The very first sanctioned Slam Dunk Contest took place in Denver at halftime of the 1976 ABA (American Basketball Association) All-Star Game. The ABA, unlike its older, more established contemporary, the NBA, had a reputation as playing an undisciplined, anything-goes game, and the inaugural Slam Dunk Contest was partially an attempt to put more fans in the seats, as well as a showcase that would more clearly define the differences between the two leagues. The NBA still had stars (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Rick Barry, John Havlicek, Elvin Hayes), but these players were not only aging, but they played the game in a slower, “old school” style that relied more on teamwork and set plays. The ABA also had stars (Julius Erving, David Thompson, George Gervin, Marvin Barnes, Artis Gilmore), but these younger players were revolutionizing the game with a free-lancing, up-and-down style of play that emphasized showmanship much more than the NBA.
The ABA’s initial Slam Dunk Contest featured only five contestants; Erving, Thompson, Gervin, Gilmore and Larry Kenon. Unlike the tightly regulated contests that fans are accustomed to today, the Denver event was essentially like a playground pick-up game. Each contestant was allowed two minutes to perform five dunks. The only requirements; a dunk from a standing position under the basket, a leaping dunk from 10 feet away, a dunk from the left side, one from the right side, and one from either baseline. There were no celebrity judges or elimination rounds. Each player was simply given two minutes to complete the five dunks.
The two consensus favorites to win the competition, Erving and Thompson, didn’t disappoint the sold-out McNichols Arena crowd. They were the final two contestants and Thompson wowed the crowd with a double-pump reverse dunk during which he seemingly hung in the air for an eternity. His final dunk was a 360-degree baseline slam that in which his head almost grazed the rim. The 6’4 Thompson, the shortest contestant in the competition, raised his arms to acknowledge the cheers. The final contestant, the legendary Dr. J, then took the court and after a somewhat “so-what?” reverse dunk from the left baseline, he dribbled out to near mid-court. He turned, faced the basket and with just three long strides, exploded off the floor from the free-throw line (15-feet) and windmill-slammed the ball through the hoop. No one had ever seen that done before, and a legend was born. After a brief discussion among the “judges,” Erving was declared the winner and the players came back on the court to start the second half.
Eight years later, following the merger between the two leagues and the arrival of such future Hall of Famers as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the NBA reintroduced the Slam Dunk Contest at the 1984 All-Star Game, held fittingly, in Denver. Erving recreated his iconic free-throw line dunk, but the eventual winner turned out to be Larry Nance, who dazzled the judges with a unique “rock the baby” dunk. The following two contests were won by Atlanta Hawks‘ teammates Dominique Wilkins (1985) and in 1986, the diminuitive Spud Webb outdunked Wilkins in the finals to capture the title. At only 5’7, Webb was the shortest competitor to win the contest. The next two years were dominated by the electric Michael Jordan who clinched the crown with his recreation of Dr. J’s legendary free-throw dunk, although Jordan added his trademark “tongue-wag” to his soaring slam. In 1989, New York Knick Kenny Walker, a last-minute replacement in the competition, took home the title, edging out Clyde “The Glide” Drexler.
The 1990s saw the Slam Dunk Contest lose a bit of its appeal, partly due to the lack of superstars in the competition and also due to the general lack of originality among the dunks themselves. Kobe Bryant’s win in 1997 raised the excitement level somewhat, but other than Harold Miner’s between-the-legs reverse winner in 1993, the decade turned out to be rather pedestrian. The title went to Brent Barry in 1996, notable for being the only (so far) non African-American to capture the trophy.
One of the more exciting Slam Dunk Contests occurred at the 2000 All-Star Game in Oakland. The two finalists, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, were not only Toronto teammates, but also cousins (an event first). Carter edged out McGrady with a series of gravity-defying windmill dunks, along with an alley-oop extravaganza that was lobbed by McGrady. The next four contests reverted back to a lack of superstars, notable primarily for Jason Richardson’s back-to-back wins in 2002-03, the first repeat winner since Jordan in 87-88. The 2005 winner, Atlanta’s Josh Smith, introduced a new wrinkle into the competition by donning a Dominique Wilkins “throw-back” jersey to honor the former Hawk.
In 2006, it was time for the “little guy” to prove they too could fly with the best, and 5’9 Nate Robinson of New York delivered, defeating Andre Igoudala in the finals. Gerald Green of Boston captured the crown in 2007, clinching with a flying windmill dunk after soaring over a table. The next season, Dwight Howard came out dressed in a Superman shirt and cape which made his free-throw line slam even more exciting. The Mighty-Mite, Nate Robinson, returned in 2009 and not only took home the title, but repeated the feat a year later to join Jordan and Richardson as the only back-to-back champions. A Kia Optima was featured in the 2011 contest, with Blake Griffin capturing the crown by leaping over the NBA’s Official Car and slamming home a powerful windmill dunk. In 2012, Jeremy Evans soared above the competition to take the title.