NBA at 75: Vince Carter single-handedly revives the slam-dunk contest

NBA at 75, Toronto Raptors

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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.

The 1997 NBA Slam Dunk Contest was an embarrassment.

The NBA, which once prided itself on high-flying, larger-than-life superstars used their All-Star Saturday night showcase, for a boring, mundane, uncompetitive contest. Missed dunks, lethargic players, and maybe worse than anything, a young Kobe Bryant fist-pumping when one of his competitors missed a dunk.

We had reached the nadir and the NBA felt it wise to put the slam dunk contest on ice. In 1998, NBA All-Star Saturday night featured the familiar 3-point contest — won by Utah Jazz sharpshooter Jeff Hornacek. Once the 3-point contest concluded and the ball racks were moved off the court, the familiar sound of ferocious slams and heart-pounding dunks was replaced by 2ball.

With the slam-dunk contest canceled for the foreseeable future, the NBA replaced it with 2ball! Don’t remember 2ball? Who could blame you? 2ball saw two players shooting from their choice of seven locations on the floor during a 60-second clock. Each of the locations was worth a different point value (2-8) depending on where it was located on the floor. There were bonuses and some extra ways to score points. Regardless, this was a competition that was to feature stars of the NBA as well as the still-fledgling WNBA.

The inaugural 2ball saw representatives from Phoenix, Cleveland, Houston, Utah, Los Angeles, Charlotte, Sacramento, and New York compete. 2ball wasn’t boring per se it just lacked the certain power and intensity we had received from classic slam dunk contests in the past. Nobody was going to build a superstar career on the backs of an impressive showing in 2ball.

When the dust settled, the Houston team of Cynthia Cooper and Clyde Drexler won convincingly over the Karl Malone and Tammi Reiss duo from Utah.

And that was it.

The 1998 All-Star Saturday was done.

In 1999, an ongoing lockout canceled the NBA All-Star Game. It was the only time since 1951 that the NBA didn’t present their midseason classic. As such, there was no dunk contest.

Would the NBA have brought the dunk contest back in 1999? It’s hard to say. The talent pool that would shine in 2000 was all there in 1999. Would the sting from the deplorable 1997 contest still hurt though? It’s interesting to think about.

On December 8, 1999, with the lockout finally resolved and the league back in full swing, then-NBA commissioner David Stern made the shocking announcement. The NBA slam-dunk contest was returning.

“It’s coming back… We’ve had a lot of interest expressed by the best people the players who’ve said, ‘I have a few moves that are reminiscent of Dominique or Michael,’ so we’ll see what our players have,” said Stern.

And we were off. Stern was right to have confidence in this new group of dynamic young dunkers led by the Toronto Raptors soaring guard Vince Carter.

Carter would be joined by teammate Tracy McGrady, Houston Rockets high-flyer Steve Francis, Detroit Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse as well as Larry Hughes and Ricky Davis. This roster alone is a stark contrast to the uninspired lineups of the late 90s. Carter was the Rookie of the Year, Stackhouse was a bonafide scorer and pseudo-star, McGrady was on his way to a huge contract and a starring role with the Orlando Magic. These players weren’t just guys to fill out a contest but a legitimate crop of great young players that also happened to play above the rim.

Before they even bounced a ball or made their first jump, the slam-dunk contest felt like it was back.

What’s also important was this new generation of dunkers quite literally grew up on dunks, grew up watching these contests, grew up idolizing the top dunkers in basketball. Carter was 11 years old when Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins dueled in the 1988 NBA slam-dunk contest.

When Carter would win (spoiler alert) he’d say, “It’s a little unbelievable to me to win this thing so early in my career. I remember back when I would tape and watch them all, over and over again.”

For the first time ever, the entire field in a dunk contest was clearly and obviously inspired by the prior generation, inspired by a time when the dunk contest was great. These young men were eager to take it back to its previous greatness.

Man, did they.

