When LeBron James was 10 years old, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest was won by Harold Miner, a high-flying role player for the Miami Heat who reclaimed his title from second-year Timberwolf Isaiah “J.R.” Rider. The following year it was won by Clippers rookie guard Brent Barry, who never even removed his warm-up jacket. And after 18-year-old Lakers rookie Kobe Bryant took the crown in Cleveland, in 1997, the contest was scrapped for 1998, then 1999’s All-Star Weekend was a casualty of the lockout. By the time the Dunk Contest returned for the 2000 ASG in Golden State—in which Vince Carter demolished the field—LeBron was already in high school and earning headlines himself.
There are plenty of reasons why LeBron James will never compete in an NBA dunk contest, and that partial timeline partially explains it. And if LeBron does never participate in a corporate-sponsored dunk-off, so what? Get over it.
Michael Jordan won his second, and last, dunk crown as a 24-year old. Kobe, as noted, was 18. Paul George is the oldest guy in this year’s contest, and he was born in 1990. When LeBron entered the NBA Draft, George was 13. If LeBron wants to play with kids, he has two of his own.
Why? Let us count the ways.
1) LeBron James is 29 years old. And the Dunk Contest is a young man’s game (Dr. J in 1984 and Dominique Wilkins in 1990 are exceptions). Michael Jordan won his second, and last, dunk crown as a 24-year old. Kobe, as noted, was 18. Paul George is the oldest guy in this year’s contest, and he was born in 1990. When LeBron entered the NBA Draft, George was 13. If LeBron wants to play with kids, he has two of his own.
2) The Dunk Contest has long been a refuge for young and/or marginal players. There are three All-Stars in this year’s field, which is the first time it’s happened in 26 years (which was 1988, one of the best contests ever). Since then? Rookies like Rider, Barry, and Bryant—and Terrence Ross just last year—have stood as champs, with All-Stars primarily watching from the sidelines. When LeBron didn’t enter as a rookie, this conversation should have been over. It was then or never. (And if the NBA wanted him to dunk on Saturday, they probably should have included him in the game on Sunday.)
3) LeBron James never wanted to be Michael Jordan. This may be as difficult to accept as it is that one day LeBron may be remembered as the best player ever, but it’s true. Kobe Bryant, despite all claims to the contrary, modeled his game—and to an extent his career—after Mike. Which made sense seeing that he’s a 6-6 shooting guard. Entering the Dunk Contest was just another item on the checklist. LeBron? Not so much. Other than championships and MVPs, it’s difficult to find a measure by which Jordan and James could be compared. And with the exception of Bryant and (perhaps) Carter and Dwight Howard, future Hall of Famers have not gone out of their way to enter dunk contests in recent years. Which leads to...
4) The Dunk Contest just doesn’t matter anymore. Quick, name the last 10 winners. The last five? Exactly. Despite Carter’s 2000 dominance and Jason Richardson’s brilliance in the early 2000s, the recent history of the dunk contest has been filled with pointless nonsense like the wheel (2002), a phone booth (2009), a Kia (2011) and Chris Andersen (2004 and 2005). It was started as a gimmick in 1976 to bring attention to the ABA, earned much-deserved props in the ‘80s, and should have been put away for good in 2000. It’s reached the point where, when they finally get a good field this year, the NBA doesn’t even know what to do with it—they complicate things with a “team” format that absolutely no one asked for. Why should LeBron, a main event, attach himself to such an obvious sideshow?
It’s reached the point where, when they finally get a good field this year, the NBA doesn’t even know what to do with it—they complicate things with a “team” format that absolutely no one asked for. Why should LeBron, a main event, attach himself to such an obvious sideshow?
But seriously, why is this still being talked about at all? Will never competing in a dunk contest actually *gasp* damage LeBron’s legacy? Only in the eyes of mouthbreathers like Skip Bayless, who makes Sean Hannity seem erudite and should be far more concerned about his own legacy. Should LeBron feel some sense of obligation to compete in the dunk contest? Absolutely not. Back in the ‘90s, guys like Rider and Miner pretty much had to enter the dunk contest to show off their best stuff, because if they tried it in a game (assuming they actually got the playing time) they would have gotten benched, plus their respective teams’ games probably weren’t on national television anyway. Maybe if they were lucky they would have gotten a clip on Sportscenter. Now you have NBA TV, League Pass, Youtube, Instagram video—heck, LeBron’s practice dunks in Phoenix have been seen by more people than Harold Miner’s entire career was.
Point being the Dunk Contest used to serve as a way for players to build a rep. (And to an extent, it still does—had most people heard of Terrence Ross before last February?) LeBron already has one. Winning a Dunk Contest won’t add to it.
But man, it would have been fun to watch, huh?