Commentary

It's too easy to slam the dunk contest

Unless league's stars compete (are you listening, LeBron?), it's hard to care anymore

Updated: April 8, 2010, 1:40 PM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- Nate Robinson is calling it quits. The only player in NBA history to win three slam dunk titles will not go for four.

Please, Nate, say it ain't so.

"No, no, no, no, no," said the New York Knicks' 5-foot-9 Robinson, who has two inches and now two dunk titles on the original little dunker, Spud Webb, who was one of the judges for the slam dunk contest on All-Star Saturday at the American Airlines Center. "I don't think I can bear any more. I'm just happy with this third one, man, you know. I thank God for it, continue to just try to take things to the next level."

[+] EnlargeNate Robinson
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesNate Robinson's unprecedented third slam dunk championship would be more impressive if the league's top stars had competed against him.

I'm not sure which level that would be, but somehow the NBA will have to fill the shoes of the greatest dunker the league's ever seen. Clearly, Robinson is in rarefied air, reaching a dunk-o-sphere where not Dr. J, not Dominique, not even the man called His Airness has ever soared. Oh, how will the dunk contest ever survive?

OK, maybe I am jaded, yearning for the good old days when dunkers dunked, and liked it. Or at least it seemed that way.

The dunk contest, while still providing some giggles, has lacked attention-drawing star power, with exceptions here and there, for some time.

Had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and some of the other NBA superstars already on the All-Star rosters replaced Robinson, DeMar DeRozan, Shannon Brown and Gerald Wallace -- easily the most accomplished player of the group --- would the AAC have had those empty seats? The hype alone would have filled Cowboys Stadium.

"You've got to understand that back then in the dunk contest you had Dominique, Jordan, you had all them guys, everybody participated whether they wanted to or not," said Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird, the winner of the inaugural 3-point contest back in 1986 at Dallas' Reunion Arena. "Once they got to the All-Star Game they wanted to be in something because you've got three days so you might as well be out there shooting [in the 3-point contest] or dunking."

As DeRozan, the 21-year-old Toronto Raptors rookie, warmed up moments before taking the floor Saturday night -- the winner of a gimmicky dunk-off to secure the final spot, sort of like the play-in game to decide the 65th team in the NCAA tournament -- he was asked the first dunk contest he remembers watching.

"It had to be '96," DeRozan said.

Ninety-six, '96, I can't seem to remember ... who won it in '96?

"Brent Barry," DeRozan said.

Brent Barry? Brent (bleeping) Barry?

"Yeah, yeah," DeRozan said. "You don't remember Brent Barry?"

I remember Brent Barry. I just don't remember him winning the dunk title.

Maybe I should have. Apparently his free throw line jam paid homage to Dr. J and MJ, too.

But, no offense, Brent, I didn't remember Fred Jones in 2004, Jason Richardson going back-to-back in '02 and '03 or Cedric Ceballos in 1992, Isaiah Rider in 1994 or Desmond Mason in 2001. I did recall Harold Minor's double dunk titles in 1993 and 1995. Who can forget Baby Jordan?

NBA commissioner David Stern said he doesn't mind that his game's biggest and brightest stars shy away from the dunk contest, the one Saturday event with the power to blow the roof off the building.

"It seems like everybody was involved in it," Bird said of yesteryear. "Some of them dunk contests the field was our best dunkers. It wasn't like it is now. It was really our stars, and it really helped promote it."

At least Kobe, as a youngster, did it once and won it.

Are you listening, LeBron? The King titillated us last year with hints he'd dunk in Dallas, and then before he could giveth his gift of dunk he took it away by backing out. One NBA team president said he still loves the dunk contest and still thinks it's the highlight of the night, but he also said the reason the NBA's best don't compete in it, as opposed to the 3-point contest or the other skills events, has nothing to do with fear of injury as is often stated, but rather fear of failure.

"Players are very reluctant or have been of late more reluctant to participate in the slam dunk because it's more a kind of macho test of your athleticism, that you have the potential, some players think, to embarrass themselves, and I don't think anybody really worries about missing a shot," Suns president Rick Welts said. "So, I think for whatever reason in the psyche of a basketball player there's nothing at risk of missing a shot, but somehow, not doing the most spectacular dunk does have a different implication in terms of kind of your legend. I think players are less willing to participate in that."

Not so fast. According to Pierce, brick-laying can be an equal-opportunity humiliator.

That's why Boston's Paul Pierce didn't pass up the opportunity to go for the 3-point shootout title. Following the lead of Bird's bravado in the inaugural shootout -- when Bird famously jabbed at his competitors, "Who's coming in second?" -- Pierce took to talking right away and followed it up with victory.

"You know, like I said early on, I worked on it. I really took pride on it from '02 when I came in here and stunk it up," Pierce said of his last 3-point shootout, which he clearly hadn't forgotten. "This is something I wanted to do and I really wanted to show everybody that I can put on a better performance, and what better way than bringing home the trophy."

Take that, all you macho dunkers -- a little red face now can pay off later.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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