The 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest competitors

Vince Carter: The sole reason the dunk contest returned—before he even completed a dunk. 1999 NBA Rookie of the Year and the league’s most dynamic in-game dunker ever.

Steve Francis: Second-year guard from the Houston Rockets helping bring the team back to glory. 2000 Rookie of the Year

Tracy McGrady: One of the NBA’s next high school to pros success story, Carter’s Toronto Raptors teammate McGrady in his third year appears to have the makings of a star.

Ricky Davis: While it would be a few years before Davis would become a consistent contributor, he appeared to have all the tools for the modern NBA game.

Jerry Stackhouse: Pushed out of Philadelphia with the arrival of Allen Iverson, Stackhouse became a first-time All-Star teaming with Grant Hill in Detroit.

Larry Hughes: This may seem like a broken record but Hughes was pushed out of Philadelphia with the ascent of Allen Iverson and found success with his new team in Golden State.

The competition

Before one ball was bounced or one dunk was completed, the sense that the slam dunk contest had returned was felt. The crowd, the announcers, the players surrounding the court, everything just felt bigger and more important. Watching the 2000 slam dunk contest after the 1997 one feels like you’ve jumped multiple generations. Somehow there are only three years difference but it all looked, felt and as we’d see shortly, was different.

Hughes, a mere footnote to this historical night, missed his first two dunks. His final first-round score of 67, was, shockingly, not be enough for him to move to the finals.

McGrady, one of the men overshadowed by Vinsanity on this night, got the competition started in earnest with a reverse double-clutch alley-oop. A great dunk.

Francis threw down a tremendous one-handed alley-oop. Francis’ height and the length he had to stretch for the dunk invoked Spud Webb of yesteryear. That he, like Webb, couldn’t palm the ball just added more to the comparison.

Next up was Carter. There was a palpable buzz at Oracle Arena. This man was why we were all there. This man was why Stern revitalized this contest. The weight of the entire history of this event rested on his shoulders. If Carter bombed, the slam dunk contest never comes back again. It becomes a “Remember When?” with other All-Star festivities like the Old Timers Game.

The camera panned and players all had their camcorders ready, the crowd all stood up. Nobody was in the bathroom, nobody was waiting for popcorn, the entire arena from the upper reaches of the upper deck to his contemporaries on the floor were waiting to see what Carter had in store.

Still to this day, it’s one of the most unbelievable dunks we’ve ever seen. The type of dunk you couldn’t do on an eight-foot hoop if you had all day. The type of dunk that sets the elite athletes of the world apart from the everyday joes. Nobody else at this time could do this dunk with the flair, with the leap, with the explosiveness as Vince Carter did.

Commentator and former slam-dunk contest participant Kenny Smith just said “Let’s go home.” What’s more, if the NBA declared the contest done at that moment, nobody would have been disappointed. The price paid for admission was well worth what we had all just seen.

A reverse 360 windmill. Are you kidding? With each replay, the crowd got louder and louder. Ray Allen fainted. Shaquille O’Neal screamed. Every single scorecard in the entire arena read 10. Not a single 8. Not a single 9. 10s. Smith again pleaded with the NBA to just write the check and declare the contest over.

This was perhaps the single most important dunk in NBA history. The NBA dunk contest would never go away again. The thought of removing it from NBA All-Star Weekend has never crossed anyone’s mind again. Even doing a dunk contest in an empty arena in the midst of a pandemic seemed necessary. All of that is because of this dunk right here.

The dunk contest was back and it would never leave again.

The most unfortunate human being in the world on February 13, 2000, was standing in the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. His name was Jerry Stackhouse and he had to follow Vince Carter in the 2000 NBA slam dunk contest. Stackhouse did a 360 but probably should have taken Smith’s advice and went home.

Antawn Jamison, who was supposed to be in this competition, dodged a bullet. Jamison, a hometown player for the host Golden State Warriors, was traded on draft night for Carter. Imagine Jamison coming out here, having a so-so dunk contest and making people realize that THAT GUY, the guy who would leave the arena as the next NBA megastar could have been theirs?

