Format quirks can't quiet big jams
NEW ORLEANS -- Technically, John Wall is the NBA's new dunk champion.
The Washington Wizards point guard took home arguably All-Star Saturday's most coveted prize when he executed the most astonishing dunk of the event. Words don't do Wall proper justice in explaining how he flawlessly leaped over the Washington mascot, retrieved the ball from G-Man's outstretched hands, then pumped the ball between his legs in midair and slammed in a reverse jam.
Perhaps most impressive was that Wall needed only one attempt to complete the dunk.
That alone made him the clear winner in a contest that otherwise played to mixed reviews because of a new format that left many fans -- and even players throughout the league -- confused by what was actually going on at times. This year's version featured a team concept, in which dunkers were grouped by the conference in which they played.
Wall's team of East dunkers also included Indiana's Paul George and Toronto's Terrence Ross, and they prevailed in a matchup against a West team that consisted of Portland's Damian Lillard, Golden State's Harrison Barnes and Sacramento's Ben McLemore.
With a first round of team dunking that borrowed for the concept of synchronized swimming and a judging process that allowed for feedback in the style of "American Idol" or "X-Factor," it's clear that the NBA is beyond desperate in its attempt to repair what is broken with the night's marquee event.
Essentially, the format got in the way of some phenomenal dunks.
And after so many changes, tweaks and gimmicks throughout recent years intended to revive the dunk contest, not even Dr. J can prescribe a true remedy to get the event back on its feet and become the spectacle it was during its heyday. Still, Julius Erving was pleased with some of what he saw Friday.
"It's been a challenge, a really big challenge, to get the audience involved, to get quality judges, to get the TV audience continuously interested," Erving told ESPN.com moments after he helped judge Friday's contest at the Smoothie King Center. "You might never get back to the day when you've got the two best players in the league or the two best dunkers in the league facing off, like in the heyday."
In other words, a huge part of the Dr. J has already accepted that the dunk contest will never again be what it was in the late 1970s when he spearheaded the original revival of the All-Star event by gliding from the free-throw line to win it in 1976. Even though George is one of the best in-game dunkers in the league right now, likely never to return are the times when Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan made the dunk contest must-watch TV in the late 1980s and one of the most anticipated nights of the season.
But among the encouraging signs for the godfather of the modern dunking era was the fact that more of the league's more recognizable players are now vested in the survival of the contest again. With Wall, George and Lillard participating Saturday night, it marked the first time since 1988 that three players selected to the All-Star game competed in the dunk contest.
The creativity is slowly creeping back into the event as well.
Erving was happy to see the contest dial back a bit on some of the outrageous gimmicks of the recent past, but he was impressed by some of the athletic exploits on display Saturday. From McLemore leaping over Shaquille O'Neal seated on a king-sized throne in the lane to George's between-the-legs, reverse 360-degree windmill to Wall's finisher, the execution overcame some misguided rule concepts.
"You could see there was some pure talent, some raw talent, and some dunks had a good look to them," said Erving, 64. "You got like four All-Stars in there this year. You got the rivalry in the East and the West. Guys were pretty impressive. Most importantly, there were dunks that people haven't seen before."
Several players, celebrities and high-profile fans took to social media to instantly express dissatisfaction with some of the kinks and quirks of the revamped format. But none of the criticism should take away from what Wall accomplished Saturday under the circumstances he competed under.
Wall competed in the contest as his mother, Frances Pulley, was hospitalized in North Carolina and reportedly being treated for a fluid buildup in her lungs. The condition prevented Pulley from traveling to New Orleans to be with her son for his first experience as an All-Star. Wall was able to communicate with his mother Saturday before arriving to the arena for the dunk contest and was in high spirits.
Otherwise, the only downer Saturday came when Wall learned his alma mater Kentucky lost to Florida.
"It's a humbling experience for me, and a great opportunity," Wall said. "I wouldn't be here without my coaches, my teammates and my fans in the city of D.C. supporting me for three years. So I did it for all those guys and I did it for my mom that's in the hospital sick right now. So it was a big moment for me."
It was also a moment inspired by input from fans and his social media followers. Wall said the idea for his contest-clinching dunk over the mascot came from YouTube footage.
"Someone sent me a link on my Twitter and said there were 27 dunks that haven't been done in the NBA dunk contest," Wall said. "And the first one was that one. It seemed hard, but for me, it came out to be easy. So it worked in my favor."
Erving also favored Wall's dunk.
A few moments earlier, Erving was so impressed with George's 360-dunk that he said, "sick is sick."
But what's ultimately ailing the dunk contest is that it's become a bit too convoluted. Four-time league MVP LeBron James entered the week making sure television news cameras were around when he did his own personal dunk contest after a recent Heat practice in Phoenix.
James then spent the next few days explaining he had no desire to enter the contest. Unlike in past years, James wasn't even in the building Saturday night to watch the contest
Count Erving among those who wouldn't mind seeing James, 29, eventually reconsider his stance and enter the contest at least once before he's past his prime. After all, Dr. J last competed in the event in 1984, just days shy of his 34th birthday.
"LeBron's got a streak going," he said of James skipping the contest his first 11 seasons. "And you know how LeBron likes streaks. He'll get in it when he's ready. It's not too late. He's still got what it takes."
Erving believes the dunk contest still has what it takes thrive again, too.
The true revival starts with fewer antics, and more action.
Wall emerged as dunk champion on a night that offered plenty of both.
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