Each generation of basketball fans has their favourite Dunk Contest, whether it’s seared into the memory as a child, sat on the carpet cross-legged and star-struck catching the highlights or taken in live, bleary-eyed, full of pizza and beer as an adult.
For some, including The Human Highlight Reel himself, Dominique Wilkins’ showdown against Michael Jordan in 1988 remains the absolute pinnacle of the event.
“We didn’t practice those dunks. Michael would tell you the same. It was spur of the moment. We thought up those dunks as the contest was going on.”
The Human Highlight Reel Dominique Wilkins looks back on one of the greatest dunk contests of all time
— Sky Sports NBA (@SkySportsNBA) March 6, 2021
For others, it’s Vince Carter’s game-changing performance in 2000, when he reinvigorated what seemed to be a rapidly fading format. There had been no Dunk Contest in 1998, while in 1999 there was no All-Star Game due to the NBA lockout.
Then there are those who still vividly recall Dwight Howard donning the Superman cape and jumping so high he literally had to throw the ball down into the hoop, while Gerald Green managed to blow out his birthday cake candle his head was so near the rim.
Even in last year’s event in Chicago, we had Derrick Jones Jr. and Aaron Gordon putting on a treat of a spectacle. The less said about the final result the better, but even so, it was a hell of a showdown.
But for many, the 2016 iteration of the contest will always be remembered as the greatest. It took place between arguably the two best dunkers to grace the NBA in the last decade, Zach LaVine (voted in as an East reserve this year) and Aaron Gordon (yep, him again), while also featuring some of the wildest dunks we are ever likely to see.
With all due respect to Andre ‘The Big Penguin’ Drummond and Will ‘The Thrill’ Barton, those are real nicknames by the way, they were simply not on the same level as their two other competitors in Toronto.
So let’s just jump ahead to the championship round, shall we?
Here, Gordon lines up from beyond the three-point line while ‘Stuff’, the Orlando Magic’s mascot, stands motionless on a hoverboard in the paint.
He wiggles his finger for Stuff to start spinning, Kenny Smith proclaims that “this is real” and Gordon proceeds to run, scoop the ball up and slam it down in one fluid motion, while touching the back of his head with his other hand for good measure.
Again, he did this while the mascot was spinning.
Flawless timing and execution, an easy 50.
As if to say ‘anything you can do I can better’, LaVine follows it up with a 50 of his own on a similar dunk. Minus the large man in a dragon costume on a hoverboard, of course.
From the same spot beyond the arc, LaVine throws himself a bounce pass before nailing the 360, straight-arm scoop the same way that Gordon had on the previous attempt. All square.
Then Gordon blows the roof off.
This, for my money, is the best dunk ever performed in the history of the contest. I mean, just look at it. Then look at it again. Then look at it once more.
There are a few things here. First, nobody has ever attempted a dunk like this, before or since. It defies everything we know about gravity. How are his legs so high? How is he just casually sitting down in mid-air?
Then there’s the dexterity, speed and co-ordination required to pluck the ball up with one hand, put it beneath his legs, switch over and only then slam it in behind his head. The whole thing is impossible, start to finish.
And as always with the Dunk Contest, the reactions are the most important thing. It’s a spectacle, after all. This dunk has Draymond Green (bright yellow jacket in the background) losing his mind, Andre Drummond collapsing to the floor and Kevin Hart admitting to having to take his headset off for a second or two, such was his shock.
Simply put: if Kenny Smith says ‘Let’s go home’ then you know it’s iconic.
In fairness to LaVine, he responds in just about the only way he can: a windmill dunk from the free-throw line.
There isn’t much else to add other than Kenny Smith, moments after telling everyone to get their jackets and go home, starts declaring that he just doesn’t know.
“I just don’t know, Chuck. I just don’t know.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s another row of perfect scores from the judges.
Now Gordon starts to get creative. He ropes in his then-teammate Elfrid Payton, who throws a pass against the side of the backboard.
Gordon leaps, collects it, windmills the ball and then throws it down while at eye level with the rim. Stunning.
LaVine again attacks the basket from the same angle, throwing himself a pass, putting it through his legs while in flight and slamming it in over his head.
It’s similar to his other dunks on the night but given how graceful it all looks – LaVine more than anyone truly does seem to ‘float’ in the air – it is again deserving of a perfect score.
Onto another dunk-off.
And then the controversy. Gordon gets his first score less than 50. It seems extremely harsh given the level of difficulty – Gordon performs a backscratcher, before bringing the ball right down beneath his legs and then pumping it back up for the two-handed reverse.
It’s a dunk that you can only really appreciate in slow motion but even so, the three 9 scores dished out by Tracy McGrady, Dikembe Mutombo and Dennis Scott are inexcusable. Especially considering two of those players – Scott and McGrady – used to play for the Magic.
LaVine 50 (Winner)
But again, to LaVine’s credit, he makes the absolute most of the opportunity. The door is slightly ajar but he proceeds to boot it down anyway.
It’s another free-throw line jam, but this time LaVine swaps hands, puts it through his legs, then tomahawks it with venom.
It’s a spectacular dunk, worthy of winning any other contest… but given that Gordon had the best dunk of the night, probably two of the best three, it still doesn’t feel right to this day.
Due to their incredible performances they’re both champions, but would one more dunk each really have hurt?
Watch the 70th NBA All-Star Game, along with the Dunk Contest, 3-Point Contest and Skills Challenge live from 11.30pm on Sky Sports Arena this Sunday