NBA at 75: Jason Richardson saves the dunk contest yet again

Golden State Warriors, 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.

The NBA slam-dunk contest was back. Vince Carter had single-handedly resurrected the competition from the deep dark depths of death.

Or did he? The 2000 dunk contest would be the last for Carter. In 2001, we all anticipated what the stars of the NBA had in store for us as a follow-up. Instead, like a rubber band, the slam-dunk contest snapped back to where it had been during its nadir in the mid-90s.

Carter was nowhere to be seen. 1997 champion Kobe Bryant? Nah. The 2001 NBA slam-dunk competition wasn’t bad per se but it lacked star power and gravitas. Desmond Mason, Baron Davis, Corey Maggette, Stromile Swift and DeShawn Stevenson were fine players, good dunkers but they weren’t stars.

In 2002, the NBA decided to shorten the event by inviting only four participants—Mason, Jason Richardson, Gerald Wallace and Steve Francis. At the same time, they made one of the most disastrous choices in contest history: the introduction of THE WHEEL. Just say THE WHEEL to any NBA fan of the time and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. THE WHEEL was an interesting concept on paper, it featured classic dunks of years past and when a player landed on it they had to do their best re-creation of that legendary dunk.

The problem: not all the dunks were fair game to the competitors. This came to an embarrassing head when Francis — who couldn’t palm a basketball — was given Terence Stansbury’s iconic 360 Statue of Liberty dunk.

Francis was dejected, Kenny Smith declared this wasn’t fair and Charles Barkley, very bluntly, told millions of people, “see this is why I told you it was stupid to have this wheel.”

Francis just did a random dunk, the crowd booed, Francis looked angry. The Wheel was an absolute disaster across the board, not only for Francis.

By 2003, the NBA was desperate to bring glory back to the competition lest it be put on ice again. The 2003 competition featured the prior year’s winner in Richardson, the 2001 winner in Mason, young Phoenix Suns star Amar’e Stoudemire and New Jersey Nets high-flier Richard Jefferson.

The wheel was thankfully scraped and the NBA just decided to let elite dunkers dunk and see what happened.

What happened was one of the most underrated dunk contests in history. Smith’s declaration that the dunk contest was back on commentary didn’t feel forced as it had in prior years.

Richardson and Mason gave us one of the best duels since Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins in 1988 and set the standard for innovation and excitement that would keep the contest relevant for the next decade.

The 2003 slam dunk contest competitors

Jason Richardson: Richardson was the highlight of the maligned 2002 dunk contest combining grace, power and creativity. Richardson was improving on the court too with an eye on re-establishing the lowly Golden State Warriors.

Desmond Mason: Mason easily won the 2001 contest and excelled at gliding through the air for highlight dunks. Mason was also establishing himself as an important player for the Seattle SuperSonics.

Richard Jefferson: Jefferson was a member of the shocking 2002 New Jersey Nets who stunned the basketball world by making a run to the NBA Finals. The Nets would go to back-to-back Finals with Jefferson’s on-court production rising greatly during his sophomore campaign.

Amar’e Stoudemire: A 6-foot-10 rookie big for the Phoenix Suns, Stoudemire was another successful prep-to-pro transition who proved he belonged in the NBA almost immediately en route to the 2003 Rookie of the Year.

The Competition

This was perhaps the best judging panel in dunk contest history — 1991 contest champion Dee Brown, the godfather of the dunk contest Julius Erving, 1986 champion Spud Webb, 1985 and 1990 champion Dominique Wilkins and finally, 1987 and 1988 champion Michael Jordan.

The NBA brought out the big guns, the pressure to deliver was huge.

Jefferson started out with a decent windmill off the background, Stoudemire went baseline between the legs. Impressive first-round dunks from both men. Everyone brought their A-game to this competition.

Mason was next up and he skied for a huge cradle dunk, it was fast, it was loud and it was damn good.

Richardson — who would end up with one of the best dunk contests of all time here — started his record-setting night with a crazy alley-oop windmill for a perfect 50. Richardson was so high, so smooth and so powerful with his dunk.

Jefferson, credit where it’s due, tried to do a spinning version of Vince Carter’s iconic honey-pot dunk but didn’t get up high enough, turning this into… just a dunk. Jefferson would bow out of the first round after getting 37s on both of his dunks.

Stoudemire, unfortunately, missed a dunk earlier in the night so when he tried a 360 double-clutch and clanged it off the rim, he didn’t get to replace it. Stoudemire was out.

Mason, who was right-handed, went off-hand for a baseline dunk that was made that much better when he kicked his legs out and added impressive hangtime. Mason got a 44 and punched his ticket into the Finals.

Richardson only needed 29 to move to the next round. Of course, he could have played it safe, went conservative to ensure he made it to the Finals. Thankfully, Richardson was more of a showman so he instead did an alley-oop 360, bringing the ball down to his hip and throwing it down with one hand. An easy 50 from the judges and a perfect round for Richardson.

The finals were set: Desmond Mason vs. Jason Richardson. Each man would get two dunks.

Mason did a between-the-legs baseline dunk for an easy 50. Richardson followed up with a reverse alley-oop, it was good but not great. The judges agree as he was awarded a 46. It was going to come down to the final dunk.

Mason’s final dunk was a two-handed baseline windmill. Conservative and smart but still good enough to get a 43 from the judges.

Richardson needed to bring his best if he was going to repeat as champion. He needed a 49 to win. He needed to be perfect.

Have no fear.

Richardson would follow with one of the best dunks in contest history as he bounced the ball on the floor, went between-his-legs and threw down a one-handed reverse dunk.

Smith, who before Richardon’s dunk said he needed to see something he’d never seen before, screamed: “I just saw something I’ve never seen before!”

More important than putting together a great dunk contest-winning dunk was Richardson’s ability to meld the history of the contest into one all-time dunk. This legendary dunk was equal parts Isiah Rider, Vince Carter, Dominique Wilkins all combined into one breath-taking dunk that is still among the best ever.

Upon completion, Richardson pointed to the sky and even before the judges put their numbers up — they would go 50s across the board — Mason shook Richardson’s hand and conceded.

J-Rich had gone back-to-back in the dunk contest, the first to do so since Jordan in 1988. Nate Robinson (2009 and 2010) and Zach LaVine (2015 and 2016) would join them in the future.

More importantly, four players brought their absolute best to the competition. No wheels, no gimmicks, no sideshows. The 2003 NBA slam dunk contest as it was meant to be, a showcase of the best dunkers and high-fliers in the NBA.

Sure, Richardson and Mason weren’t stars on the level of Wilkins and Jordan or Carter or Bryant… but it didn’t matter. The dunk contest had proven that not only could it evolve with the times but that it could do so without gimmicks and without top-tier stars.

The 2003 dunk contest would begin a new era of dunk contests that didn’t sheepishly avoid the discussion of why stars weren’t involved but rather embrace its new lot in life.

Moving forward, the contest would embrace its ability to feature the young, great athletes in the NBA. No longer was it an embarrassment that top stars didn’t want to participate, the contest had moved past that point and instead would look to the future and look to the rising stars, both literally and figuratively, of the NBA.

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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