If you are like me then you remember a time when the NBA slam dunk contest was the must see event of All Star weekend as stars like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkens, Julius Irving etc headlined the spectacle, but in 2013 we saw another opportunity for the NBA to showcase a stellar dunk contest with their stars yet the field was again underwhelming (all due respect to those fine dunkers, they are just not the cream of the NBA crop like it once was).
Since Dominique Wilkins won in 1990 the last 20+ dunk contests have seen Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, and Jason Richardson (twice) participate and win the Dunk Contest, but in those 20+ years we have also seen a much longer list of players that do nothing to inspire your average NBA fan to watch. Guys like Tim Perry, Chris Carr, Jamie Watson, Bob Sura, James Robinson, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Robert Pack, Darvin Ham, Gerald Green, Hakim Warrick, Fred Jones, Jonathan Bender, Shannon Brown, Rudy Fernandez, Greg Minor (not Harold Minor, at least Harold won one), Antonio Harvey, and Chase Buddinger to name a few (even a hardcore NBA fan looks at that list and says “yikes”).
The problem is the big names have no interest in putting their egos on the line in a dunk contest where they may not win. The threat of injury is way smaller than the threat of a humbling moment, and players see that even a 3-time slam dunk champ like 5’8″ Nate Robinson has a decent-at-best dunk rep as he misses dunk after dunk and took 3-4 tries to land any dunk in his wins. I was struck by something that Phil Jackson said once where he talked about the idea that basketball can really lend itself to be a self-conscious thing if you let it, or if you are already the kind of person who would be subject to that, as you are on display in front of millions in just shorts and a tank top. No hat/helmet/head-to-toe uniform which Jackson thinks can leave you feeling exposed and self-conscious, now take that to the next level as you add-in the expectation on you as an A+ talent so I understand their unwillingness to risk any of that for a small cash prize (small by their standards).
So what is the fix?
I think you need to get the shoe companies involved as sponsors to bring it back to a major event. Four contestants, and the prize money is distributed to their four different charities – and it needs to be significant (seven figures). The voting for the players participating in the All Star game is available on-line, so put the voting on-line for the fans to chose the charities too. Now instead of multimillionaires adding thousands to their pockets (who cares?) we will see worthy causes getting the type of press and financial support they deserve. Combine the charity aspect with something for the NBA Cares program to help excite even your average fan that supports one of the various charities that would be involved.
We all saw The Decision show that LeBron James had to announce that he was taking his talents to South Beach. That horrible idea of a show still did land the Boys and Girls Club $2.5 million so imagine an opportunity like this to give funds and awareness to the kind of worthy causes available while giving a big up to the sport and the fans that have your great great great great grandkids lives covered financially (you know – instead off the usual big up for just yourself).
On the sponsors end the race would be on to see which company can win the title and claim for at least that year that they made the slam dunk winning shoe. There are several ways to chose the competitors (fan vote for example) but here is my thought…Four contestants…one Adidas…one Nike… one Converse, and one Reebok (personally, I think Converse or Reebok could go out and an And 1 dunker could come in…seriously to have this be an event again let’s see the NBA best against a beast from the And 1 tour). If you are these companies you are already active in charities so just re-allocate some of that into this event and put yourself in a situation where you can be part of the glory that would come with restoring the NBA Dunk Contest.
If that is accomplished you now have so much riding on the line that we have created a scenario where the win would mean a lot to the sponsors so that gives us the chance to have those companies lean on the A+ guys to participate in the Contest.
I acknowledge this is a long-shot of sorts, but I feel it is an outside-the-box approach to fix an event that is losing relevance annually.