Few things in sport can compete with the rim-shaking beauty of a slam dunk. Tom Ellen heads to NBA's All-Star Game to pay homage
Hear ye, hear ye!” yells the man in the tunic with the unconvincing English accent.
“On the 15th day of February in the year 2014, it is with incredible joy and distinct honour that I proclaim that henceforth, the realm of Shaqramento will be known as the land of Shaqlemore! Lord O’Neal, please usher in this new era!"
The man in the tunic rolls up his faux-Medieval scroll and steps aside to make way for NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, and NBA legend-in-waiting Ben McLemore, the latter of whom is wearing a floor-length red velvet robe. In the audience, P Diddy can be seen chuckling. Shaq struts across to the basketball hoop, and plonks himself in a huge golden throne underneath it. McLemore shrugs off his robe, grabs a ball and sprints in Shaq’s direction. With a single leap, he clears Shaq (who’s still about 5ft tall sitting down), flies through the air and brings the ball crashing down through the hoop. The crowd inside the New Orleans Smoothie King Centre goes wild. P Diddy is on his feet, applauding. Busta Rhymes is throwing air punches. Nelly’s gone feral.
The triumphant McLemore kneels at Shaq’s feet, and Shaq places a jewel-encrusted crown on his head. Welcome to the 2014 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. It’s not exactly a low-key affair.
Roughly 24 hours prior to this rapper-delighting spectacle, I am part of a scrum of journalists stood before McLemore inside the NBA’s ‘media availability’ area. I’ve come to New Orleans all the way from the UK – a country where the verb ‘dunk’ means to submerge a biscuit in tea – to try to get my head around the pomp and ceremony of the NBA: a league in which teams have their own DJs, announcers shout “Hashtag Twerk!” during matches, and players are nicknamed ‘Chocolate Thunder’ and ‘The Human Highlight Reel’, rather than ‘Lampsie’ and ‘Stevie G’. More than anything, though, I’m trying to figure out the enduring appeal of the Dunk Contest and slam dunks in general. “It’s a showcase event,” McLemore tells me. “The Dunk Contest is one of the things you always dream about being part of. It’s a great opportunity to build my brand."
We’ll return to that “build my brand” comment later; for now, let’s focus on the “showcase event” bit. The Slam Dunk Contest became a permanent fixture in the NBA calendar in 1984, an era when ‘breakaway’ rims had just been introduced due to Philadelphia 76ers star Darryl Dawkins’ tendency to dunk so ferociously that he’d shatter the glass backboard. Before that, dunking had enjoyed something of a chequered history. It was considered ‘ungentlemanly’, and even outlawed at college level in the Sixties in part because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (you’ll know him as the co-pilot in Airplane!) used it with such ruthless dominance it was deemed unfair on other teams.
Ten-time NBA All-Star Clyde ‘The Glide’ Drexler tells me: “It’s ridiculous that dunking was outlawed, because it’s great to watch and it’s a very effective and intimidating move. Plus, since not everyone can do it, it raises the skill level in the game because all players aspire to be dunkers."
The sheer irresistible cool of jumping 10ft in the air and smashing a ball through a hoop soon won out, and dunking was officially reinstated in 1976. That same year, the first Dunk Contest took place as part of the short-lived rival ABA League – won by the high-flying, afro-billowing antics of Julius ‘Dr J’ Erving – and by the Eighties and Nineties, superstars such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were queuing up to compete. Then came a slump. Recent years have seen something of a dip in the contest’s popularity (“We’re seeing a lot of the same things; you get tired of looking at it,” said NBA legend George Gervin in 1997), with the modern-day Jordans – LeBron James, Kevin Durant – choosing not to participate. However, seasoned NBA hacks quietly assure me that, “LeBron doesn’t enter because, y’know, he might lose”, which tells you all you need to know about whether the Dunk Contest still ‘matters'.
