NBA at 75: NBA All-Star weekend takes flight

BUFFALO, NY - CIRCA 1976: Forward Julius Erving (also known as Dr. J) of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on from the sideline during a National Basketball Association game against the Buffalo Braves at the Memorial Auditorium circa 1976 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - CIRCA 1976: Forward Julius Erving (also known as Dr. J) of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on from the sideline during a National Basketball Association game against the Buffalo Braves at the Memorial Auditorium circa 1976 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images) /

The Over and Back NBA podcast is celebrating the NBA at 75 by rewatching some of the greatest Slam Dunk Contests in NBA history.

There’s only one place we can begin a series on slam-dunk contests: the “inaugural” NBA slam-dunk contest in 1984.

The 1984 NBA slam-dunk contest, of course, wasn’t the first professional dunk contest in history. Or even the first one put on by the NBA!

The 1976 ABA All-Star Game was to be held in Denver and Denver general manager Carl Scheer and ABA marketing director Jim Bukata wanted something more exciting for the halftime festivities. They dreamed up this concept of a dunk contest showcasing the ABA’s high-fliers.

“I wanted more than just singers,” Scheer said in Terry Pluto’s seminal book “Loose Balls.”

At halftime of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, Julius Erving (New York Nets), David Thompson (Denver Nuggets), Artis Gilmore (Kentucky Colonels) and George Gervin & Larry Kenon (San Antonio Spurs) took some sips of water, toweled off some sweat from the All-Star Game and got ready for the first ABA slam-dunk contest.

Unlike today’s NBA slam-dunk contest, there were very strict rules on how and where dunks could happen from. The competitors had to attempt five dunks in a row under two minutes including one from a standing position, one from at least ten feet away from the basket, one coming from the left side of the basket, one coming from the right side of the basket and either corner down the baseline to the basket. Fan response, imagination, artistic ability and “body flow” were used as the judging criteria.

The most famous scene from the inaugural dunk contest was Erving’s dunk from at least ten feet away, Dr. J said to hell with ten feet and went for more dazzling the Denver crowd with his now-iconic free-throw line dunk.

The slam-dunk contest was as much a success as you could get in the still-fledging ABA.

The All-Star Game was broadcast in only four cities (Denver, New York, Indianapolis and San Antonio) but the dunk contest had people talking with clips of the dunks featured on “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America.”

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and it came as little surprise when the NBA introduced their own version of the slam-dunk contest during the 1976-77 season. The format was far different than the ABA’s contest and all future NBA contests as this wasn’t a one-off event but rather a season-long tournament.

Two competitors — one from each team — battled opponents from other teams in halftime dunk competitions until a grand champion (Darnell Hillman) was named in June 1977.

The 1984 Slam Dunk Contest was supposed to transform the NBA All-Star festivities

By 1984, the NBA was looking to transform itself into a true major league in America.

The NBA had its fair share of ups and downs over its short history but issues with drugs, fighting, franchise changes and ownership upheaval made the league feel far from the level of Major League Baseball and the National Football League.

David Stern had just taken over as commissioner and was looking for the NBA to grow while still embracing its historical roots.

With the All-Star Game scheduled for Denver, Scheer — still the Nuggets general manager — proposed the return of the slam-dunk contest. Stern bought in and the dunk contest was back.

Scheer and the NBA also introduced the NBA Old Timers/Legends Game and scheduled both events for the Saturday before the All-Star Game. Before, the only highlight of Saturday was a banquet before the Sunday All-Star Game showcase. What we now know as NBA All-Star Saturday had arrived. Assuming few people would be interested in buying tickets just to see a dunk contest and a legends game, the NBA sold tickets at dirt cheap prices, estimated at around $3.

Whether it was the thrill of the slam-dunk contest, the intrigue of the legends game, the cheap prices, or all of the above, 17,251 fans packed into Denver’s McNichols Arena for the inaugural NBA Saturday.

Nine players would compete in the inaugural NBA slam-dunk contest a mix of stars, role-players, and well, Edgar Jones was there too.

The 1984 NBA Slam Dunk Contest competitors

Michael Cooper: A two-time NBA champion and key role player on the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers teams.

Clyde Drexler: The young high-flying and dynamic shooting guard of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Julius Erving: There’s no competition without Erving in 1976 and there’s no way you can host this return without him. While he doesn’t have the hops he did in 1976, it’s still Dr. J. This event simply cannot happen without him.

Darrell Griffith: When your nickname is Dr. Dunkenstein, you need to be part of this competition. Griffith was a productive player for the early 1980s Utah Jazz teaming with Adrian Dantley on one of the NBA’s most high-powered offenses.

Edgar Jones: The most anonymous of the inaugural dunk contest competitors, Jones bounced around the league in the early 80s with stops in New Jersey, Detroit, and San Antonio. He would represent the Spurs on this night.

Larry Nance: A breakout star for the Phoenix Suns, the dynamic and show-stealing Nance slowly worked his way up the Suns’ rotation.

Ralph Sampson: The first overall selection in the 1983 NBA Draft, Sampson was an instant success in the NBA and would end the season as the league’s rookie of the year.

Dominique Wilkins: The second-year small forward of the Atlanta Hawks was beginning to make waves as one of the NBA’s next superstars.

Orlando Woolridge: The Chicago Bulls defacto leading scorer and starting small forward.

The Competition

The rigidly structured rules from the ABA slam-dunk contest were gone and competitors now just needed to dunk three times with the highest combined scores moving onto the semifinals and finals.

