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Canceling the NBA Slam Dunk Contest?

Dunking the Dunk Contest

– via Sporting News –
On the day before this year’s Slam Dunk contest, Heat forward LeBron James summed up the problem with the event—there isn’t much incentive for star players to be in it. James explained that the contest isn’t really his kind of thing, because he is a “game” dunker, not a props kind of guy. But, asked if he would participate if there was a $1 million prize on the line, James did not hesitate: “I would reconsider. Wouldn’t you?”

Of course. The question of why NBA stars don’t participate in the dunk contest is a common one around the league, but the reality is, they hesitate to say the obvious—they don’t compete because the prize money isn’t big enough. The $35,000 is a nice payday for young players still on their first contracts and those still looking to make a name for themselves. It’s not particularly significant for James, who earns more than five times that much in a single NBA game.

So you get the kind of field we had Saturday night, which actually featured some pretty good dunks but failed to register much on the excitement meter. The winner was Utah Jazz forward Jeremy Evans, who has appeared in just 16 games this year and averages 1.7 points per game. He was challenged by Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, Chase Budinger of the Houston Rockets and Derrick Williams of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

George was the only starter in the group and, before the contest began, while he was shaking the hand of Dwyane Wade’s son, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said, “America has more of a chance of knowing who Dwyane Wade’s kid is than who these guys are.”

The dunk contest tends to ebb and flow through the years and, when you have a dull one like this, it’s easy to contemplate getting rid of it altogether. Dwight Howard resurrected the contest with his creativity and his addition of props—who can forget the phone booth in 2009?—but props have become so common that they’re now unremarkable.

George’s glow-in-the-dark dunk was cool, as was Evans’ two-ball dunk with an assist from Jazz teammate Gordon Hayward. But how many times can we watch someone jump over something, whether it’s a teammate (or two, as George did), or P-Diddy (as Budinger did), or a motorcycle (as Williams did)? Blake Griffin jumped over a car last year—that pretty much exhausts the possibilities when it comes to things to jump over.

The dunk contest is exhausted. There isn’t much left that can wow us, there isn’t much left that we will remember. Not unless the NBA can get its star players involved.

That comes back to money. We can sit and reminisce about the days when Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins were battling for dunker supremacy, but we can’t ignore the fact that they were doing that for very real financial reasons. They were not doing it for the glorification of the sport. Jordan won it in 1987 and ’88, and in those years, he made about $1.5 million combined. The dunk paycheck was big for him, and helped launch his very lucrative endorsement career. When Jordan got a raise to $2 million in 1989, he suddenly stopped competing in the dunk contest.

It’s time, then, for the NBA to make a choice. If the dunk contest is to be taken seriously, then it is going to have to be financed seriously—and yeah, it might take $1 million, maybe to charity, maybe to the player, maybe to a mix of the two. But if that can’t happen, it could be time to put the contest out of its misery.

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