NBA at 75: Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins do battle

Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, NBA at 75

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The Over and Back NBA podcast is celebrating the NBA at 75 by rewatching some of the greatest Slam Dunk Contests in NBA history.

In 1988, the NBA slam dunk contest was still trying to figure out exactly what it wanted to be. Early competitions featured some of the league’s top stars and legendary dunkers but the bottom portion of the competition began to see several more unfamiliar faces.

Dominique Wilkins claimed the throne as the league’s best dunker in 1985 but his grip on the crown was untenable. In 1986, spectacle took center stage as Wilkins’ teammate, 5-foot-6 Anthony “Spud” Webb leaped into the hearts and minds of sports fans everywhere with his inspiring dunk contest victory.

In 1987, a new superstar ripped the crown from the Atlanta Hawks duo as Michael Jordan cemented himself not only as one of the league’s new stars but the best dunker in basketball.

The 1988 contest was shaping up to be one for the ages. The deepest and most talented roster of dunkers in the history of the contest. Webb, Wilkins and Jordan were all participating. Jerome Kersey and Clyde Drexler, both veterans of the competition, would also be there. The dunk contest was taking place inside the historic Chicago Stadium, home of Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

Expectations were as high as they have ever been. It seemed almost impossible for the competition to reach the heights fans and media alike expected.

They didn’t just exceed expectations.

They blew them out of the water.

There have probably been better dunk contests with a larger number of spectacular dunks. There have been great duels in slam dunk contest history, there have been unbelievable individual performers. But there will never be another competition like the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest.

There will never be another contest with so much drama, so much intrigue, so much controversy.

The 1988 NBA slam dunk contest had it all: spectacular dunks, larger-than-life superstars, a Hollywood-level conspiracy and in the end, the official crowning of Jordan as the best dunker in NBA history.

What 1988 gave us was about more than just explosive or impressive dunks. It was two legit NBA superstars, two of the NBA’s best scorers (they’d finish first and second in 1988’s scoring leaderboard), two players leading their respective teams into title contention. One of the two would win MVP that season, the other would finish sixth.

This wasn’t simply a battle of all-time dunkers but a battle of all-time NBA players, sure-fire Hall of Famers.

The 1988 NBA slam dunk contest is the dunk contest all others are measured against.

The battle between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins was a turning point in the history of the NBA

Even today, 34 years later. The 1988 NBA slam-dunk contest spawned iconic photographs forever branded into the mind of a generation of NBA fans.

It would be too dramatic to say it’s all downhill from here but there’s no doubt that the shadow of the 1988 NBA slam-dunk contest would loom large over the competition for another decade before the NBA decided to scrap it altogether.

An impossible feat, every dunk contest after 1988 would try like hell to be included in the same conversation.

Few, if any, would.

The 1988 Slam Dunk Contest competitors

Michael Jordan: The defending champion came into this dunk contest as a full-blown megastar fresh off a second-place MVP finish. That he was defending the title in his hometown Chicago Stadium made Jordan’s eventual victory feel like a formality.

Dominique Wilkins: At this point, Wilkins is Mr. Dunk Contest. He’s appeared in all but one NBA slam-dunk contest (1984, 1985, 1986), making the finals or semifinals in all but one—winning the 1985 contest in the process.

Clyde Drexler: Clyde “The Glide” certainly lived up to his nickname over his dunk contest history. Just not, you know, in a good way. Drexler has participated in three contests but has never made a finals and only one time appeared in the semifinals.

Otis Smith: Smith’s one and only dunk contest, the Golden State Warriors high-flyer would have a solid but unspectacular career before knee injuries forced him into early retirement. You may know him better as the former Orlando Magic President & General Manager.

Jerome Kersey: Kersey is back after a heart-breaking loss to Michael Jordan in last year’s contest.

Greg Anderson: One of the more anonymous slam-dunk contest participants, Anderson—a San Antonio Spurs rookie—had a decent start to his career but would become a journeyman playing for six different NBA franchises until he retired in 1998. Anderson’s “Cadillac” nickname is in reference to his bicycle, which he rode around the University of Houston campus.

Spud Webb: After taking 1987 off, the 1986 NBA slam-dunk champion is back for another try.

The  competition

The greatest competition ever began with, who else, but Golden State Warriors shooting guard Otis Smith! Of course! To his credit, Smith threw down a really good double-clutch reverse setting the bar high from the word go.

Webb, hungry to get back to the championship, appeared unmotivated, hurt or unable to perform as he did in 1986. His first dunk was basic and got a 34, his next an 18. His 52 total point was the lowest of the competition.

Kersey, fresh off his defeat in the finals of the 1987 competition, didn’t show up this year. His first dunk was a basic reverse for a 41, his second dunk only netted him 38. He was out in the first round.

Anderson, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed rookie from the Spurs, went off-the-backboard, it was good … it was not going to be good enough today. His first-round score of 76 was not enough to get him into the semifinals.

When Jordan stepped onto the floor of his familiar Chicago Stadium, he wasn’t just one of the league’s top stars. This man was a god. A savior of basketball in the hoops-crazed city of Chicago. Like in 1987, Jordan owned this competition from the moment he began to jog towards a dunk. Here he started things off with an explosive windmill. The Chicago Stadium exploded. This was his competition to lose.

