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Thursday, February 12, 2009
Updated: February 13, 3:30 PM ET
The Slam Dunk Contest: Past, Present and Future


Dwight Howard from the '08 Contest. Some claim this is the sickest dunk ever in the contest. Our panel is mixed on this view.

In college, All-Star Saturday night was always underrated as a social force. You grab some brews, order in a few pies, and watch dudes chucking the long ball and slamming it home for three hours with the melodic voice of Kevin Harlan as your soundtrack. You get into the real world, life's realities crush you, and you hold a special place in your heart and soul for that mid-February weekend night when balls arc and men soar. As such, we're nodding to the past (best dunks ever), the present (who will win this year?) and the future (what dunk needs to be attempted?) in this piece. Some people here are NBA experts (they get paid to write about it), some are NBA observers (they get paid to follow sports), and some are just fans. We think it's a good mix.

THE PAST: WHAT'S THE BEST RIMROCKER IN SLAM DUNK CONTEST HISTORY?

ESPN THE MAGAZINE ASSOCIATE EDITOR MATT MEYERS: No question, the sickest dunk in contest history was in 2000 when Vince Carter took the bounce pass from Tracy McGrady, put it through his legs, and slammed it. (The best look is at 1:19ish of this clip, probably.) We had seen guys put it through the legs, but it was never off a pass, and it was always kind of awkward. Don't even try and bring MJ into the discussion, because Dr. J was dunking from the foul line when MJ was still in middle school.

ESPN THE MAGAZINE SENIOR WRITER CHRIS BROUSSARD: I hate to pick just one, but I have to go with Dwight Howard's "Superman'' dunk last year. It had it all. There was great showmanship with the cape and the S on the chest, and he displayed great athleticism by catching the ball in midair, leaping from a foot or so inside the foul line and actually "throwing'' the ball down into the rim rather than merely "dunking'' it. Some said it wasn't a dunk, but I thought it was more impressive than a dunk.

ESPNTHEMAG.COM GURU SEAN BARTLETT: Gerald Green was robbed. (Best part of that clip: Kenny Smith legitimately losing his mind.) The cupcake dunk might not have had the raw power of the Superman dunk, and it wouldn't look as good on a poster, but it was certainly the most creative dunk in recent memory. In a competition in which the base physical limitations have pretty much been met, creativity has to take over—and this dunk had it in spades. Let's face it: Dwight Howard forgets his costume last year and Green is the defending champ. Instead, he's watching this year's contest from home, wondering where it all went wrong.

NATHANIEL FROM FREEDARKO: I'm biased towards recent contests, because there's been more than enough canonization of older dunks. Here's one: Jason Richardson's ridic trick dunk. Again with Kenny the Jet losing his mind: "JUST WHEN YOU THINK YOU'VE SEEN IT ALL!")

ESPN THE MAGAZINE SENIOR WRITER RIC BUCHER: Andre Iguodala throwing the ball off the back of the backboard, catching it, ducking under the backboard and throwing it down.

Matt Meyers told us once, "One of the reasons I love YouTube is because of Jason Richardson."

GENERAL SLAM DUNK FAN / PART-TIME ESPN CONTRIBUTOR EVAN BARTSCH: Best rim rattler ever in Slam Dunk history has to be Jordan's homage to Dr. J; in flight from the free throw line for 9 seconds is the most glorious slow-motion action this planet has ever seen. It beats the moon landing, the guy getting shot by the cannon ball, anything Rudy Fernandez is going to come up with.

ESPN THE MAGAZINE ASSOCIATE EDITOR JORDAN BRENNER: I'm not sure it was the "sickest," but the one that has always stood out in my memory was one from MJ's gift-wrapped win in Chicago in 1988. And it wasn't when he tried to take off from the foul line and got handed a "50" from the judges. Nope, it was the windmill from the side which, when shown from a low camera angle, absolutely proves that he could, in fact, fly. (Best look is around the 2:00 mark of this clip.)

ESPN THE MAGAZINE ASSOCIATE PRODUCER TED BAUER: People think he cheated and could see through the blindfold, but I always liked the Cedric Ceballos dunk, honestly.

ESPN THE MAGAZINE WRITER ELENA BERGERON: I'm young, so I'm not gonna wax poetic about David Thompson or even MJ because I don't think you can have a "favorite" dunk if you didn't actually watch it as it happened. Replays don't count. That being said, Vince Carter. Arm in the net. (Go to the 2:07 mark on this clip.) That was some playground sh**, in the sense that it was the type of dunk you expect someone to tell you about years later in a conversation that goes like this: "Yeah, Jordan was good, but there was this guy who used to hoop at the courts on 79th and Gutter Ave. One time I swear I saw him get so high that he was in the net up to his elbow. Dunno where he is now, but he was a better dunker than Jordan." Only it wasn't some playground legend. Vince did it when it counted. That got him some very questionable All-Star selections for years thereafter, but it was a defining moment in Dunk Comp history.

ESPN THE MAGAZINE WINTER INTERN ISHITA SINGH: What about Jason Richardson's other famous one, in '03?

ILLINOIS HOOPS GURU / ESPN CONTRIBUTOR SCOTT POWERS: The Slam Dunk contest is hard to pick. There's been so many great ones. I will tell ya this: the best dunker of all-time is Ronnie Fields.

ESPN THE MAGAZINE OPERATIONS GENIUS LEE BERMAN: I've considered all those dunks. Time to give some love to Nate Robinson over Spud Webb.