The first round saw staggering consistency from Nance who scored two 44s and a 46 on his dunks including a cupping windmill that showed off his unique combination of height and athleticism. Michael Cooper was a complete non-factor with just 70 points TOTAL in the first round. Dr. J does what is described on television as a “right-handed over the shoulder job.” Woolridge exploded into the contest with a double-clutch 360 that gets only a 45 from the judges.

Tough crowd.

Desperate to ensure he made it to the second round, Erving busted out the first of his two free-throw line dunks on the night. This one saw Erving step a good foot in front of the line but still throw down an impressive dunk. That he only got a 47 from the judges had the crowd quite upset.

Ralph Sampson started things out with a sweeping dunk. Sampson supposedly told the competition’s broadcasters, “I’m not that good at it, I don’t expect to win.”

Thanks for the confidence, Ralph.

In what would become a trend for all of his future dunk contests, Wilkins blew the roof off the arena with the loudest dunk of the night, a ferocious windmill. The windmill and its variants would become ‘Nique’s signature dunk contest dunk.

Erving ended his round with an impressive reverse dunk that is more famous for Erving hitting his head on the backboard. The semifinals were set with Nance, Erving, Wilkins, and Griffith moving on.

All four men were clearly elite dunkers and it showed with an impressive semifinal round that featured two 49s and three 48s.

Erving gave us our first super creative dunk as he bounced the ball subtly off the backboard before dunking it in. The 44 he received makes many wonder if the judges missed the bounce. Nance decided to follow up in a bit more impressive fashion as he threw the ball off the backboard and slammed it down for a dunk that was as impressive in 1984 as it would be in 2022.

At this point, you could really see the gears moving in all of these guys. They’d done their basic dunks and now it was time to really innovate, really set themselves apart from the crowd.

Erving started it with the subtle backboard slap and Wilkins took it in a whole new direction with the introduction of two balls. Could you use two balls in the slam-dunk contest? Who knows? Who cares! It’s the dunk contest, have fun, innovate and give the crowd something to cheer for.

Rules be damned, Wilkins grabbed two balls and dunked them both. Nance, now motivated by Wilkins’ complete disregard for rules or decorum also grabbed two balls and did an impressive up and under baseline dunk with one of them.

After three more dunks in the second round, it was time for the finals.

Wilkins narrowly missed — he got absolutely screwed over receiving a 41 for an up and under baseline dunk.

This wouldn’t be the last time Wilkins was the victim of some curious dunk contest scoring.

Regardless, the finals were set: Larry Nance vs. Julius Erving.

Nance and Erving both scored highly with their first dunks, then tragedy struck: Erving missed a dunk off the back of the rim. Nance played it safe — he knew there’s a $10,000 prize at stake here and he wanted it. He did a basic dunk and received a 39. He was in the driver’s seat (quite literally actually, we’ll get to that in a moment).

Erving needed  something big for his final dunk and well, see for yourself:

The very first 50 in NBA slam-dunk contest history.

Today, everyone gets 50s. 50s are thrown out like candy.

In 2019’s first-round alone, Hamidou Diallo, Dennis Smith Jr. and Miles Bridges all had 50 point dunks. Zach LaVine’s final round in 2016 had four 50s. Deserved or not, 50s aren’t as special today as they were during this inaugural competition.

Nance, with the pressure on, hit a perfect reverse cradle dunk and received a 47 for the 134-122 win. Your inaugural NBA slam-dunk contest champion: Larry Nance.

The driver’s seat I referenced early: Nance wanted to win the competition so he could buy a ‘67 Camaro.

“At the time, I was looking at a ’67 Camaro I wanted to buy really bad,” said Nance. “As soon as I heard about the contest, I was like, “Man, (I get) $10,000 if I win this contest. I can get the Camaro.” I was all about that. I was ready to go.”

Was Nance a man of his word?

You bet.

“I got the Camaro. I had that car off and on. I sold it several times and bought it back. I sold it again, but it’s gone now for good,” said Nance. “(The trophy) is right here at my house.”

The inaugural NBA contest couldn’t have gone better.

A young star toppled the old legend Julius Erving, the competition featured highlight dunks, emerging NBA superstars and an electric crowd.

The NBA slam-dunk contest was officially here to stay. It would be held for 14 straight years and become one of the most iconic sports events on the calendar.

The slam-dunk contest would also reach its nadir, be cast-away, sent off, never to be seen again until a dynamic leaper from the Great North would bring it back to the forefront.

At no time did the dunk contest truly feel safe or stable, though. It was a constant rollercoaster ride. A constant sheen of doubt lay over every competition. Announcers felt the need to tell you, “the dunk contest is back!” each time a great dunk was performed. Iconic dunk contests of the past became impossible to match measuring sticks, the NBA would toy with rules changes, new formats, wheels. Stars would promise they’ll do the dunk contest then bow out last minute leaving the competition to become branded as “Rising Stars.” Time and time again, people will say the dunk contest is old, passe. They’ll wonder what more these guys can do, what more can the human body do. The NBA will struggle with the event becoming a sideshow made possible only with gimmicks and props.

Despite the complaints and hand-wringing, we’ve been treated to 36 NBA slam-dunk contests. Some were legendary, some were disappointing, some set the stage for the next NBA superstars’ career, some were won by Fred Jones and Jeremy Evans. 25 different players have won an NBA slam-dunk contest and only one has won it three times. Each year, the event shines bright and takes center stage on NBA All-Star Saturday.

And it’s all thanks to Erving, Nance, Wilkins, hell, even Edgar Jones! These men laid the groundwork for what this competition could and would be for the next four decades. These men built a legacy of amazing dunks, larger-than-life superstars, and gravity-defying legends that would inspire generations of basketball fans, young and old.

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