In a league that boasts perhaps the most impressive athletes of any in the world, there is one event that acts as the preeminent verifier of physical supremacy: the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
The very first professional dunk contest was created by the American Basketball Association at its final All-Star Game before merging with the NBA in 1976. That year was an especially important one for the slam-dunk. Beyond the introduction of a new, standalone contest created with the sole purpose of featuring that skill, it was also the year that the NCAA lifted a nine-season dunking ban enacted as a reaction to the dominance of UCLA star and future NBA Hall of Famer Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Since then, the slam-dunk has evolved to become a central part of the game at both the pro and amateur level.
Surprisingly, it took eight years after the ABA-NBA merger for the Slam Dunk Contest to return to pro basketball, with a star-studded cast of high-flyers inaugurating the event in 1984. The nine contestants that year included Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, Ralph Sampson, and the first winner of the event, Larry Nance. In the years that followed, Michael Jordan became a mainstay of the Slam Dunk Contest, becoming the first player to win the event back-to-back in 1987 and 1988. But after that, Jordan bowed out of the event, and for the next decade, it lost a bit of its luster. For the most part, stars no longer wanted to compete in the Slam Dunk Contest, and while Harold Miner and Isaiah Rider were fine consolation prizes, it just wasn’t the same.
After a two-year hiatus in 1998 and 1999, the Slam Dunk Contest returned in a big way in 2000, with Vince Carter changing the event forever through a performance that many still believe is the best we’ll ever see in the event. In the years that have followed, we’ve seen some pretty amazing things in the Dunk Contest, from Jason Richardson’s unbelievable showing in 2003, to a 5-foot-nothing Nate Robinson taking the crown in 2006, 2009, and 2010, to Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin showing that big men can jam with the best of them, to Zach LaVine giving the greatest of all time, Vince Carter, a run for his money this year.
But despite all the fun we’ve had watching the Dunk Contest these past three decades, we’re still left with a lot of what-ifs. From Darryl Dawkins to LeBron James, some of the greatest dunkers to ever walk this planet have never competed in the event. We decided to make a list of the players we most regret not being able to see show off their hops in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.