NBA at 75: Kobe triumphs but almost ends the slam dunk contest forever

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

The less said about the 1997 NBA slam-dunk contest the better. Sure, a young Kobe Bryant won the contest adding the first bullet on what would become his extensive resume. But other than the history of Kobe winning, the competition was an utter disaster. We can’t talk about the 1997 dunk contest first without talking about what happened in its aftermath.

The NBA canceled the slam-dunk contest.




In its place, a new event called “2ball” a shooting competition teaming one NBA player with a WNBA player from their city.

As heartbreaking as it was, watching the last few slam-dunk contests … it was hard to argue with the NBA’s decision.

George Gervin, one-time judge of the competition said, “we’re seeing a lot of the same things… you get tired of looking at it.”

David Thompson, legendary dunker from the Denver Nuggets, said, “the last few years, a lot of the top dunkers haven’t participated and it’s gotten a little stale… there’s nothing new out there.”

For the first time in 14 years, there would be no slam-dunk contest during NBA All-Star Weekend.


Was this goodbye for now?

Goodbye forever?

Was the slam-dunk contest ever coming back?

Nobody really knew at the time but it would be put on ice in 1998. In 1999, the NBA’s lockout took away the entire All-Star Weekend.

So, as we recap and review the 1997 Slam Dunk contest remember this is the one that nearly killed it. While that’s not entirely fair to the 1997 competition alone, years of malaise built up to this moment where despite the youthful energy of Bryant, the competition was dead and this was its final chapter.

The 1997 Slam Dunk Contest competitors

Kobe Bryant: Kobe wasn’t KOBE just yet but he was still Kobe, everyone knew this guy was going to be a star, it was just a matter of time.

Chris Carr: You would be justified in asking who the hell Chris Carr is. Carr was a solid role player for the Suns and Timberwolves and would end up becoming a journeyman last playing for the Boston Celtics in 2001.

Michael Finley: Despite being traded during his sophomore year, Finley was on the trajectory of being a top player in the league and he would assume the role as Dallas’ key piece for their next attempt at a rebuild.

Darvin Ham: When you have nicknames like “Dunkin Darvin” and “Ham Slamwich” you need to be part of this competition. Undrafted, Ham would work his way into NBA rotations and carve out a decent eight-year NBA career.

Ray Allen: “Jesus Shuttlesworth” is known more for his three-point prowess (aka being the best three-point shooter in NBA history until Stephen Curry) than his dunking ability but at this time Allen could do it all.

Bob Sura: The hometown representative, Sura was looking to follow in the footsteps of Brent Barry in the 1996 competition as the defacto white guy that wins the competition. It, uh, did not go as well.

The competition

There’s a fun what-if scenario at play in the 1997 slam-dunk contest.

Allen Iverson was scheduled to appear but had to bow out due to injuries sustained during the Rookie-Sophomore game. Could a dynamic performance from one of the NBA’s otherworldy young talents have saved the competition? Iverson was fun, he was short, he had a knack for getting reactions out of fans.

There is a scenario where Iverson gives this contest enough juice to sustain for a few more years.

This year featured a radically new format where in the first round each dunker would get three dunks then judges would grade their round instead of individual dunks. In the finals, each dunker would do two dunks and the best score from those two was your final score.

Judges this year were WNBA star Lisa Leslie, Julius Erving, Bob Lanier, George Gervin and Walt Frazier.

Carr got started with an impressive 360 and a one-handed alley-oop for a solid first round.

Ham was famous for having shattered a backboard in college and had an impressive first round with a loud alley-oop, a good one-handed reverse and a 360 after touching the backboard to round out his run.

Allen should probably stick to shooting. While he had some solid dunks here they weren’t the most exciting: normal double-clutch, a mid-air hand switch for his second and he missed his third.

Right out of the gates, Kobe owned this competition. The swagger, the confidence, it was oozing out of Kobe. Everyone else in this competition appeared nervous, uneasy, unsettled … not Kobe. He was here to win and he started out with a great floating one-handed up-and-under and finished his first round off with a great split-legged reverse.

A fun trivia note here. Bryant only scored a 37. He was not a sure-thing for the second round and a decent round from both Sura and Finley would knock Kobe out and perhaps change NBA history as we know it.

Probably not. But still fun to think about.

Certainly don’t worry about Sura as he had a rather pathetic showing after he missed his first dunk then puts in two basic dunks.

Finley, who finished second in last year’s competition, needed a 36 to advance. His first dunk was a windmill … that he missed. The television broadcast cuts to a very perplexed, bored and irritated Anfernee Hardaway.

Finley did finally nail a pretty good alley-oop windmill that got the comatose crowd to make some noise.

The first round scores told the tale:

Finley led the competition with 44. Carr had a 39 and moved to the finals. Kobe’s 37 got him there too. Feel the excitement.

The rest of the scores were putrid: 36 for Ham and 35 apiece for Sura and Allen.


Final round time. Kobe did a great between-the-legs dunk that got the crowd — including his famous prom date Brandy — excited. This competition had some life again! Bryan gets a 49.

A great start.

That all screeched to a halt when Finley, who — okay, giving credit where it’s due — tried to bring some fun into the competition by throwing an alley-oop, doing a cartwheel and then dunking.

Great idea. Execution, not so much.

Finley did perhaps the worst cartwheel you’ll ever see then missed the dunk. You’ll never hear a crowd cheer louder for a missed dunk in a dunk contest so I won’t rag on Finley too much here.

Good try, good effort.

Carr went conservative with a nice alley-oop windmill. Not spectacular but a solid one.

Kobe already had a 49 so he doesn’t need to do much to win … he tried for an alley-oop between his legs but he missed it.

Yep, Kobe was going to win this competition on a miss. If that didn’t tell the story of the slam-dunk contest’s faded star then nothing will.

Finley tried to dunk two balls but he only made one.

Kobe fist-pumped Finley’s miss.

We reached the nadir.

It’s all up to… * checks notes* CHRIS CARR to keep the dunk contest alive.

Carr did a very nice alley-oop 360. Carr tries to get the crowd excited after his dunk and while he received some polite cheers, it was not going to be enough to rally the judges.

Carr ended with a 45 and Kobe Bryant was your NBA slam-dunk champion.

The slam-dunk contest was over.

In more ways than one.

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