Drexler, in what becomes an unfortunate theme of his dunk contest history, decided to do, well, the exact same dunk as Jordan but make it less effective and less explosive. This had not been an effective plan for Drexler in any competition thus far.

Wilkins was next up and this wa peak ‘Nique. Wilkins looked great. His high-top was perfect. The Hawks jerseys of this era were perfect. This was one of the most aesthetically-awesome players and moments in basketball history. The man wa dripping with coolness. Wilkins let the world know that he had arrived with a reverse two-handed dunk that quite nearly ripped the rim off.

Jordan, Wilkins, Drexler and Smith all moved to the second round but all eyes were on Wilkins and Jordan.

Michael started the second round by walking up to the free-throw line, spinning and moving himself back to the other side of the court. You knew what was coming. I knew what was coming. The Chicago Stadium knew what was coming but it’s still hard to put into words how incredible this sequence was.

This wasn’t Jordan’s first dunk contest and it wasn’t the first he won but this moment more than any other signified Jordan’s arrival into another stratosphere. Jordan took off, hung in the air for what felt like 15 seconds, had time to clutch the ball to his mid-section as flashbulbs showered him and threw down the most iconic dunk, perhaps in NBA history.

Even the post-dunk was special as Jordan threw the ball down so hard it ricocheted off his chest and into the crowd like a deadly weapon. 50 wasn’t enough points for this dunk. Jordan probably should have been called the winner immediately after this dunk. Hell, Jordan should have been grandfathered into all future championships until someone could even come close to matching this.

This was THE dunk. The best ever from the best ever.

Can you imagine? Otis Smith walks up next. This man had to follow Jordan’s Sistine Chapel. Smith went off the backboard, the ball went too far and Smith had to reach way back to get it. He did, it rules, great dunk. In any other competition, this one scores highly but given what we all just saw … Smith’s 45 was justified.

I don’t even want to tell you what Drexler does next but, I have to. My man did a free-throw line dunk. Television commentator Rick Barry is beside himself wondering what Drexler was thinking. He did the dunk, it was a free throw line dunk, it was pretty good but of course, it lacked the flair and the hangtime of Jordan’s.

You know that because an entire generation of NBA fans didn’t have Drexler’s free-throw line dunk from the 1988 dunk contest on their wall.

This is when our prizefight began. Just moments after Jordan’s free-throw line dunk, Wilkins threw down what I could definitely say is the loudest dunk in human history. You would’ve thought there was a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre reenactment happening down the street. Wilkins’ loud windmill gets him a 49 and, folks, it was on.

Jordan counterpunched with a baseline windmill, 48.

We had our finals: Wilkins vs. Jordan. You can insert whatever great fight or battle in human history here. It’s all those and then some.

Wilkins started off the round with a background alley-oop that saw him grab the ball a good foot or two above the rim and dunk it in with his signature explosiveness.

50.

Jordan countered with a beautiful split-legged, two-handed, double-clutch reverse dunk.

50.

Wilkins went baseline with one of his loudest and strongest windmills ever.

50.

Jordan came back with a double-clutch rock-the-cradle. It’s hard to describe but it’s great and looked even better on replay.

5…. Wait, what?

47?!?!

47!!?!

The Chicago Stadium booed vociferously. The judging panel is made up of Chicago sports legends but something tells me all those rushing yards aren’t going to mean a damn thing for Gale Sayers. He and all the judges are going to need a police escort out of this building for that score.

With the door wide open, Wilkins went to a powerful two-handed windmill. Immediately upon completion, the crowd booed Wilkins, booed the dunk, booed the judges, booed the NBA, booed the world. This crowd was upset and nothing was going to make them feel better about it.

5…oh my god, what? Wilkins got a 45.

The Chicago Machine did it again!

The crowd exploded upon hearing the score. A 45. Wilkins finished the final round with 145. Jordan needs a 48 to tie and a 49 to win.

Jordan cleared the court and launched for another free-throw line dunk. It’s not nearly as good as the one he did earlier. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t have the same OOMPF as the earlier one.

It made no difference. Potentially legitimately fearing for their lives, the judges awarded Jordan a 50 and MJ had gone back-to-back.

The 1988 NBA slam-dunk contest would put a cap on the original era of the contest.

Things would dramatically change in 1989 and the years that would follow.

Jordan would never compete in a dunk contest again. NBA championships and legendary status would follow in the years to come. Wilkins would take a year off and round out his dunk contest career with a victory in the 1990 contest.

A youth movement would take over the competition giving way to new winners, new rules and a new attitude about the competition. The stars would sit out, eager to give the next generation of rising stars center stage. Some would take that opportunity to carve out their name but most would come and go without making a dent in the league or the public conscious.

The 1988 NBA slam-dunk contest set the standard and perhaps it set it too high. It would be 12 years until anyone would come close to the heights achieved on this cold winter night in Chicago.

If you’re interested in learning more about NBA and basketball history, please subscribe and listen to Over & Back!

Check out more reflections in our NBA at 75 series and subscribe to The Whiteboard to make sure you keep up with all our latest NBA news and analysis.

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