To begin my digestion of this year’s Slam Dunk Contest, I refer to the NBA’s greatest sage, Charles Barkley: “That’s like if you got a pretty girl. If she’s dumb, it doesn’t matter.” Chuck said this moments after Blake Griffin jumped over the hood of a car to win last year’s Slam Dunk Contest. Absurd, perhaps, for the dunk is the most base level maneuver in the game. It speaks to us in our most primal regions that require no fine-tuning of our eyes, nor extreme knowledge, merely a child’s willingness to suspend reliance on what is and is not possible.
But as Kenny and Reggie and everyone else in Staples Center were swooped up in the excitement, Barkley left us with an odd nugget of genius. The jump I’m trying to make is tenuous, and I might not be able to do it convincingly, but let us try.
We’ll let all the classic images – from the Wilkins/Jordan battles, all variations of the Eastbay Funk Dunk, to anything Vince Carter ever did – be the pretty girl that can entertain as much in conversation as in bed. They were all classically attractive. As the Aughts came to an end, however, we saw an increase in the use of props (obviously culminating with Griffin’s anticlimactic dunk). Allowing the dunk/woman comparison to roll, this new breed of dunking is a girl more plastic than flesh – lips of Lana Del Ray, chest of Janice Dickinson, etc. Instead of displaying with confidence the natural grace of a human body, the new dunker relies on gimmicks and exaggerates his act.
Returning to Chuck’s smart and graceful girl, however, might not be so easy. As sports fans, we need each succeeding athlete to be bigger, faster, more inhuman than the previous. But just as how many have theorized we’ve reached our peak in the world of pitching, perhaps we have seen almost all there is to see in the world of dunks. The day when a man can simply walk out and put a ball between his legs in midair, slam it down, then land and confidently gesture “it’s over” might have passed. And in the land of Youtube, where anything a professional does is replicated and often done better thousands of times over, the casual fan isn’t attracted to the simple swagger and twists of their favorite ball player. We think we need more.
Hopefully, though, last year’s dunk contest was a watershed moment, as we started to understand how laughably outrageous we had expected the stunts to become. The innocent pressure we, as fans, were putting on our stars to dazzle became too much. In a move that speaks more of desperation than confidence, the stars felt they had nothing else to do but incorporate multiple hoops, a teddy bear, and a car into their routines. It was spectacle, to be sure, but more in a sad Rube Goldberg way than rather something that would drive kids out to their backyards or inspire an infinite amount of attempts on their Nerf hoop. To best illustrate the power a dunk has, one must watch the crowd reaction. What does the camera show after Vince Carter annihilated everyone in 2000? Shaq, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, and all of Carter’s peers holding cameras and letting their faces go all “child-at-Christmas” mode. And after Griffin goes over the car? Spike Lee and some other non-athletes I can’t name dance around.
All this rambling to say, perhaps the NBA has got it right this year. They understand the outlandishness and gaudiness that was creeping into the Slam Dunk Contest was waning on the fans and its players. And by selecting a group of – to the simple fan – “no-names,” the NBA has taken the pressure off and will hopefully give us a chance to appreciate the simple grace and beauty of the artful dunk.