NBA at 75: Michael Jordan arrived at the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest

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.

Michael Jordan didn’t need the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest to become Air Jordan, the 23-year-old was already well on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s pre-eminent superstars.

In Jordan’s rookie year, the young guard spear-headed a just under .500 Chicago Bulls team but Jordan was so impressive, he finished sixth in MVP voting. By the end of 1987, he would finish second in MVP, lead the league in points-per-game for the first time and help lead the Bulls to the playoffs for the first time in his career.

What the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest did was put Jordan on the national stage for the first time in his professional career. A spot atop the NBA and the social conscious that he didn’t relinquish for the rest of his playing career.

Jordan stepped onto the court of the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest in Seattle a man determined. Former champion Dominique Wilkins was out with an injury, defending champion Spud Webb wasn’t competing so the path was set for Jordan to show the world what he was capable of… it took one dunk.

Michael Jordan owned the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest and made himself a star

Jordan glided into the hearts and minds of basketball fans across the world. With one seemingly effortless rise to the rim, Jordan did a pretty standard two-handed cradle dunk. Sure, we’d seen it before, nothing new. That Jordan did it with his eyes at the rim, with such control, such grace, such fluidity. It was over from the first dunk.

Jerome Kersey would put up a valiant effort.

Terence Stansbury would try his best.

This was Jordan’s competition and Jordan’s showcase to let the world know… I have arrived. And more than that, I’m not going anywhere.

The 1987 Slam Dunk Contest competitors

Tom Chambers: Chambers, at this time one of the key pieces of the Seattle SuperSonics, was known for using his size and length to tower over defenders and throw down highlight-reel in-game dunks.

Johnny Dawkins: A San Antonio Spurs rookie who showed some promise in the early portion of his career but couldn’t put the pieces together for a sustained run in the league.

Clyde Drexler: Starting to come into his own as a great all-around scorer, the high-flying Drexler will soon fall under the shadow of Michael Jordan but also help lead the Portland Trail Blazers to being contenders. This is Drexler’s third slam-dunk contest, he failed to reach the semifinals in both of his first two forays.

Ron Harper: Remember more for his role as the 4th option on the three-peat Chicago Bulls, Harper — at this time a rookie — was a do-everything scorer for the re-building Cleveland Cavaliers.

Michael Jordan: This is Jordan’s second slam-dunk contest. Many forget that Jordan participated in the 1985 NBA slam-dunk contest and made it to the finals before falling to Wilkins.

Jerome Kersey: Teammate of Drexler on the competitive Portland Trail Blazers, Kersey narrowly missed the semifinal in the 1986 competition and is back for revenge.

Terence Stansbury: The master of the 360 Statue of Liberty is back for what would be his final slam-dunk contest. Stansbury has made the semifinals both years but has failed to reach the finals. This is the year…right?!

Gerald Wilkins: The younger brother of Dominique, Gerald made is to the semifinals in 1986 and is hungry to prove both Wilkins’ brothers are elite dunkers.

The competition

The rules for the 1987 NBA slam-dunk contest were two dunks in round one, three dunks in the semifinals and finals. You could replace up to two dunks per round. Judges were to score based on style, athletic ability and creativity.

Kersey, who would end up being a worthy foe for Jordan, wasn’t supposed to be in this competition and only filled in when Dominique had to bow out. Those who wanted a ‘Nique vs. MJ rematch would have to wait a year.

It would be well worth the wait.

Again, from pretty much the moment Jordan stepped on the floor, he owned the night. Air Jordan kicked the festivities off with a two-handed cradle that was just otherworldly even in its simplicity.

Stansbury, eager to finally get over the hump and into the finals, had even gone as far as to play for the hometown team (Seattle SuperSonics) in an effort to make the judges score him better — they don’t need much convincing has Stansbury came out of the gates with his patented Statue of Liberty for a score of 49.

Jordan’s second dunk was arguably one of his worst dunk contest dunks ever (a 360 off a bounce) but it shocked everyone in the building when it received a 47. Conspiracy? Perhaps, but Jordan’s first dunk deserved more than 41 so let’s call it an evening out.

Kersey joined the mix with a beautiful up-and-under dunk that saw the Trail Blazer finish way above the rim. His teammate Drexler did, well, quite literally the same dunk but not as well as Kersey. Stansbury ended his first round with an awesome up-and-under dunk that got a 50, giving the SuperSonic a 99 in the first round.

As the semifinals began, Jordan was ready to fully take control of the competition and had the crowd in ecstasy as he set up a free-throw line dunk. While Jordan did nail it, it was nowhere near as good as his 1988 free-throw line dunk but still damn impressive.

Drexler, fresh off copying his teammates’ dunk, decided this, yes THIS, was the time for him to try a free-throw line dunk. It was good but nowhere near as good as Jordan and a few steps in front of the free-throw line.

Clyde, what are you doing, buddy?

After our semifinalists completed their rounds, it was down to this. Jordan needs a great dunk to get into the Finals. If he didn’t deliver the 1987 NBA slam-dunk contest final was Kersey vs. Stansbury.

Let’s imagine for a moment how things change if Jordan doesn’t win this competition. Back-to-back dunk contests that see Jordan not as the victor. This one, where Jordan doesn’t even make the Finals?

Air Jordan still exists. Air Jordan still happens. It just may have taken until the 1987 NBA playoffs for the world to be aware of just how special MJ was. Don’t spend too much time worrying about it.  Jordan did an insane floating baseline windmill with some of the most ridiculous hang time you’ll ever see.

A replay got the crowd hooting and hollering, Jordan got a 50, he was going to the Finals. Air Jordan in the home of Boeing. How fitting.

Stansbury, once again, was on the outside looking in.

The 1987 finals didn’t give us the same boxing match look and feel as 1988 would but Kersey and Jordan did battle it out until the final dunk. Kersey started things off with a 46 on a windmill, a reverse dunk for a 45 and then finished his competition with another solid dunk for a 49.

Jordan did a beautiful reverse windmill for a 48, a split-legged one-handed dunk — a feat few humans could ever do — for a 48 then Jordan finished Kersey off with another baseline windmill, not as good as he did earlier but nobody really cared anymore. Jordan got a 50 and won the competition. The first of his back-to-back NBA slam-dunk contest championships and the true crowning of Air Jordan in the NBA.

Jordan, the NBA and the slam-dunk contest would never be the same again.

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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