White Now Cleared for Takeoff

“The dunk contest is back.”

If this phrase sounds familiar, it’s because every year during All Star Saturday Night Kenny “the Jet” Smith stands up on the judges’ table to make his annual proclamation that the beloved dunk contest has reclaimed some of its former glory.

I’m not sure when TNT appointed him as the network’s unofficial hype man, or if Smith took it upon his own volition to become the Flavor Flav or Duke Tango of All Star Weekend, but either way, he appears to ascribe to the notion that if you say something often enough, it eventually becomes true.

But the gentleman doth protest too much.

The 1980s were the golden age of the dunk contest, with Michael Jordan, Dominic Wilkins, Spud Webb, and others going head to head in classic competitions, and the contest experienced something of a Renaissance in the early 2000s with Vince Carter and Jason Richardson (and, okay, even Dwight Howard later on, if we’re being really generous).

But just as the hunger to compete for Olympic gold as a member of Team USA has waned among the NBA’s elite stars over the past decade, the dunk contest experienced a similar lack of interest. In the midst of a grueling 82-game season, star players opted to sit out the annual event rather than risk bodily injury, or perhaps even worse, an injury to their pride.

Lebron James, arguably the most impressive athletic specimen of his generation, has repeatedly refused to participate in the event despite the persistent lobbying of fans around the world. But more than a glaring lack of star power to prop up the event, it has become increasingly clear to basketball fanatics (for some years now) that the best dunkers in the world are, in fact, not in the NBA.

Let’s be clear about something: the NBA still boasts far and away the best all-around basketball talent in the world. It’s a fact that’s not up for debate, despite what the streetball movement of the early 2000s tried to lead us to believe. But it was that same streetball movement that gave birth to the 21st century phenomenon of professional dunking.

And1 showed us that relatively unknown dunkers could easily compete with the best that the league had to offer, and Team Flight Brothers took it to another level with their traveling exhibition of professional dunkers in the mid 2000s. More than anything, the NBA has YouTube and viral videos to thank for the disillusionment of the NBA’s dunking prowess. Rather than having to wait a year between what was once considered the world’s best dunking exhibition, fans now enjoy instant access to a daily fix of dunks far superior to what’s on display during All Star Weekend. As a result, dunking is now more democratic and more ubiquitous than ever.

Ever cognizant of its image, however, the NBA has expanded its reach to include small scale dunk contests in cities around the country, complete with corporate sponsorship by Sprite, which regularly features TFB alumni and other YouTube sensations, along with a panel of celebrity judges that often includes former dunk contest winners such as the inimitable Darryl Dawkins.

It’s tempting to notice that there is something innately cynical about the way the league has co-opted the professional dunking phenomenon and slapped a corporate logo on it, ultimately claiming ownership rights over something that once threatened to dilute the image of its brand, but as the old adage goes, if you can’t beat them, make them come work for you. And that’s exactly what they did a few years back when they hired Kenny Dobbs, “Jus Fly,” and other underground dunkers to help the more the NBA’s more high-profile contestants such as Demar Derozan, himself considered one of the top dunkers in the league, to come up with (better) ideas for their routines.

If we’ve learned anything about why the dunk contest has fizzled out like a left- open can of Sprite, it’s that it’s not because of a lack of star power in the event. It’s because it doesn’t feature the best dunkers that even the league itself has to offer.

As with any corporate sponsorship, the NBA has been content to take the most exciting and creative aspects of the secular dunking world and senselessly water it down for the sake of a national television audience. In other words, tricks have given way to kitsch. In recent years, this has been evidenced by cringe-inducing skits that accompany the types of dunks that more often than not fail to deliver on their own hype, along with the insufferable use of props that only serve to insult the intelligence of the average fan with a blatant attempt to placate both the crowd and the television viewing audience alike with a heightened dose of so-called “entertainment.”

The NBA would be wise to acknowledge that its fans aren’t foolish; rather, they are some of the savviest fans in all of sports. No matter how hard they try to distract us with all the bells and whistles, they can’t quite seem to disguise the fact that the dunk contest just isn’t as good as it used be, or what’s worse, as good as it still could be.

The only way to remedy this is to ensure that only best dunkers available participate in the event each year, and with Thursday’s announcement of this year’s contestants, a field that has been expanded to six instead of four, the NBA has certainly tried to rectify some of the more dubious selections of recent years. Most notably, the long-overdue inclusion of James “Flight” White, indicates at least some awareness of what fans have been hip to for years – the fact that White is among the world’s best dunkers, regardless of his spotty NBA resume.

Gerald Green is an obvious choice given his resurgence as an NBA-caliber player last season and the subsequent highlight reel that has accompanied his return, and Jeremy Evans, despite enjoying the distinction of being one of the most uninspiring winners in recent memory, has been tapped to defend his title. The other choices are less obvious, though somewhat intriguing, so the league deserves some credit for this. Eric Bledsoe and Terrance Ross can both jump right out of the building, despite their relatively smaller stature, but they might also fall victim to the common misconception that hops alone equate to dunk contest material (Shannon Brown anyone?). Kenneth Faried, on the other hand, could be the sleeper of the group, as long as he pulls off one of the Eastbay dunks that he’s proven capable of in the past.

Participants aside, fans can only dare to dream that this year’s event won’t be lousy with costumes, props, skits, “celebrity” guest appearances, homages to former stars, and an excess of Kenny Smith. A couple of free-throw line dunks from James White should expose any imposters for precisely what they are.

But how exciting would it be to see world champion dunkers like Kenny Dobbs, T-Dub, and the “Air up There” compete against the best that the NBA has to offer? It will likely never happen, and that’s because there are few dunkers in the NBA who could hold a candle to the level of skill and creativity that these underground legends put on display on a regular basis around the world.

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