To understand what Vince Carter meant to the dunk contest, you have to go back to the beginning.
The dunk contest's place in culture has never been totally secure. Somewhere along the way, the league's biggest stars decided following in the lineage of Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and Dominque Wilkins wasn't worth it. Why be pigeonholed as a "just a dunker" or face possible embarrassment that could come with not living up to the public's expectations?
It's a mindset that literally killed the dunk contest in 1998, which was canceled due to lack of interest. The lockout-shortened 1999 season was dunk contest-less, as well.
The next year, Vince Carter came along. That's all it took to make the dunk contest cool again:
It's easy to forget that Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady did some crazy stuff in that same dunk contest. It's easy to forget this because Vince Carter detonated everyone's brains with his own brilliance.
Carter was already the best dunker in the world by 2000, and if you need a reminder of what he was throwing down in games, look no further than this compilation of his 100 best dunks. I have watched this more than 20 times, and it never gets old. People who don't like sports even find it incredible. It's because what Vince Carter could do in his physical prime went beyond the contours of basketball. It was watching a man fly.
"He does things with a ball that astronauts do in space."
That's Vince Carter, basketball astronaut. Impervious to the regulations of gravity. Flying to the moon to dunk on your face, over one 7-footer at a time.
The same Jenkins story says Carter once dunked over nine players in practice, and that doesn't seem unreasonable. His most famous dunk -- the one where he jumped clear over Frédéric Weis in the summer Olympics -- wouldn't come for a few months, but the 2000 contest set the course. At that point, you could have heard that VC did a 720 over Elden Campbell and believed it.
Word is that Carter spent weeks coming up with a routine before scrapping it at the last minute. Everything he did in the 2000 dunk contest was thought up on the fly.
It worked out pretty well. Moments after he threw down his first dunk, a reverse 360 windmill, Cheryl Miller started her follow-up interview with this line: "A lot of people are thinking that might have been the best dunk ever...." After his first dunk!
If Carter's 360 windmill served as the warning siren for what was about to go down, his third dunk made it official that something special was happening. Vince said it himself multiple times on the broadcast: He had never even attempted his third dunk before. It's existence can be chalked up to a stir-crazy boredom, rampant creativity and the fact that, at that exact moment, Carter probably knew he was limited more by his own imagination than by Earthly physics.
Tracy McGrady bounced the ball, Vince jumped, caught it, switched hands while putting the ball between his right leg in mid-air and threw it down. Then he pointed to the sky like he knew no one could touch him. It was an alley-oop version of Isiah Rider's famous East Bay Funk dunk, and it only took two attempts:
At that point, it was over. Vince could have gone full Darrell Armstrong on his last two dunks and no one could have denied him the trophy. That's why, with his fourth attempt, Vince said screw it and hung from the rim by his damn elbow. Nothing technical, no ball tricks or Superman gimmicks or product placement. Just the king proving he's the king. There might have been other NBA players who could have pulled off that dunk, but it didn't matter. There was Vince Carter, dangling from the rim by his elbow. Game over.
But as memorable as the actual dunks were, the sounds and the reactions inside what's now known as Oracle Arena resonate nearly 15 years ago. There are been some great dunkers the last 10 or so years -- Jason Richardson 2002, 2003 and 2004 and Blake Griffin in 2011 come to mind -- but nothing has come close to resonating like Vince since.
It's because, for one night, Carter was able to drop the pretense that's often plagued the dunk contest throughout its history. Vince wasn't ashamed of what he could do. He lived to dunk. Carter loved Dr. J so much that he when the Raptors chose Rob Babcock as their GM instead of Erving, Carter used it as a launching board for leaving town.
That type of reverence for something ultimately frivolous and kind of goofy is what the dunk contest has lacked more than big names. Vince Carter knew what he was put on this Earth to do and nothing was going to stop him.