By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Before I unveil my plan to save NBA All-Star Saturday, we need to discuss the Slam Dunk Contest, which jumped the shark about 10 years ago. Watching the dunk contest these days is like watching Heather Locklear on "Spin City" -- it's old, it's tired, it looks like it's seen one too many dunks, and you can even see its roots a little bit.

Heather Locklear
Heather Locklear in "Spin City" just doesn't have the hops she had in "Melrose Place."

Remember the days when the Dunk Contest was the greatest halftime event on the planet? Every year we looked forward to high-flying stars such as MJ, Dr. J and Clyde the Glide. We couldn't wait to see Shawn Kemp choke. We marveled at the artistry of anonymous bench guys such as Terence Stansbury, whose "Statue of Liberty" dunk deserves its own "SportsCentury and Beyond" special. We enjoyed seeing Dominique compete harder in the dunk contest than he ever competed during actual games. We enjoyed the goofy judges, former NBA stars and B-level celebs who weren't averse to fixing an occasional contest. Most of all, we enjoyed the dunks. There was something revolutionary about the whole thing in a "first season of 'Miami Vice' " kinda way.

My favorite part of the contest? Seeing NBA stars sitting in the stands, wearing $9,000 jogging suits and 30,000 pounds of jewelry, egging on their cohorts, putting their hands over their mouths after every dunk ("Dammmmnnn!") and sometimes jumping out of their seats in delight. This was the gift of comedy that kept on giving. Hell, even Patrick Ewing seemed to enjoy the dunk contest, and half the time we're not even sure he's alive.

Things started to turn after a Boston Celtic (Dee Brown) won the contest in 1991, which was definitely in the running for Eighth Sign of the Apocalypse at the time. The first strike happened when superstars such as MJ and 'Nique stopped entering the contest because they ran out of dunks. Then Ced Ceballos nailed that ridiculous "Blindfold" dunk, when we all knew he could see through the thing. Then Harold Miner won the title and called it the greatest moment of his life (as it turned out, he was right -- you can currently see Harold playing in the CBA for the Charlestown Colostomy Bags).

  Hell, even Patrick Ewing seemed to enjoy the dunk contest, and half the time we're not even sure he's alive. 
  

And then ... it happened.

A white guy won.

(Cancel the contest! Cancel the contest! A white guy has won! We have gone too far! Cancel the contest!)

And so the NBA mercifully pulled the plug after the 1997 contest. It was time. Much like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, we had seen pretty much everything we ever wanted to see that was within reason. You can spend your whole life hoping to see Kathy Ireland butt-naked, you can spend your whole life hoping to see somebody dunk from the top of the 3-point arc ... but it just ain't happening. And we know that now.

Of course, the NBA didn't give up. Unfortunately for basketball fans, the league had a replacement up its sleeves for 1998 ... something called "2-Ball." At the time, USA Today described the fledgling event this way: "The league has decided to discard the high-flying competition that was once the highlight of All-Star Saturday. It will be replaced by an event called 2-Ball that will team one NBA and one WNBA player from the same city in a shooting contest in which points are awarded for shots taken from different spots on the court. Bonus points will be given for spectators who try to kill themselves during the event."

OK, I made that last sentence up, but you get the idea. 2-Ball? 2-Ball? What were the other options? A layup contest? Sprints? Passing drills? And why was the WNBA suddenly involved? Initially, I was excited about 2-Ball in some sick way, if only because NBA stars who tend to show a complete and lack of respect for women off the court were suddenly being thrown into shooting contests with female players. I kept expecting scenarios like this:

"And Isaiah Rider has one shot left to beat Cynthia Cooper ... he misses! Cooper wins! Oh, no! Rider is stomping her in the head! For the love of God, somebody stop him!"

Spud Webb
AP
Thrills in the dunk contest have disappeared with Spud Webb.

Didn't happen. In a prescient move, the league forced Karl Malone, Avery Johnson, Kobe Bryant and a number of other NBA "good guys" to participate -- they all looked bummed out and somewhat mortified to be involved. And who could blame them? This was the NBA equivalent of being neutered. Even WNBA fans couldn't defend this thing. This wasn't just the worst idea in the history of sports, it might have been the worst idea in the history of mankind.

Three years have passed ... and none of the problems have been fixed. Thankfully, the league has ditched 2-Ball, but only changed it to a half-court three-on-three game featuring an NBA star, an NBA legend, a WNBA star and a celebrity. The 3-point shooting contest exists only because the league wants to involve white guys in the weekend festivities. The rookie game is fun ... if you like to see guys flipping no-look passes into the fifth row of the stands. And the league, desperate for some attention, brought back the slam dunk contest even though it hasn't evolved in 15 years.

When Vince Carter started doing his Evolutionary Dominique routine for the Raptors, the league quickly dusted off the contest, hooked it up to the Juvenation Machine and brought it back for All-Star Weekend in 2000. It was a classic professional sports moment -- we have no new ideas, so let's bring back something that worked for the short haul and try to catch lightning in a bottle again.

After Vince won in 2000, we quickly reverted to the "Actual NBA Stars Are Too Damned Cool to Participate In This Contest" Era again -- get ready to see no-names such as Jon Bender, Kedrick Brown and Corey Maggette battling it out for this year's title next month. And that doesn't make sense. Shouldn't All-Star Saturday be about getting as many stars as possible involved?

I'm telling you, the NBA is missing the boat on this one.

Allow me to explain ...

***** ***** *****

  Much like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, we had seen pretty much everything we ever wanted to see that was within reason. You can spend your whole life hoping to see Kathy Ireland butt-naked, you can spend your whole life hoping to see somebody dunk from the top of the 3-point arc ... but it just ain't happening. 
  

Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, children of all ages ... I will now let loose the greatest theory ever unleashed on Page 2, something that even surpasses the stark, overwhelming power of The Ewing Theory. My buddy Joe House and I hatched this plan four years ago on my old website, and it's the only way "All-Star Saturday" can be saved. You ready?

H-O-R-S-E Every hoops junkie has played roughly two million games of HORSE over the course of his basketball life. It's the greatest game of all-time. This isn't even an argument -- it's an out-and-out fact. Everyone loves HORSE.

Nobody loves HORSE more than me. Back in the day, when my buddy Bish and I played HORSE during every available recess period in high school, I had three money-in-the-bank shots at my disposal ...

  • 1. The free throw facing the other way, shot over my head (swish).
  • 2. The 15-foot bank shot while sitting Indian-leg style (thud swish).
  • 3. The 3-pointer from the right corner while standing out of bounds (behind the baseline, so the shot basically went over the backboard ... swish).

... as well as a surprisingly reliable halfcourt shot. Meanwhile, Bish scouted me well and relied on moves that took advantage of the fact I couldn't jump over a Sunday newspaper, that funky "touching the backboard while doing a reverse layup"-type crap that always screwed me up. It was a battle for the ages -- a Chamberlain-Russell prep school thing. You really had to be there. It was almost worth going to our next class covered in sweat and smelling like Vlade Divac after a triple-OT game, just for the chance to beat Bish with a half-court jumper for an "E."

Hey, everyone has his own HORSE memories. But there's a reason HORSE would work on All-Star Saturday: NBA players love playing HORSE almost as much as they enjoy playing video games. Ever attended a practice or pregame shootaround? If you did, you would notice that NBA players are always playing stupid games and trying to sink improbable half-court shots. They're like giant, oversized kids. Heck, when The Basketball Jesus was coaching the Pacers, he still played HORSE with his players after practice. As Dr. Sam Loomis once said, "What more do you need?"

So why has the league ignored this for 20 years? Who knows?

But I do know this ...

Paul Pierce
AP
Paul Pierce in a HORSE contest would spell great ratings for the NBA.

Every NBA superstar -- repeat, every superstar -- would enter a HORSE contest. The bragging rights would transcend anything we've seen since the dunk contest still had its fastball in the mid-'80s. You're telling me you wouldn't want to see White Chocolate facing off against Paul Pierce in a no-holds-barred game of HORSE, with Barkley, Kenny and Ernie announcing? We could even schedule a Legends HORSE contest as a warmup. Magic vs. Larry Legend, one last time? Would anyone be able to topple The Man, the King of half-court shots and left-handed 3-pointers back in the day, back when he ruled everyone and everything that was holy? Just thinking about it makes me woozy.

(Little-known fact: Bird used to get his legendary butt kicked by a reserve forward on the C's named Michael Smith in HORSE contests in the late-'80s; Smith was the greatest HORSE player of all-time -- he could make shots off scoreboards and shot clocks and stuff. Of course, he averaged 5.0 points per game for his career, but that's beside the point. He looked The Man in the eye and didn't flinch. You have to hand it to him. And yet I digress ...)

Here's the point: Every player in the league would want to win a HORSE contest on All-Star Weekend. You would see shots from midcourt; shots from underneath the scorer's table; shots from David Stern's lap; shots from Mariah Carey's cleavage; shots while swinging from Allen Iverson's gold necklace; and if the trash-talking got heated enough between the players' posses, you might even see actual shots.

How can they give us 2-Ball and miss the boat on HORSE? Strangely enough, in the mid-'70s, CBS aired a halftime HORSE contest ... and it was my favorite show to watch as a kid other than "Scooby Doo" (before Scrappy Doo came aboard and irrevocably killed the cast's chemistry). In the CBS shows, Paul Westphal used to make bank shots off Brent Musberger's face. I'm not kidding. Westphal was awesome. He was the man. He was otherwordly. And given that they filmed those episodes 25 years ago and I still remember them ... well, what does that tell you?

So here's one final plea to the NBA powers-that-be, just in case David Stern somehow stumbles across a copy of this column:

Yo, Commish ...

Vince Carter
Vince Carter's to blame for the dunk contest's return, and he probably won't compete in it again.

I understand why you brought back the dunk contest as a Vince Showcase. I understand why you feel the pathetic need to hype the WNBA with 2-Ball or three-on-three, even though everyone hates them with a passion normally reserved for telemarketers and cold sores. I don't mind the rookie game. I love the All-Star Game. I even enjoy the stay in school jam, if only because it once offered an actual duet with Kobe Bryant and Tyra Banks (9.8 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale). But I can't understand how you continually miss the boat with HORSE.

We'll give you one more mulligan this season and that's it. After next month's All-Star Weekend (Feb. 9-10 in Philly), please do the following things:

  • 1. Junk the dunk. Make it an "Every Three Years" thing. And if you're not going to junk the contest, at least show us Dikembe Mutombo's reactions to every dunk. At least give us that.

  • 2. Hold the rookie game and the 3-point contest at the exact same time. You could have 3-point shooters scurrying off the floor every time there's a fast break, just like in real life at any local YMCA.

  • 3. Keep WNBA players away from All-Star Saturday unless you're staging a "Who can blow out their ACL fastest?" competition. I mean it. Keep them out. It's bad enough we're subjected to WNBA promos during NBA games. Don't mess with me on this. This makes me violently angry. I'm not alone here.

  • 4. Finally, bring back the damned HORSE contest. You can even take credit for the idea from me and Joe House. I don't care. Just bring it back. Trust me.

    And when it becomes a runaway success, and you feel the need to have a spinoff media game, you know where to reach me. There's no way Vecsey and Aldridge ever make my Indian-leg 15-foot banker. Not in a million years.

    Give 'em an H ...

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.




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