Thankfully, we had Charlotte Hornets guard Ricky Davis in his place. Davis performed the first teammate-assisted dunk of the night when he had Eddie Jones toss up an alley-oop. Davis slammed it. It was a dunk. Nobody cared, unfortunately.

Everyone was still buzzing from Carter.

McGrady used Carter for an alley-oop two-handed windmill. Francis bounced the ball on the floor then reached back for an awesome alley-oop, invoking Webb again.

Francis, McGrady, and all the other participants really shined a light on the dramatic difference in NBA athletes from 1997 to 2000. This group felt like a different level of athlete, a generational step forward that felt like it should be two decades but was merely two years. Both McGrady and Francis would have won most other NBA slam dunk contests but instead would have to settle for second and third place tonight.

Carter was back up and for his encore, he threw down an insane behind-the-basket windmill with a perfected blend of grace and velocity. Eat your heart out Dominique.

That year, players had three first-round dunks and would take their two best scores to the finals. McGrady will use an amazing 360 double-clutch (50) to bring his first-round score to 99. Francis would miss his final dunk but take his 45 and 50 for a total of 95. Carter up to this point had a 50 and a 49. He’s in. He could take and make a 3-pointer, give no effort whatsoever, he could just do a flat-footed dunk from below the basket, he could grab the rim and pull himself up and dunk. It wouldn’t matter, he’s in the finals no matter what.

That wasn’t Vince. Not on this night.

Carter would use his teammate-assisted dunk as yet another showcase of his dominance. McGrady bounced the ball, Carter grabbed it, put it between his legs, and dunked in.

When Carter completed the dunk, he pointed to the sky. If it wasn’t over before, it wa over now. The crowd almost literally exploded. The court filled with players, judge Isiah Thomas could not contain his excitement and leaped over the scorer’s table to shake Carter’s hand and literally bow before him. Each replay got the crowd more amped up.

It was over. 1988, take your silver medal.

The finals were set with Carter at 100, McGrady at 99, and Francis at 95. Just three years ago it was a chore for players to make dunks. We were now seeing one of the biggest spectacles in basketball history unfold. Night and day.

McGrady, despite his best efforts, would bow out gracefully with scores of 45 and 32. 77 was not going to get it done in this final round.

Francis hit a great baseline windmill, Jordan-esque. He’d follow that up with a beautiful alley-oop double-clutch reverse. Francis’ 91 in the final would have been good enough in a lot of years.

This wasn’t a lot of years.

Carter took center stage again and performed what at first looked like a pretty pedestrian dunk. What follows is the most surreal viewing experience perhaps in NBA history. Little by little, fans in the arena, players, commentators, judges, and all of us at home realized what just happened. What looked like a very normal dunk from Carter was so much more. As the replays air in the arena, the crowd finally gets it. Carter jumped so high he was able to put his entire arm into the basket. Vince Carter was resting his elbow on the rim.

Excuse me?

At this point, Carter could do no wrong. He only needed 45 to win, pretty much anything he did at this point would likely net him a 45. That’s not enough though. Carter takes off from the free-throw line and throws down a good but not great free-throw line dunk. What used to be the crowning achievement in a dunk contest is now Vince Carter’s safety dunk.

It gets Carter’s lowest score of the night — a 48— giving Carter a final score of 98 and the easy slam dunk contest victory.

Carter would never return to the dunk contest again. He’d parlay his stardom on this night to becoming one of the NBA’s most popular players, the leading vote-getter in the next year’s All-Star Game.

Carter may have never returned to a dunk contest but the dunk contest never left. 22 years later and counting the dunk contest is still here, still important, and still the showcase event of NBA All-Star Weekend.

Vinsanity didn’t just bring the dunk contest back, he ensured for generations to come that it would never and could never leave 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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