This Sunday, the NBA’s 65th All-Star Game will take place on foreign soil, in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
Leading up to the league’s midseason extravaganza, which features an astounding collection of talent headlined by Steph Curry, LeBron, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, KD, Melo, D Wade, and of course, Kobe Bryant in his farewell All-Star appearance, we’ll be sharing some of our most memorable reflections and recollections of one of American sports’ premier showcases.
Do you know why watching dunk contests for me nowadays is like watching paint dry? Because, at the age of 18, I witnessed the greatest such event of all time, when Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins had their showdown in the old Chicago Stadium.
It was the greatest display by the two final participants, ever. Four of the dunks in the last round received perfect scores of 50 from the judges. Needing a 49 to win the crown on his last dunk, Jordan went back in time and imbibed his stylistic predecessor, the great Julius Erving, aka Dr. J, for a take-off from the free throw line.
The entire basketball loving universe was interested in what was happening in Chicago on that evening of February 6, 1988. The NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest might have actually been more popular at that point, due to the aerial brilliance of Jordan and ‘Nique, than the actual All-Star game.
The two had squared off as finalists three years prior, in 1985, with Wilkins, aka The Human Highlight Reel, winning due to a number of ferocious tw-handed backwards and windmill jams.
Jordan was the contest’s defending champ in ’88 though, and the force of funky dunknificence that Wilkins brought into the building was beyond electrifying. To this day, their flight-time superiority in this event provides one of All-Star weekend’s most memorable and iconic moments.
There are many that feel like Dominique got robbed that night, that the home crowd’s reaction swayed the judges. But as fans, no one who witnessed it felt robbed. The fantastic part of the event was that both men were phenomenal in-game dunkers, in that they’d dunk on your mother’s neck if she happened to be standing between them and the basket on a fast break.
Back then, a fearsome dunker was someone who snapped necks in games, with testicles grazing a defender’s forehead. The joy was that it was always meant to send a message, not simply dunking for the sake of dunking. The contest became an extension of that machismo, as if every rim-wrecker was a Rick James kick on Charlie Murphy’s couch.
What also made it so precious was that this was the final time that MJ would participate, so this was his farewell.
Every year after that, my excitement for the dunk contest waned, until Vince Carter stepped on the scene. But Vinsanity never had a worthy adversary in the way that Mike had ‘Nique.
1988 was the Gold Standard, the likes of which, in terms of stylistic expression, strength, creativity, elevation and flotation, and the vicarious energy imbued in anyone who witnessed it, will never be quite duplicated again.