instead of the five that Slam Dunk Contest viewers are accustomed to. But, these were three living legends of the game – how could you go wrong? After all, you had “Dr. J” Julius Erving, the Human Highlight Film himself, Dominique Wilkins, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson in the building.

Well, first off, the contest didn’t give them scorecards: it gave them Tablets.

And, they weren’t judging by score – they were judging by which team they thought won each matchup.

I don’t know about anyone else, but the image of watching respected hall-of-fame basketball players awkwardly fidgeting with tablets to determine the winner of a contest round? It was kind of embarrassing, and somewhat beneath former players of that stature. Along with it, they were almost forced to explain themselves, as if they were judges for “American Idol”. It was another painful residual of what had clearly become an awkward format.

Finally, there was no finality to the contest. After Wall’s final dunk, a lot of people stood around asking, “Is it over?

When announcer Ernie Johnson gave the announcement that John Wall was voted by social media as “Dunker of the Night” (what, I suppose, amounted to the “winner” of the dunk contest) 30 seconds before Cannon made the “official” announcement to the arena, it was undoubtedly over.

The contest as a whole, as we know it, I mean. Not just this one.

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You know the contest was bad when you can see how bad it was just by the look on Nick Cannon’s face. [Courtesy SI.com]

We can all blame the format all we want for the death of the dunk contest as we know it – or, at least, the hastening of it. We can point fingers at the All-Star Committee, or the media members who covered the contest, or even the All-Stars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin or Chris Paul for refusing to participate. But it doesn’t change the fact that the contest, itself, may have just gotten stale. Maybe we, as a society, are no longer impressed with whatever iteration of the slam dunk there is left, that we have or haven’t seen.

It certainly isn’t the players, nor their creativity or execution of stylistic dunks. Remember the between-the-legs dunks that Lillard, George and Ross pulled off? Those kinds of dunks used to captivate us, as fans of the dunk contest. People seem to forget that, while it seems old-hat now, there was a time, long ago (read: 2000) when then-Raptors F Vince Carter blew the roof off the stadium when he pulled it off – and after only one attempt, no less:

And, what really perplexes me is that, only three years later, it was Sonics G Desmond Mason and then-Warriors G Jason Richardson who pulled off between-the-legs dunks of their own that, while barely remembered in Americana, actually surpassed the degree of difficulty of Carter’s dunk:

Those were two of the best dunk contests of all time – and both happened this century. By the way – to all the naysayers who want big names in the dunk contest: Desmond Mason was arguably one of the most impressive dunkers in contest history. Where is he these days?

Exactly.

All I’m saying is that the dunk contest doesn’t need format tricks or gimmicks to generate ratings or buzz. You need exciting dunkers who are willing to push creativity to the brink (without necessarily using props or gags) and give the crowd what they want: a good show. A hyped show. A show that people will talk about in the same way our previous generations talked about MJ vs. Dominique, or Spud Webb.

Maybe hype for players like Ross, McLemore and George will change things for the dunk contest in the future.

Or maybe they need to shut the contest down for a few years.

Because, at this point, anything may help after the damage done by the format change.

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