Commentary

LeBron needs to dunk

Originally Published: January 31, 2013
By Skip Bayless | ESPN.com

I took the bait. I leaped to the conclusion last Thursday night that a two-word tweet from @KingJames was reason for confetti to fall like Nemo's snow on ESPN's campus. Finally! After nine seasons of dropping the torch, LeBron was going to light up our lives on All-Star Saturday Night.

Surely that tweet -- "dunk contest?" -- was the first hint in a craftily choreographed buildup that would end with LeBron coming out of the stands, taking off those Clark Kent glasses and launching himself into a contest-crushing dunk that would set off alarms at NASA's nearby Space Center Houston.

But no, after last Friday night's game in Miami, LeBron James again shrugged off dunk contest questions, saying nope, he's not doing it. The possibility remains this is part of the script -- HE IS, he isn't, HE IS! -- but it sure didn't feel that way. It felt like LeBron the avid sports fan and tweeter had simply meant to solicit idle reaction from followers about what they thought of this year's dunk contest field.

Fooled again. Or maybe teased and taunted again. At the 2009 All-Star festivities, LeBron told TNT's Cheryl Miller he would participate in the 2010 dunk contest. But that following year in Dallas, he merely gave us a preview of his 2011 Finals in the same arena. He disappeared.

So as another All-Star Saturday nears, the questions again come flying at us like a LeBron breakaway slam: Does he owe us one dunk contest, and if so, why has he ducked it for nine years?

My answers are: 1) He does and 2) He's afraid.

Dominique "The Human Highlight Film" Wilkins gave us five dunk contests (and won two). Michael Jordan gave us three (and won two). Dr. J gave us two in the NBA after winning the first ever Slam dunk contest, in the ABA. Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin each gave us one memorable dunk contest. Heck, Dwight Howard participated three times without even having to be called out by Kobe.

(Quick aside: The greatest sports competition I ever witnessed firsthand was 5-foot-7 Spud Webb's fair-and-square shocking of his buddy Dominique in the 1986 dunk contest in Spud's hometown of Dallas. I almost felt like I'd been there for the Wright Brothers' first flight.)

The point is that, over the years, the torch has been passed from sky-walking great to great. As soon as LeBron had established his future greatness, in his first two or three seasons, he had an historical responsibility to take that torch and dunk it with superstar flair, for the good of the game.

This was no huge deal. But it was a DEAL and LeBron broke it. Good Lord, here was one of the most explosive leapers ever, perhaps the most gifted player ever, and he kept refusing to ascend to his place in dunk contest lore. At times he acted as if this silly competition was beneath him. Come on, LeBron. You're the new face of the league.

But in his first few seasons, I did have some sympathy for the kid. After "King James" games, it seemed as if the first four or five of SportsCenter's Top Plays were LeBron windmills and tomahawks. So the expectations for him to take the dunk contest to another level would have been over the moon. Obviously young LeBron could only have lost it. In a world gone numb from playing video games, only by flapping his arms while palming two balls and actually flying around the arena before double-jamming could he have won it memorably.

That, of course, was and is the problem with this event's evolution. The participants are human and the tricks are not limitless. The dunk contest is often in danger of rendering itself extinct. Been there, seen that. Blake Griffin jumped over a Kia -- well, over the hood, not the roof. Now what's LeBron supposed to do, jump over a team bus?

In the beginning, it's even possible Nike warned LeBron away from the dunk contest because so many sneaker-buyers already believed he could actually fly. Why risk damaging his brand if some Nate Robinson out-tricked or even out-hang-timed him? The dunk contest MADE Blake Griffin -- bingo, as he says in the commercial. It even made the more gullible fans believe Dwight Howard was indeed Superman. But the dunk contest needed LeBron far more than he needed it.

Still, the same could've been said for LeBron's idol, MJ, who risked doing it THREE TIMES, LeBron.

Which forces me back to an opinion I've held from the start: LeBron was and is afraid to perform alone, on cue, with the basketball world on the edge of its seats. This phobia is why LeBron will never quite be Jordan. This is why LeBron is the unJordan when it comes to walk-off-shot closing.

In 852 NBA games, LeBron has hit only two walk-offs -- both in 2009, one in the regular season and one in the playoffs. This is mostly because LeBron, who can drive the ball to the basket as unstoppably as any player ever, including Jordan, has often chosen to pass off or pull up for long-range jump shots in the final few seconds. This happened again as recently as Jan. 23, at home against Toronto. With the score tied, LeBron appeared to have a freeway of an opening to drive left ... yet drifted out and missed a 21-footer. Overtime.

As ESPN analyst Antonio Davis said the next morning on "First Take," "LeBron was afraid to shoot the free throws."

Many times I've drawn that same conclusion. LeBron was afraid to drive, draw the inevitable foul and have to stand alone at the line, no time left, and have to think hard about making one or two free throws to win or tie.

[+] EnlargeJames
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesJames' seeming fear of the contest is unfounded. He can dunk.
This stat backs up his fear: Since entering the league, LeBron has the worst free throw percentage in the final two minutes of games within four points.

Hence, my dunk contest theory: LeBron dreads standing alone at midcourt, with the basketball world expecting him to take off and make unforgettable dunk contest magic. Dunking in the flow of games just happens, without time to think or fear. But LeBron's contest dunks would require creativity, choreography, rehearsals and extremely pressurized execution. Nope, not doin' it.

Yet ponder this from ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, who has chronicled and analyzed LeBron's rise from the beginning: "Attend any Heat game this season and there's a good chance you'll see James put on a private slam-dunk display for fans who are paying attention during warm-ups with acrobatics that would probably win him perfect 10s were he ever to take part in the real deal at All-Star Weekend."

Dunking in warm-ups with teammates -- cutting up, making it up on the fly, competing with his buddy Dwyane Wade -- is very different from having to go solo on All-Star Saturday Night.

Recently D-Wade tried to publicly persuade LeBron to do the dunk contest: "I tried to convince LeBron. I told him I'd throw him a lob and we'll win. He turned me down. I think he got nervous."

D-Wade was probably kidding about "nervous." Or maybe he was half-kiddingly challenging LeBron to face his phobia and defeat it.

When I saw LeBron's tweet last Thursday night, silly me, I thought he was finally ready to do just that. No more pressure to finally win his first ring. No worries about wearing out his legs on All-Star Weekend -- he participated in a 25-mile bike ride the night before a game earlier this season. No Blake Show or "Superman" in this year's field. And now King James is in the midst of very possibly the most dominating stretch in NBA history.

Come on, LeBron, just do it. You owe the game -- and yourself -- just this one.

Dunk contest?

DUNK CONTEST!

Please help encourage LeBron via Twitter using #GetLeBronToDunk.

Please tell me you're not afraid, King James.

Skip Bayless

First Take host
Skip Bayless joined ESPN after a career as a sports columnist that includes stops in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and San Jose. He can be seen Monday through Friday on First Take.