The NBA Dunk Contest is back again tonight and after Zach LaVine returned it to its rightful place as the hallmark All-Star Saturday night last year, we’re eagerly anticipating this year’s competition. Except, do you remember Victor Oladipo’s 540-degree double-pump reverse? Probably not, and if you did it’s because only a year has passed since the dunk contest’s return to relevance at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The same cannot be said for the five dunks we show below. Only one player out of the five actually went on to win the competition, and the dunk we picked for him was overlooked after he donned a Superman cape, the defining dunk and image of his 2008 win. That’s just the first of five dunks that still leave us agog today, even if most of the NBA-watching populace has completely forgotten about them, and if you pay careful attention to the tonight’s competition, and you might find the next overlooked dunk.
Dwight Howard’s Self Alley-Oop Off The Backboard (2008)
The aforementioned Dwight was just supposed to be Clark Kent for this one, but the ability to softly lob it off the backboard while in midair, then catch it with this off hand — while still in mid-air — before flushing it, still leaves us breathless. Dwight isn’t very popular with his peers these days, but there was a time when his childish personality was brushed aside by players and fans alike because he could do such incredible things while flying through the air with a basketball in his hand.
David Thompson’s First Ever Recorded 360-degree Jam (1976 ABA)
Dr. J is the one everyone remembers from the first official dunk contest. In 1976, the ABA picked Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, Larry Kenon, David Thompson and Julius Erving to participate in a new idea: a dunk contest. Thompson actually had the hometown crowd behind him because the All-Star game was in Denver that year. But despite the expectations for the man dubbed “Skywalker,” he didn’t fall short of expectations, unleashing a reverse from under the basket for his first dunk, then a running two-hander for this next one. His third dunk was a jackknife reverse.
But then, perhaps because the contest came after the up-and-down exhibition, he missed his fourth dunk, one where he was supposed to throw down a reverse after first touching the backboard with the ball. That’s what inevitably cost him against against the Doctor, but his final dunk is the one that makes our list. It’s the first 360-degree dunk ever recorded. Thompson talked about it to Eric Neel for ESPN’s Page 2 and he explained how all the participants knew they were a part of history that night:
“It was exciting to do something like that for the first time in front of a crowd,” Thompson said. “They really got into it and we got into it too, and I think we all felt like we were part of something new that night, you know?”
Serge Ibaka’s Toy-Bite Dunk (2011)
This is the first of two of wildly underrated jams that took place in the 2011 slam-off – the one where Blake Griffin was gifted victory after jumping over a Kia, the event’s sponsor. Props aren’t necessarily our cup of tea when it comes to the Dunk Contest; we’re far more intrigued by the sheer power, grace, and dexterity of these aerial artists than any non-human flotsam. Ibaka’s toy-bite slam, though, combines the best attributes of physical ability and playful showmanship to make for an incredibly unique and unfortunately overlooked dunk. The lift, power, and overall coordination it takes to pull this off with such frightening ease is remarkable; that Ibaka retrieved a little one’s toy is just icing on the cake.
Desmond Mason’s Classic Left-Handed Eastbay (2003)
At first glance, there isn’t anything overly spectacular about this jam. A basic Eastbay? Vince Carter went between his legs off the bounce three years before, and Isaiah Rider first popularized that move almost a full decade earlier with the “Funk Dunk.” But watch how far from the rim Mason is when he takes off; how he lifts the ball high before quickly taking it low below his waist; and how he finishes with a forceful, graceful left hand. This is dunking in its simplest, most beautiful form, and Mason deserves to be remembered for delivering in that vein with aplomb on basketball’s marquee stage.
JaVale McGee’s Two-Basket Double-Dunk (2011)
The physics of this jam seem unbelievable on the surface, but are easily explained by McGee’s peerless physical profile. He has a 7’6 wingspan and 9’7 standing reach, measurements barely bested by San Antonio Spurs giant Boban Marjanovich. Despite those laughably long limbs, though, the Washington Wizards center still had the hand-eye coordination to catch an underhand, off-backboard lob and seamlessly flush it through the rim while simultaneously dunking on another hoop with his left hand. The most impressive part of this jam, though? That McGee’s self alley-oop came on a different basket than the one on which he finally finished it. Insane.