NEW ORLEANS — The dunk contest was upstaged by Vanilla Ice, maybe the ultimate sign that this event, once hotly anticipated on All-Star Saturday, needs a fresh start.
The league thought it was doing exactly that when it devised a team format, using players from the East and West to battle, rather than a collection of dunkers. But the crowd was rather bored, a lot like most of the dunks, at least until John Wall soared over the Wizards mascot for the contest-winning dunk.
Just before Wall’s slam, Kings rookie Ben McLemore used the prop of the night: Shaquille O’Neal, who’s also a part-owner of the Kings, sitting in a throne underneath the hoop. When McLemore soared over Shaq for the dunk — on his second try — Shaq “crowned” McLemore with a headpiece that looked like it was lifted from a Burger King employee.
“I think it was cool,” Wall said of the new format. “It was fun. Brought some excitement to it.”
With few exceptions, most vividly Blake Griffin dunking over a car, the dunk contest has gone stale in the last decade, removing lots of shine from the Saturday events. The league has made minor changes and alterations over the years and has allowed the use of props, but the main issue facing the dunk contest is the lack of elite dunkers.
The days of Dominique Wilkins showing up five straight years appear to be over. Even Michael Jordan called it quits after taking off from the free throw line in a disputed win over Wilkins, who put on a show (Wilkins: “I was in six contests, won four, and got two trophies”). That’s no knock against the new blood, and some decent dunkers are in the contest ever year, but getting established stars to commit is almost next to impossible.
A week ago, LeBron James put on a dunk show on the Suns’ practice court, tossing the ball off a nearby wall and slamming. But it was a cruel tease. LeBron not only doesn’t want to enter the contest, he has nothing to gain by doing it. He’s already famous without a dunk title.
What the league needs to do is find sponsors who’ll raise the ante. Make the grand prize a winner-take-all $1 million prize and then watch if LeBron turns down the chance to earn a cool million for 10 minutes’ work. It’s not only LeBron, but Kevin Durant and Griffin (who said he’s done with the contest) and a few others. Paul George initially turned down the league after he performed a windmill 360-degree dunk during a game last month, then finally relented and was one of the three dunkers for the East-winning squad. But if the current pattern holds up, don’t look for him to do the dunk contest again.
Advice to the NBA: Go to one of LeBron’s sponsors, like Samsung or Beats headphones, and force the issue. Tell them about all the marketing possibilities. If that doesn’t work, then get back to the lab and cook up another format. This one seems over before it really got started.