When I was a kid, the most important night of my year was NBA All-Star Saturday night. It’s tempting to suggest that this would have been the result of having rooted for lousy team, but the truth is that in the late 80s and early 90s, the Celtics were still pretty damn good. The truth is that when I was a kid, this shit felt like it mattered.
It doesn’t feel that way anymore, and I can’t help wonder why. My sentimental choice for best dunk contest of all time is the 1990 affair (‘Nique over Kenny the Jet in the final). The defending champ was Kenny “Sky” Walker, who did this ridiculous cradle-dunk thing I had never seen before. It was the first time I had ever seen Shawn Kemp, and his second dunk—this little stealth mission—basically melted my brain. The 1990 dunk contest also included Scottie Pippen, Kenny Battle, Billy Thompson (who dunked two balls at once in the first round!), and the immortal Rex Chapman.
If you’re counting, this means the 1990 dunk contest included one of the 50 greatest players of all-time (Pippen), one of the consensus best players in the league (Wilkens), and a bunch of other dudes who were really good at playing basketball. The occasional Blake Griffin, Amare Stoudemire, and Dwight Howard aside, this just doesn’t happen anymore. Or whatever, maybe it does. That’s not the point.
Paul George participated in the dunk contest in 2012, a pathetic joke of a contest in which NBA nobody Jeremy Evans managed to take home the title. Paul George called that contest “a joke” at the time, and has recently declined to participate in this year’s. That’s the same Paul George who in the intervening months and years has become probably the third best basketball player in the world, the same Paul George who just did THIS SHIT a couple weeks ago.
The dunk contest, of course, has sucked for many years now. PG was kinda right when he called it a joke. There’s a lot of corporate bullshit, and it’s extremely jarring if you go back and watch the 1990 contest from start to finish when you notice that for some strange reason everyone is, yes, having a good time, but also taking this thing seriously.
I don’t think players should dunk in the contest if they don’t want to, and I’m not one of these people who wants to boost the incentives in order to get guys to participate. Everybody can make their own decisions, and after I’ve said my little piece here, I’ll stay out of it. Listen, if you are Paul George, and it’s not important to you that your career’s CV includes a line about winning the dunk contest, that’s absolutely your prerogative. I get it, and I know that if a guy like PG got hurt in the dunk contest it would feel like the stupidest thing that has ever happened.
I also happen to believe that somewhere in the recesses of his heart Paul George gives a shit about the dunk contest. Forget Paul George. You’re telling me that LeBron didn’t watch the dunk contest when he was a kid? He didn’t flip out with everyone else when Vince Carter was killing everything in 2000? He didn’t wonder when Isaiah Rider pulled off the East Bay Funk Dunk in ‘95 whether he’d ever be able to do that shit too?
The dunk contest sucks now because everyone knows that the dunk contest is a joke. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a difference who the best dunker in the league is anymore. But I’m telling you, this shit used to matter. Jordan and Wilkins each won the thing twice, and you had better believe they both think they could have had another one. It’s like anything else, the economy, gravity, whatever, I don’t know. It’s all a total fucking illusion, but it matters because we believe in it. Paul George nearly broke the internet when he ripped that 360 against the Clippers a couple weeks ago, but watch that video carefully. No one is near him. Why did it matter to do that? It mattered because there is joy in physical expression. It mattered because of the magical aesthetic potential in the physical action of sport, and the dunk contest is our pathetic, little way of trying to distill that feeling into something that lasts so that we can say, “I watched Paul George do that dunk, and it changed my fucking life.” In his essay, “Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Street,” Edwin Denby writes, “There is nothing everyday about art. There is nothing everyday about dancing as an art. And that is the extraordinary pleasure of seeing it.” Please make the dunk contest matter again. I’m trying to find something I’ve lost.