The dunk contest appeals to all, thrills none
12-year-old me and present-day me probably would not agree on all that much. He desperately loved Cinnamon Toast Crunch and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and wearing extremely puffy pants with your best silk print shirt, whereas I do not. And I might not have been able to convince him of the benefits of getting massively stoned and listening to King Tubby. On the other hand, we would certainly agree on one simple fact: dunks are awesome. He was partial to MJ’s pivoting, hand-on-the-floor throwdown over Patrick Ewing, while I might counter with Blake Griffin’s spinning, open-floor crushing of Danilo Gallinari. But on the basics, we would agree.
Given that knowledge, what exactly is wrong with the dunk contest? We might as well expand the question and ask ourselves what, for a basketball lover, felt so desultory about all of All-Star Saturday night. Because their bodies are so sleek and coordinated and powerful and because they have such mastery of the skills inherent to the game, when they play against air, their actions appear so effortless as to be pretty much vacuumed of all drama. Without competition, there’s no struggle; without a struggle to magnify and draw out the full measure of those incredible skills, there’s nothing to see. Even the three-point contest–which I normally find pretty engrossing simply for the rhythmic, hypnotic sight of the ball going through the net over and over–underwhelmed. Kevin Love is a fine shooter and all, and I’m crazy about the guy as a player, but the fact that he won tells you all that you need to know about the quality of this year’s competition.
And although its certainly impressive to know that Chase Budinger can jump over a famous hip-hop producer or that Jeremy Evans can dunk two balls at once, that same purposelessness applies to the dunk contest. The best dunks emerge suddenly, out of ordinary time, injecting very small moments with a revitalizing shock, a vibration that expands and extends those moments in our consciousness. The dunk contest lacks both the oppositional force (Jordan shredding that double-team, Ewing rising to contest) and the suddenness of of those great in-game dunks. We know exactly what to expect and the dunks themselves–black lights and glow-in-the-dark strips and motorcycles and capes and head-mounted video cameras and cupcakes notwithstanding–do very little to exceed those expectations.
So what could we do to fix this? Well, we could try getting Kenny Smith to ask a thorzine-mouthed, wasted-on-himself P. Diddy about his new projects. We could get Kevin Hart to dress up like a mailman. We could thrill the nation with a Cedric Ceballos cameo. We could get Flo-Rida to karaoke their second-best song. We could ask Big Shaq and Chuck and Reggie to convene an on-mic, cigar aficionado frat party. Oh I know, since the problem with previous dunk-contests was clearly that they were improperly judged, we could just start our own little social media revolution and allow the 99% (over three million people, we’re told, chiming in via text or the Twitter) to vote for the winner…aaaaand those three million people could promptly select the gangly
Evans who, if you ask me, was no better than third out of four. (The two best dunks of the night–again, if you’re asking me–were Paul George’s Larry Bird tribute and Derrick Williams’ 360 off the side of the backboard, if for no other reason than the fact that Ricky Rubio was giggling throughout the entire thing.)
We could try all of those things and the sparse crowd could still greet the proceedings with an email-checking, hot dog-eating non-enthusiasm punctuated by a smattering of lukewarm applause and even the occasional boo (for Evans’ first, decidedly unimpressive dunk). What was merely boring could now become overstimulating and occasionally cringe-inducing. I’m left now with the same feeling that always seems to descend on me during the aimless spectacularity of All-Star weekend: the desire to watch an actual NBA game.