- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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When the NBA announced that the participants are Chase Budinger, Paul George, Iman Shumpert and Derrick Williams, I thought for a second that maybe the league was staging a reunion concert of a defunct boy band.
Then I realized: Those are the guys in this weekend's slam dunk contest.
No offense, but who are these people?
I'm being silly, of course. I know who they are. I just don't know why I should care about watching them perform in a contest that's become so irrelevant.
For years, the NBA has been trying to revive the slam dunk contest, tinkering with the rules here and there in hopes the event would regain some of the prestige it enjoyed when elite players competed in it.
That's not going to happen.
Right now, the slam dunk contest is pointless. And maybe it's time for the league to accept that it probably should be eliminated from All-Star programming altogether.
I expect many NBA fans might consider that sacrilegious, but I'm not simply over-reacting to this year's stunningly weak field (although those four, ahem, names certainly strengthen the case for elimination). It's a response to more than a decade of largely dull slam dunk competitions.
The fact the NBA changed the rules again this year is a subtle acknowledgement that the slam dunk contest is losing its appeal. The competition has been reduced to one round, and there won't be any judges this year. Fans will determine the champion by voting on NBA.com, Twitter or through text messaging.
In the past, the contest was two rounds and included a panel of judges; and fans voted for their favorites after the first round.
Here's the thing: Just throwing social media into the mix doesn't make it cool. And, no judges? What, were they afraid someone's mother would try to emulate JaVale McGee's mom and smooch Dr. J on live television?
There is only so much the NBA (and the players) can do to make the slam dunk competition interesting. And despite their efforts, the event has given us only sporadic moments of brilliance since its heyday in the 1980s.
Yes, there was Vince Carter's epic performance in 2000, which many consider the greatest slam dunk exhibition of all time. Yes, there was the Dwight Howard-Nate Robinson duel in 2009. And no, I haven't forgotten that Blake Griffin jumped over a Kia last year to win the slam dunk title -- which he's refused to defend this year.
Naturally, Griffin's presence produced a record 8.1 million viewers, with an estimated 10 million tuning in when he hurdled the Kia. But these lasting moments are an aberration, not the norm. With the collection of no-names in this year's contest, the NBA should brace itself for dismal ratings.
Admittedly, I'm spoiled. Dr. J appeared in the first slam dunk contest in 1984, sending the message that the competition was superstar-worthy and giving us arguably the most iconic dunk of all time. Michael Jordan willingly took the mantle from Dr. J and appeared in three slam dunk contests, finishing as a runner-up in 1985 and winning it outright in
1987 and 1988. Jordan's victory over Dominique Wilkins in '88 was controversial, but it was nevertheless the greatest slam dunk matchup in the competition's history. (Well, second greatest, maybe, next to the diminutive Spud Webb versus Nique in 1986.)
But the contest no longer delivers consistent star power. And in a superstar-driven league, it speaks to the unimportance of the event that players such as LeBron James don't care to appear.
If they think the dunk contest is irrelevant, then what's the point?
Considering the number of games they play and the physical toll on their bodies, NBA superstars can't be blamed for passing up the dunk contest. Certainly, you can look at it as an opportunity to discover new players, but the rookie-sophomore game seems like a better alternative for that.
All-Star Weekend is supposed to be a thank you to the fans, in part; but it's also a celebration of the greatest players in the league and a showcase of the best the NBA has to offer.
Sorry, but this year's field and past winners such as Gerald Green, Fred Jones, Desmond Mason and Harold Miner hardly fit that description. (And don't feel bad if you involuntarily raised your eyebrows when you read those names. Most people forget
that they were dunk contest winners, too.)
Considering that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is contemplating eliminating the Pro Bowl because it's become something of a joke, the idea of eliminating the slam dunk contest isn't that radical.
I understand the slam dunk contest is tradition. As a kid, I was in awe of the breathtaking dunks; but that was a different time. If you need a choir and an automobile to make the dunk contest compelling, then maybe it's time to re-think things.
In a world in which so many things compete for our attention, the slam dunk contest has become a no-name participant.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blake Griffin provided a thrill a year ago, and Dr. J and Michael made the slam dunk contest a must-watch event in days of yore. But now? Not so much. Time to re-think its relevance.