Saturday night at the NBA All-Star game has several events to try to maintain the interest and excitement levels of the fans and viewers during the afternoon and the evening – you have shooting stars, skills and the three-point contest.
But Saturday night is all about the slam dunk contest – it’s basically the 100m final at the Olympics – an event steeped in tradition and an event that lingers in the memory for its gravity-defying, eye-popping athleticism. (Having said that, the three-point contest was a ridiculous show of skills with Steph Curry finally getting his first title in memorable fashion)
In recent years the slam dunk competition has lost some of its famous lustre. Some point to a lack of creativity and imagination from the competitors, which is a bit unfair given that pretty much every dunk that has ever been done (since the advent of video cameras) is now available at the click of the button via YouTube or the interwebs. The 2014 edition was, to quote my work colleague, “a hot mess” with the NBA trying out format changes which did nothing but confuse everyone (read: me) so much that I couldn’t even tell you who won.
Another gripe is that over the years the dunk contest has suffered from a lack of star power, as some of the NBA’s star players regularly decline to participate in the competition. In the “good ole days” the slam dunk competition saw some of the league’s best players going toe-to-toe against each other – the memorable duels between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins spring to mind. LeBron James, arguably the league’s best player and one of the best in-game dunkers has never participated in the competition.
But that’s neither here nor there because the 2015 champion, Zach LaVine, led a revival in the slam dunk competition and provided the spark that had been missing in the contest as he cruised to victory over Victor Oladipo.
Initially it was Oladipo who laid down the gauntlet with his showboating entry as he crooned Frank Sinatra’s iconic anthem “New York” as he entered the arena. He backed up his showmanship as he executed a 540-degree reverse dunk that had the crowd on their feet when he got a perfect 50. Oladipo did miss his first two attempts but the creativity and audacity made the audience will him to complete his dunk.
From then on though, it was all the Zach LaVine show.
LaVine was also on the showman tip as he entered the arena and revealed a Michael Jordan “Space Jam” vest. For his first dunk he unleashed an alley oop pass through the legs reverse dunk – his head was so high that he almost hit the rim. The crowd reaction told you everything you needed to know – the crowd on the feet, slack-jawed in amazement. The judges agreed and gave another perfect 50.
The second dunk from LaVine was equally outstanding as he threw down a behind-the-back dunk off an alley oop pass. Even more impressive was he appeared to still be rising as he dunked the ball. The crowd went bananas – again. The judges agreed and gave him 50. LaVine cruised through to the final with a score of 100 points out of a possible 100.
The showdown between Oladipo and LaVine was a bit of a non-event as Oladipo struggled to complete his dunks. LaVine ended up competing against himself as he pulled off another two great dunks to cruise effortlessly to the title. Even so, he managed to maintain his focus and concentration as he completed two dunks, which were both assisted.
The inevitable question always pops up at the end of every competition – where does this performance rank among the greatest performances? That is besides the point. The most important thing is that the slam dunk competition is back and that’s all that matters. What Zach LaVine brought with him to this All-Star weekend was genuine and tangible enthusiasm (plus a steely determination to win). You could see the excitement all over his face with each completed dunk, and that proved infectious as the veteran league players and fans alike all got to their feet to applaud him.
Hats off to Zach LaVine who breathed a new lease of life into the slam dunk contest. Hopefully he will return next year to defend his title. All hail the King.