- Justin Verrier, NBA
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HOUSTON -- His thick black hightop slams down on the white free throw line and suddenly he is flying.
As he glides through the air, he lets the basketball palmed in his right hand drift back and his legs spread shoulder-width apart. The closer he gets, the more his knees bend. His shirt and shorts trail behind him, like hair in the wind, and when he reaches the rim, some 15 feet away, he slams the ball down with authority but also with care.
"Ohhh!" The TV crew cries out as he lands on the baseline then chops his feet quickly to come to a full stop just before the padded basket stanchion.
It's hard to make out what is said next; this slam dunk contest is being broadcast in Turkish. But his name comes through clearly.
Michael Jordan turns 50 on Sunday, and the NBA's All-Star festivities have become a weekend-long celebration to him, or, perhaps more accurately, what he means to them.
They throw parties in his name. They tell stories of who he was and who he is. They draw meaning from his thoughts on today's game, especially when it involves the players who threaten his supremacy.
But Air Jordan turns 25 on Saturday.
Twenty-five years ago, in front of his Chicago crowd, Jordan launched himself from the free throw line and soared through Chicago Stadium to throw down a perfect score and earn his second dunk title in a row and his first over Dominique Wilkins, who had beaten him in the 1985 contest.
The image of a midflight MJ was engrained into pop culture on that day, and today it exists to represent both Jordan the player and Jordan the brand -- the logo for his popular shoe and apparel company is a soaring, dunking shadow of his likeness.
And, fittingly, it figures to feature prominently in this year's competition. Only it will come not via Air Jordan but via "Flight" White.
There are many who have tried the foul-line dunk, but no one has mastered it quite like White. Indeed, it has become his trademark. His grace in the air, the tamed bravado and self-assurance, the smoothness of his body's extensions -- all of it is reminiscent of Jordan.
The only difference: Almost everyone in the world knows Jordan; few have ever heard of White.
White says he has been in "thousands and thousands" of dunk contests, but he has had precious few opportunities to dunk in the NBA.
After splitting his college career between Florida and Cincinnati, White was the 31st pick in the 2006 draft. But he would never play a game for the team that selected him, Portland, or for the team that traded for him on draft night, Indiana, which cut him in training camp. The Spurs picked him up soon thereafter, but he would play only 10 NBA games through his first five professional seasons. The rest of the time was spent overseas, in Turkey and Russia and Italy, and in the D-League.
White signed with the New York Knicks in July for the veteran's minimum, but the 30-year-old swingman has been used sparingly; in 34 games, including six starts, White is averaging 1.8 points in 6.7 minutes.
But White, who competed (and lost) in the McDonald's All American and NCAA dunk contests before finishing school, never lost the interest he has had in the competitions since his first dunk at age 12 in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood. He entered seemingly every one available to him, and says he has been in three in front of big overseas crowds in the past three years.
"This is kind of what I do," White said.
Thanks to YouTube, he has become something of a legend for it.
The Turkish clip, which shows White jumping from the free throw line over and over again, including one time when he exchanges the ball through his legs in midair, has 1.6 million views. One from Russia in 2010 has 628,000. His NCAA routine has almost 750,000.
Ask any NBA player and he'll gush over White's dunks, including All-Star A-listers such as Dwight Howard.
"James is one of the best dunkers of all time, if not off one foot," said David Lee, who teamed with White at Florida and also beat him in the McDonald's All American contest. "He's possibly the best leaper I've ever seen."
But outside of the basketball community, his prolific dunk career has largely gone unnoticed.
"People haven't seen the stuff I do," he said. "You've seen stuff on YouTube, but seeing it in person, seeing it on this scale, it's totally different."
The dunk contest was once an event that could attract guys at the top of their game, like Jordan, but the past decade-plus has seen it largely limited to B- and C-listers, with a Blake Griffin or Howard thrown in every so often. Even the six players in this year's competition -- among which only one player, Kenneth Faried, is a starter -- agree that the contest is better off with a LeBron in the field. But with LeBron firm on his holdout, all anyone can do is lament the lost possibilities.
"It's a little different [nowadays]," Wilkins said. "For guys, it's hard for them to accept who might be the best, as far as the slam dunking. Which it doesn't really affect your legacy as a player. I think a lot of the [star] guys should do it."
This year's group certainly lacks in name recognition, but each player is known around the league as an excellent in-game dunker. Eric Bledsoe's lack of height makes his sky-high leaps more exciting, and his beefy arms pack a lot of power. Raptors rookie Terrence Ross' dunks stick out among a team of athletic wings, and White calls him one of the top three dunkers in the league. Faried brings power, and Jeremy Evans returns to defend his crown.
And then there's Gerald Green, the former dunk champion and third-time participant whose "cupcake slam" remains one of the most memorable in recent history. Although White is the favorite according to the Vegas lines, despite his insistence otherwise, Green is viewed as his biggest competition. Which White knows all too well.
Among the treasure trove of White's dunk exploits is a YouTube clip titled "Gerald Green Vs James White," which pits the two dunk connoisseurs in a head-to-head battle in a Russian competition in 2010, with White's soaring repertoire ultimately beating out the high leaper.
Although they can't both make it to the final round -- in a silly rule change, only one Eastern Conference representative and one Western Conference representative advance, and Green's Pacers and White's Knicks both hail from the East -- the rematch of two of the game's best dunkers, regardless of notoriety, has added a bit of much-needed flavor.
It's the Internet Jordan vs. the Internet Nique.
"I've always wanted everybody to see what I was capable of," White said. "It's a dream come true for me."
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann