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Is it time to cancel the NBA Slam Dunk Contest?

It was the 2022 NBA Slam Dunk Contest in which basketball fans felt the low point had been hit. It couldn’t get lower than this, could it? There was widespread criticism on the official NBA YouTube channel with comments such as, “This is not a dunk contest but dunk training“, “It’s so trash it’s trending” and “worst dunk contest ever“. The general consensus was that the dunk contest had been getting worse every year, and at best, it had flatlined. Originality had gone. Authority was non-existent. And there simply wasn’t anything displayed that got people off their seats. Perhaps it’s time to ditch the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

So, what’s the problem and what can be done about it?

Many feel that the NBA isn’t doing enough to revitalise the contest. One of the biggest problems, they say, isn’t the players who take part. It’s the players who don’t take part. Reputation and the neurotic way people guard it is hurting the contest. Similar to the sport of boxing, there are fights that fans desperately want to see but these fights never happen because of strategic booking. Fighters want to protect their record and duck opponents. Others wait until their biggest potential rivals are out of their prime and then choose to call them out when there’s less risk of losing.

Floyd Mayweather, for example, as great of a boxer as he was, is accused of ducking opponents to protect his 0. The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, a dream fight, happened in 2015 but many fans felt it was years too late and should have happened around 2010. The point is, why can’t some of the biggest NBA stars enter the dunk contest? If the GOAT Michael Jordan could enter and risk losing, which he did to Dominique Wilkins in 1985, so can the top echelon of NBA talent. Is the existing crop of the NBA elite afraid to take a reputational hit? Are they afraid to take the proverbial L? Imagine a few years ago if LeBron James, James Harden, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant entered the dunk contest.

The contest would be about the rivalry. Not every dunk would need to be out of this world. In boxing and MMA, the highest selling PPVs don’t need to have the most talented fighters. It’s the rivalry that sells tickets. Having the best of the NBA compete in dunking would generate enormous buzz, even if dunking isn’t their speciality. The question is, are reputations and perceptions about ability so fragile that it isn’t worth the risk? Perhaps. Perhaps not. A counter to this argument is that the NBA Slam Dunk Contest isn’t about established talent. It’s about those trying to break through and make a name for themselves in the most competitive basketball league in the world. Michael Jordan, for example, entered the 1985 Slam Dunk Contest as a rookie.

But for those more concerned about the quality of dunks over the contestants who perform them, there are some other burning questions. How much better can we get? How much higher can we jump? Have we reached the limits of human potential? Let’s look at the Long Jump. The men’s world record was set at 8.95 meters by Mike Powell in 1991. In over 30 years no one has been able to jump farther than that. And if we look at the world record held before that, it was a mere 2 inches less set by Bob Beamon in 1968. So in over half a century, we have been stuck at the 8.90 meter mark.

So from that perspective, have we seen it all? Do we really need to see the same dunks or even worse dunks year after year? In 2022 the thoroughly unimpressed look on Shaquille O’Neal’s face said it all. NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar even walked out during the contest because there was nothing special to watch. But then, there’s another side to human potential. We are getting bigger, faster and stronger. World records are being set in strength regularly. The world record log lift is 510 pounds set by Chieck “Iron Biby” Sanou at the 2023 World Log Lift Championship. The world record deadlift is 1,104.5 lb set by Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson on 2nd May 2020. These are recent dates, not decades in the past. Usain Bolt’s world record of 9.58 seconds in the 100 meter sprint happened in 2009.

Every other day videos are uploaded of people with incredible standing vertical leaps. The talent and human potential is out there. If we look at Olympic diving competitors, we recognise what the competitors do requires a great deal of practise and athleticism. But perhaps you aren’t overly impressed by what you see. You’ve seen the multiple flips, twists and twirls before. Now look back at footage from the 1908 London Olympics. How human potential has progressed since then is incredible. The divers of 1908 wouldn’t know what to make of the professional divers of today.

It could be the same with dunking. We think we’ve reached the limit of human potential but in reality we’re not even close. Amazing dunkers are out there. They just need to be discovered and given a platform to show their ability. Which leads onto another main argument. Specialists will almost always outperform generalists. That is the current problem with the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. The NBA has the best basketball players in the world. They don’t have the best dunkers. The discipline of dunking is being pushed forward by specialists, who don’t play for the NBA.

Perhaps we need to disavow ourselves of the notion that the NBA has the best of everything. Specialist dunkers wouldn’t stand a chance in the NBA. But that’s the point. They’re not meant to be the best all-round players. They’re dunkers! They train to improve their dunking only. So of course the current crop of elite dunkers will be better than an NBA player who has to work on 3-point shooting, strategy, endurance, teamwork and a host of other drills.

Instead of cancelling the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, perhaps dunk specialists need to be brought into the competition. Since the late 2000s, dunk specialists such as T-Dub and Air Up There have been performing dunks that outperform those of NBA players. Their dunks from over a decade ago are significantly better than what we see in the NBA dunk contests of today. It’s the same with football. No doubt players from Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, Manchester City and so on will have some amazing freestyle skills. But they won’t be the best. Freestylers who focus specifically on football tricks are the best in the world.

It’s understandable that the NBA wants to shape its image as a league for superhero talent but it’s increasingly difficult to do so when the discipline of dunking is progressing beyond the NBA. Ultimately the disaster that was the 2022 NBA Slam Dunk Contest could be the best thing that has happened to it. In 1997, the contest won by Kobe Bryant, was so bad that the NBA cancelled it the next 2 years. When they reintroduced it in 2000, it’s remembered as an amazing contest because of the “Air Apparent” Vince Carter’s dunks. Even more amazing was that his dunks weren’t planned; some of them were spontaneously decided seconds before he performed them.

Was the 2022 dunk contest really that bad or are we bored of the same old dunks? Truth be told, the contest was bad. Jalen Green took 10 attempts to make a dunk that wasn’t special. Juan Toscano-Anderson’s inability to make his final dunk was a sorry sight. Fans like to reminisce about the 2016 contest with Zach Lavine and Aaron Gordon. The string of sub-par contests following it led to a revitalisation of sorts in 2023 but there’s still a long way to go. It’s widely understood that the NBA Slam Dunk Contest doesn’t have the same pull it once had, but perhaps that’s what is needed to make it exciting again.

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