I said, "Hey, let's have a dunk contest."
Everybody said, "Great."
Then we all said, "OK, how do you have a slam dunk contest?"
-- Jim Bukata, as quoted in Loose Balls, Terry Pluto's oral history of the ABA
The thing to remember is that nobody knew what they were doing. The year was 1976 and the American Basketball Association was gasping for breath. The upstart league would cease operations at the end of the year and finally consummate a long-awaited merger with the NBA, but those desperate final days yielded a genius idea and an ideal coda for a league known for its high-flying aerial artists like Julius Erving and David Thompson.
The All-Star Game was held in Denver and the sellout crowd of over 15,000 had no idea what they were about to witness. Neither did the players. To save money -- no small consideration -- the ABA decided to have players who were already in town participate in the halftime contest. The field included Artis Gilmore, Larry Kenon and George Gervin, but everyone knew it would come down to a one-on-one battle between Dr. J and Thompson, the man known as Skywalker.
More on the dunk contest
More on the dunk contest
In what would become a staple of later events, the other All-Star players hung around the court, cheering and high-fiving after particularly inspired jams. Not that there were many in the early rounds. Gervin hinted at a two-ball windmill, but opted for a safer dunk instead. Gilmore, a huge 7'2 center, was all about power, but his vicious slams lost their appeal when he wasn't dunking over someone. That left it up to the two marquee attractions.
For years, the legend of Dr. J was truly a legend. Television coverage was sparse, as was any kind of media attention, so tales of his acrobatic genius spread through word of mouth. Everyone had heard of the Doctor by the end of the ABA era, but there was still an element of mystery attached to him. Bearing witness to his greatness was something of a religious pilgrimage.
Only a rookie in 1976, Thompson was a star even before he arrived in the ABA. His North Carolina State team upset Bill Walton and the mighty UCLA Bruins in the Final Four, which gave him immediate credibility with basketball fans and his game needed no embellishments. This was the league's brightest star matched against its greatest hope in an old western-style showdown.
The format was that each player had four dunks. One from the left and right sides, another under the basket and one from at least 10 feet out. There were no preliminaries or final rounds, a minor structural flaw that would be addressed in later years.
The Skywalker was sensational. He cocked the ball back behind his head and flew through the air. Thompson mixed in a double-pump reverse jam and made up for his lone slip -- a kiss-the-backboard effort -- with a flawless 360 that brought the house down. Thompson was literally creating a template for future generations from scratch with each slam. Little did anyone in Denver know, Dr. J was about to blow their minds
It was an audacious idea, sprung from the New York City playgrounds that had birthed his game. Supposedly, an asphalt god named Jackie Jackson had done it, but no one had ever seen a pro attempt something so bold. Dr. J was going to the dunk from the free throw line.
The Doctor played it for all it was worth. He walked to the free throw line and turned his back. He then began pacing his steps with graceful strides in the opposite direction as the building grew louder and louder. When he finally turned around, he was at the opposite end of the court. If you watch the grainy YouTube video (five-minute mark), you'll notice that the crowd falls momentarily silent, as if they can't believe what they're about see.
Eight years later, the NBA revived the dunk contest when the All-Star Game returned to Denver. At that point, the Doctor was on his way out and a new generation of showmen took over the spotlight. Cleveland's Larry Nance took the crown from Erving, and then Dominique Wilkins emerged in 1985. The Human Highlight Film was upstaged in 1986 when 5'7 Spud Webb captured everyone's imagination in his hometown of Dallas. Michael Jordan took flight the following year and that set the stage for the greatest one-on-one battle in dunk contest history.
Nique's signature power windmills were flawless. Jordan's aerial ballets were exquisite. Each time Wilkins sent one of his rim-rattling efforts down, Jordan had to respond with something even better. He dunked not once, but twice from the free throw line and mixed in all manner of flourishes, including double pumps, windmills and reverses.
In the end, Jordan emerged victorious, and history has long debated whether he would have defended his crown in a city other than Chicago. Wilkins was awarded a rather dubious score of 45 after a typically hellacious effort, which allowed Jordan enough room to bring the Madhouse on Madison down with a finishing effort from the free throw line.
The whole thing was as exhausting as it was exhilarating. It was as if both men had used up every ounce of creativity and resourcefulness as the contest allowed and there was nothing more to give.