In the past decade, perhaps to make up for the lack of star power, dunkers have gone to cartoonish lengths to make their mark; donning Superman capes, jumping over cars and blowing out candles on birthday cakes perched on the hoop. As last year’s winner Terrence Ross tells me: “You have to outdo what you did last year, do something that’s never been seen before.” True to his word, Ross later carts out rapper Drake to tee-up his dunk for him. P Diddy, as you’d expect, duly goes mental.
This year's contest falls between the Friday night Celebrity Game and Sunday night’s All-Star Game as part of the NBA’s annual All-Star Weekend. The other events are both highly enjoyable – the Celebrity match offers the chance to watch Snoop swearily castigate Kevin Hart for ball-hogging – but every fan I speak to is here primarily for the dunk action. Even ex-Everton striker Tim Cahill, who’s inexplicably mooching around beforehand, tells me: “The Dunk Contest is on my bucket list. To be within touching distance of these players is priceless.”
Watching almost an hour of solid dunking makes you realise there’s something weirdly unique about it. An entire competition dedicated solely to try-scoring, spin-bowling, or even bicycle-kicking just wouldn’t work. It’s partly dunking’s versatility (one-handed, two-handed, under the leg, alley-oop – and that’s before we start factoring in cars, cakes or 16th-century dress), but it’s also the rampant individualism that versatility allows. “The dunk is an art form,” says Drexler. “It requires skill, power and craft, and everybody's style is different.”
The singularity and showmanship this ‘art form’ encourages breeds a different, quintessentially American, kind of athlete. It creates an atmosphere where Ben McLemore – who’s just 21 and in his first pro season – can still earnestly refer to himself as a “brand”. If the All-Star Weekend proves anything, it’s that in the NBA, personality is just as important as sporting ability.
During the course of the three days, the competitors don’t just shoot hoops; they perform skits, sing and dance, and boisterously instruct the crowd to “put your hands together for Pharrell Williams”. Apparently, successful NBA stars must be part-Michael Jordan and part-James Corden. Try to imagine a Premier League version of this. Picture, say, James Milner striding down a neon gangway flanked by screaming fans, pausing briefly to throw a shape or two with Pharrell, before delivering a live comedic TV link to millions of people across the globe. It would be mortifying for everyone involved. Even Beckham and Ronaldo don’t exude the same iron-clad self-assurance and film-star swagger the NBA players possess.
For proof of this, look no further than the NBA’s current megastar-in-chief LeBron ‘King’ James. James is 6ft 8in of bulletproof braggadocio, and treats the ‘media availability’ session like a cross between a stand-up comedy set and a TV commercial.
“LeBron, ever thought of using a psychologist?” yells one reporter. “I’ve got one,” LeBron fires back. “Her name’s Spalding, she goes in the rim.” Cue hearty guffaws from the assembled press.
“What are you listening to right now?” asks someone else. “Eminem,” LeBron booms. “On my Samsung Galaxy phone, I’m listening to Eminem.” The guy is a marketing manager’s dream.
It’s a far cry from watching Steven Gerrard mumble the word “Erm” into his Three Lions polo shirt.
As I watch him work the crowd, I consider that maybe the NBA hacks were wrong. Maybe LeBron doesn’t get involved in the Dunk Contest because he simply doesn’t need to; he’s already “built his brand”. As Drexler points out, “The guys competing now are good players, but nobody really knows them in the way they knew me or Michael Jordan or Dr J. The Dunk Contest gives them a chance to show what they can do.”
Certainly, if nobody knew McLemore before his Shaq-jumping set piece, they definitely know him now. That’s the power of the dunk; it’s one giant leap for man, but one absolutely enormous leap for brand-kind.
That self-belief that comes with knowing glory is simply a run and jump away doesn’t just affect the athletes; it trickles down to the fans, too. At the end of the competition, a troupe of local children are ushered on to the court to meet their heroes, and the announcer puts what he probably assumes to be a rhetorical question to one of them: “Hey son, did you ever think you’d be out here, playing alongside LeBron James?”
The kid doesn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, I did.”