The Best Dunks in NBA Slam Dunk Contest History

In the 42 years since Dr. J took flight at the ABA’s first-ever professional slam dunk contest, the NBA’s has become the cornerstone of All-Star weekend — perhaps even supplanting the All-Star Game itself. In honor of the upcoming contest, here are ten greatest dunks ever performed in Slam Dunk Contest history.

Sylvain Francisco competing in the NBA2K18 Dunk Contest during the All Star Game.


Sylvain Francisco competing in the NBA2K18 Dunk Contest during the All Star Game.

Of all of the institutions pro sports has to offer, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest is one of the most recent phenomenons.

As opposed to events like all-star games or league championships that go back to the early 20th century, the NBA’s first Slam Dunk Contest didn’t become a permanent fixture until 1984. And believe it or not, the NBA actually owes a debt of gratitude to its old competitor, the ABA, on this one. That league held the first-ever professional slam dunk contest in 1976, with Julius Erving coming home with the victory.

And in the 42 years since Dr. J first took flight at that dunk contest, the NBA’s has become the cornerstone of All-Star weekend — perhaps even supplanting the All-Star Game itself. As opposed to the meaningless exhibition game that offers little defense or effort, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest allows the game’s best athletes to display the highest levels of athleticism. Seeing players pull off 360 dunks, between-the-legs dunks, and dunks from ridiculous distances seem physically impossible. But the laws of physics take a day off when the NBA Slam Dunk Contest comes to town.

It’s amazing that an exhibition contest — not even a game — is capable of producing so many iconic moments. Michael Jordan’s leap from the free-throw line remains one of the most memorable sports images of all time. Vince Carter is perhaps best remembered not for his in-game dominance, but for his 360s and elbow dunks at the contest in 2000. And Nate Robinson essentially became a household name just by winning three contests.

So, yes: The NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest is one of sports’ greatest spectacles. In honor of the upcoming contest, here are ten greatest dunks ever performed in Slam Dunk Contest history.

10. Dwight Howard’s “Superman” Dunk, 2008

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It’s not easy for a seven-footer to get that kind of air.

Howard bought the house down with this dunk here, capitalizing on his “Superman” persona in the process. Kobe Bryant is even shown being amused by this dunk — if only he knew what was to come between the two of them…

9. Dee Brown’s No-Look Dunk, 1991

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Dunking is hard enough. But dunking without looking? That’s even harder.

This feat was no obstacle for Dee Brown back in 1991, who famously threw it down with his eyes covered. Brown sealed the deal on this dunk contest with his no-look effort, beating out NBA legend Shaun Kemp in the process. And on this night with that dunk, he clearly deserved to beat out Kemp.

8. Zach LaVine’s “Space Jam” Dunk, 2015

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LaVine suited up for the Tune Squad on this one. And he definitely had a solid dose of Michael Jordan’s “Secret Stuff” on this one.

He went full airborne, going behind the back and between the legs. Needless to say, LaVine received a full 50 on this one. You’ve got to live up to the hype if you’re going to be playing in a Jordan jersey, and he sure lived up to the hype on this one.

LaVine could have posterized anyone on the Monstars on this play.

7. Nate Robinson Jumps Over Dwight Howard, 2009

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What Ken Griffey Jr. was to the Home Run Derby, Nate Robinson was to the Slam Dunk Contest. And this was by far Robinson’s most impressive dunk of any of his many great dunk contest moments.

Yes, Robinson leaned on Howard’s shoulder. Yes, Howard bent down a little bit. Still though: Robinson is 5-foot-9. The fact that he even got that high in the first place is a testament to how great of a dunker he was.

This was the signature dunk from Robinson’s second dunk contest victory in 2009. Robinson also won contests in 2006 and 2010, making him the only player to ever win three NBA Slam Dunk Contests.

6. Jason Richardson Goes Between the Legs, 2003

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While most “Warriors fans” who recently hopped on the bandwagon might not know who Jason Richardson is, just watch this video. He was great.

Richardson was one of the most prolific dunkers of his day. He won the contest in 2002 and 2003, and nearly won in 2004 as well. This between-the-legs dunk was Vince Carteresque.

5. Spud Webb Goes 360, 1986

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Standing at just 5-foot-7, Webb was the ultimate small-guy dunker. He took most of the crowd by surprise that night; nobody had ever seen a guy that short dunk like that — not even his teammate Dominique Wilkins, who said he never had seen Webb dunk before. Webb remains the shortest player to participate in or win an NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

4. Aaron Gordon Goes Under the Legs, Over the Mascot, 2016

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There was a period of time where dunk contests were just dull and gimmicky. Blake Griffin jumping over the car was a perfect example of this: It was just a marketing gimmick for Kia, and distracted from the fact that the dunk itself was so-so at best. It led some to wonder whether every impressive dunk that could have been tried had been tried at that point.

In 2016, Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon proved the answer of that question to be no.

The two dueled it out in an all-time great dunk contest, as one impressive dunk followed another. LaVine won the contest, but Gordon had easily the best individual dunk of the night, going under his legs and over Magic mascot “Stuff the Magic Dragon.” He got a ridiculous amount of air on this dunk.

3. Vince Carter’s Elbow Dunk, 2000

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“Half Man, Half Amazing” was far more amazing than man on this night. It was probably 80-20. A more accurate nickname for Vince Carter would have been “80 Percent Amazing, 20 Percent Man.”

If we really wanted to, half of this list could be dunks from Vince Carter in 2000. Out of fairness to the other great dunkers, we’ll limit it to two. Vince Carter’s 2000 Dunk Contest at MSG is often considered to be the best performance of all time, and with jams like this it’s not hard to see why. Vinsanity was leagues ahead of the competition on this night. The “Elbow Dunk” was a perfect example, as Carter hung over the MSG floor just to show us all how amazing he was.

2. Vince Carter’s 360 Windmill Dunk, 2000

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Carter’s first dunk of the night was by far his best. The laws of physics had nothing on Vince that night.

Wouldn’t it be awesome to have him do the Dunk Contest again? He might be 41 now, but he’s still probably a better dunker than many NBA players.

1. Michael Jordan From the Free-Throw Line, 1987

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As great as Carter was, Jordan reigns supreme.

Michael Jordan’s duel with Dominique Wilkins in 1987 remains the most iconic Slam Dunk Contest in NBA history; not just because of how great the dunks were, but because of how great the players. Were. Zach LaVine vs. Aaron Gordon is a great matchup in terms of dunking, but neither of those players are going to be Hall of Famers anytime soon. Wilkins and Jordan were special.

And this dunk was easily MJ’s best in a Slam Dunk Contest. To launch from the free-throw line and still have plenty of air to go while hitting the rim seemingly defies the laws of physics. But Jordan did it anyway.

That’s why we call him “His Airness.”

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