THE PRESENT: WHO'S GOING TO WIN THE 2009 SLAM DUNK CONTEST?

ESPNTHEMAG.COM GURU MAX KLINGER: Nate Robinson. When short guys dunk they look so much for impressive. It's poetic justice.

MEYERS: Dwight Howard is going to have a hard time upping the ante, and I think we've seen the limits of what Nate can do. I've heard murmurs (from where, I have no idea) that Rudy has some tricks up his sleeve, so I'll take him. Viva Espana!

Our friend was seven years old at this dunk contest. He's in the military now. Coincidence? Probably.

POWERS: I'm not taking Rudy, but honestly, he has owned Dwight Howard before.

BARTLETT: The fan vote plays a role, and Howard did get three-million-plus to get into the All-Star game.

NATHANIEL FROM FREEDARKO: Dwight Howard, for sure, if only because he understands that the next level of dunks is making them conceptual, as well as acrobatic. Also, because of his unprecedented size/ups combination, he also has the ability to do purely physical things we've never seen before. Then they should cap off the night with a showdown between Howard and James White, who could win the NBDL contest on reputation alone.

BERGERON: Can't pull for Howard in good conscience because I think it's a travesty that he hasn't broken a backboard yet. There's no way anyone that strong should've made it through TWO dunks comps without shattering the glass. PS, he BARELY made his Superman dunk last year. Seriously? You're 6'11" and you had to lay in the ball? You sir, are no dunk champ of mine.

Saying no to Nate Rob as well, just because I sat through that 14-attempt fiasco in Houston and I remember what it was like being held up from going to the Nike party, err, I mean going up against a tight deadline, just because he couldn't land his dunk. In sympathy with other journos, I can't pull for him either so Rudy Fernandez it is.

So seriously, is this the most relevant thing T-Mac has been involved with? Ha. We're kidding.

BUCHER: Dwight Howard, and it won't be close.

SINGH: Watch this. Then this. Then try to argue Howard won't win.

FORMER ESPN THE MAGAZINE INTERN BEN FAWKES (HUGE AL JEFFERSON FAN): If Nate Robinson nails all his dunks this time, it's gotta be him.

BROUSSARD: Dwight Howard—in a rout! This dude is creative. Last year, he came up with three dunks that were arguably top 7 of all-time, dunks we'd never seen before—standing behind the basket, tossing the ball off the back of the backboard and slamming it while leaping from out of bounds; catching the ball off a bounce, tapping it against the backboard with one hand and dunking it with another; and of course, the Superman.

THE FUTURE: WHAT DUNK STILL NEEDS TO BE ATTEMPTED?

BUCHER: Something involving cheese.

MEYERS: I want to see someone toss the ball up, and while it is in the air do a cartwheel into a handspring only to catch the ball off the bounce in the same motion and slam it down. Still waiting for that one.

BARTSCH: What dunk would be the cat's pajamas? Clearly this: a man skying towards the rim, arms and legs akimbo, ball resting motionlessly on his head, and at the last minute, this super athlete plucks the ball from his dome and mails it southward two-handed through those pearly, silken nylon strings, sticks the landing, and nods toward the judges' table. I bet Bill Walton did that regularly at UCLA before all of his pro ankle issues.

Some people think Ceballos could see through the blindfold. We say that's preposterous.

BRENNER: I am waiting for someone to do a flip in mid-air, followed by a dunk. Corey Maggette's pre-dunk flip (1:40 mark on here) does not count. That is the Holy Grail of dunking.

BERMAN: I'd like to see someone make change off the backboard. Or, do a backflip with the ball between his feet and slam it home with his feet.

SINGH: The 720 dunk. It can be done.

BERGERON: Imagine if the league would just pull the top 4-most posterized guys of the year and they had to serve as live bodies for the competitors. Gather Paul Davis, Mike Dunleavy, and Etan Thomas, or whomever's been the subject of some ignorant dunks over the past season. If they're on the court for the comp-winning dunk they get an insta-matic poster image of themselves (which could be sponsored by Canon or Kodak, which could be used as a financial incentive for these guys to actually participate). It'll add a dimension to the comp: more mid-air adjusting (switching hands, etc.) and slithery reverses.

Was Green robbed by Howard putting a "S" on his chest? Perhaps.

BROUSSARD: I would like to see someone leap from the elbow of the foul line and kind of spin 360-style in the air while soaring to the rim for kind of a reverse slam. It wouldn't have to be a full 360, just a reverse that would add a unique twist to the typical FT line jam.

NATHANIEL FROM FREEDARKO: I hate all this YouTube preview crap. The multiple attempts rule is bad enough.

POWERS: People love seeing people getting dunked on. How about set up Yao, Greg Oden and maybe someone else under the rim to try and block the shot. There's obviously some risk involved - getting your shot thrown back in your face, but what if someone dunked on all three of them? There would be 10s across the table.

BARTLETT: After Brent Barry in '96, where else can the dunk go? We jest. The 720 is the last non-prop-related dunk that would raise eyebrows.

FAWKES: I think that if a contestant brought out a trampoline and did a flip-dunk in a mascot uniform, that would win the competition automatically.

BAUER: Someone needs to find a way to involve (a) the Larry Bird/Michael Jordan McDonald's commercial conceptually; (b) a T-Shirt cannon; (c) the comedic stylings of 30 Rock's Tracy Morgan; (d) underrated 20-something actress Kat Dennings and (e) this thing. It's all about the meta level.