Much Ado About Dunking

OK, so this is a little bit late, but I’ve been busy. Anyways, here is a story about NBA All Star Weekend in Dallas a week and a half ago.

Scene 1: Before Saturday’s contest, at a massive hall in a Dallas hotel
Enter Nate Robinson, Shannon Brown, DeMar DeRozan, Gerald Wallace and a horde of media ready to probe as if they are trying to provoke the release of state secrets. There is no HERO in this story.

The grand banquet hall of the Dallas Hyatt Regency sits on the second floor of the downtown hotel.

Outside the room on this Friday, the day before the dunk contest, Stephen Curry talks to an autograph seeker who must have snuck past security. Media shuffle about. Rookies wearing their team warm-ups step on the escalator, descending downstairs, where there appears to be a photo shoot for a new Wolfgang Puck cook book. This doesn’t make sense at all. But cameras and those felt-covered lights surround an area that features a cover with Wolfgang Puck’s picture

Inside the hall, Magic Johnson finishes up a press conference. Chandeliers hanging from the ceiling provide light. Tables, at least 20, are situated about seven feet from each other throughout the room.

Nate Robinson leans back in a chair at one of these, the always-hungry New York media surrounding him with bright lights and massive cameras. He has won the dunk contest twice. No one has won it three times. He will have the opportunity to do so on Saturday night.

They want to ask him about the contest.

As a general rule, though, no one asks a productive question at a massive event such as the All-Star Game. More than 1,800 people have credentials here.

The list of names includes reporters from El Pais and L’Equipe. It includes someone who has a Maxim microphone, and it includes McLovin. Yes, really. I wanted to joke that Cat Fancy has three reporters, and Horse and Hound has another, but the reality of McLovin is funny enough.

This saturation leads to an environment of disorder and thus bad questions. And based on the Fox Sideline Reporter Law of Questioning, an athlete must respond to a cliché question with an equal and opposite unproductive answer.

This is apparent throughout the weekend, although, nothing brings out the FSR Law like the dunk contest.

Media: Nate, what do you want to achieve this weekend?

Robinson: I just want to have a natural dunk contest.

At least the environmentalists are smiling.

Shannon Brown sits across the room, diagonally from Robinson. He’ll go against Robinson in Saturday’s contest. Gerald Wallace, another contestant, sits two tables down from Brown.

I can’t recall seeing Wallace, even through a picture or a highlight, since the McDonald’s All-American game many years ago. His sight alarms me.

He has dread locks longer than Bob Marley. He looks and acts higher than Jim Breuer.

Upon hearing him talk, I realize he is as interesting as a tree stump. But to say he is as interesting as a tree stump wouldn’t quite capture his display of general detachment toward any topic. After all, tree stumps have those circles that help signify their age, which is actually kind of interesting.

Media: Gerald, how have you done in previous dunk contests?

Wallace: (gargling sound)

Media: Gerald, what do you have planned for Saturday night?

Wallace: (closes eyes)

Then, he speaks. It isn’t a complete sentence, only a run-on, but progress is progress, right?

He speaks of his goal in the contest.

Wallace: Try not to get hurt, try not to pull anything.

Scene 2: The confused, inner workings of my mind, used as a vehicle to hopefully portray everyone’s thoughts.
Enter: Memories

Thing is, I love dunk contests. Have since seventh grade. Back then, I didn’t really know anything about them. I had seen the Sportscenter highlights of Julius Erving leaping from the free throw line, and Michael Jordan leaping from the free throw line, and Brent Barry leaping from the free throw line.

The old tapes left me with a lingering thought: How exactly did Brent Barry win a dunk contest? But that uncertainty never led me to watch one.

Before classes started at Holy Spirit grade school, we would sit around the desks in our white uniform shirts and dark Dockers slacks and discuss the weekend, our distaste for our teacher, Mrs. McKinzie, or I don’t know, just talk about whatever seventh graders talk about.

On a Monday morning in February, a friend began talking about Vince Carter and the dunk contest from Saturday night. I, like most of the seventh grade class, had spent that evening at Chili Bingo.*

*The Cub Scouts put on Chili Bingo every year. It was the social event of a lifetime, along with the Pinewood Derby, for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. You ate Chili, and you attempted to talk with girls, and you played Blackout for a $100 reward, and you bought tickets for door prizes.

That seventh-grade year, I won a door prize. There were two choices left. I can’t remember the other one, but I decided to grab a video titled “Golf With Steve J.” Steve J, apparently, was so well-known that he didn’t even need to endorse his instructional videos with his surname.

This friend, Drew, didn’t go that night. He watched the dunk contest.

Drew spoke, admiringly, about Vince Carter and how he bounced the ball, grabbed it mid-air and brought it between his legs before dunking, all in one motion.

Someway or another, I think, I ended up seeing those highlights. I was amazed. Carter did the legs thing, and he stuck his full arm down the rim. He also twisted his body the opposite way most people would on his way to a 180 or something.

I wanted to watch dunk contests. All of them.

I watched David Lee, at the McDonald’s All-American game, bounce the ball, then take off his red jersey, then grab the ball and do a reverse slam to win that contest. I watched some sort of Kansas City high school all star showcase that probably no longer exists. Jeff Hawkins tried to dunk in it. He didn’t do so well. Jamar Howard won, jumping over a few young children before doing a one-handed slam.

I watched those as often as I could, and I also watched the NCAA dunk contests. I bought this VHS tape called “Ball Above All.” Among other cool basketball moves, it featured a high-school-aged James White, who I still believe is the greatest dunker of all time.

And, of course, I watched the NBA dunk contests, starting in eighth grade.

I sat in our half-finished, always-cold basement and looked on as DeShawn Stevenson completed something called the “Off the Heezy for Sheezy” dunk; as Baron Davis cut eyeholes in his headband and pulled it down over his eyes for a dunk; as Desmond Mason jumped over a crouched Rashard Lewis in what was good enough for the victory.

Kenny Smith complained the whole time. He complained that they weren’t even “sweating.” Not sure how perspiration helps with the gripping of a ball, but you get the point. The dunk contest had lost its luster. That’s what everyone said, and they would continue saying it over the years.

The NBA started calling it the Rising Stars Dunk Contest for a while, thinking they could convince us that Fred Jones would become someone we might not confuse with Tom Jones. Players like Jonathan Bender and Corey Magette competed. Vince Carter would never return, nor would Tracy McGrady or Kobe Bryant.

I didn’t care. I enjoyed that 2001 dunk contest, and I continued to watch them in high school and college.

I remember the infamous dunk wheel. I remember Andre Igoudala completing the greatest dunk of all time, where he jumped from behind the goal, and then e-mailing one of my NBA-loving professors the next day just to talk about it.

The contestants always smiled and laughed. They wore Superman suits and they blew out candles on frosted cupcakes.

Celebrities like Usher and Puff Daddy watched from courtside, mere mortals as giddy as anyone watching from home. They watched the same way we all did.

I knew I would never be able to dunk. Even if I lowered our driveway basketball goal to 7 ½ feet and used a miniature ball, I couldn’t do a 360 or even a 180.

These athletes could do it on regulation goals, and once a year they would put on a show so we could admire the creativity, the grace, the way they had to exercise caution to prevent their foreheads from banging into the rim when they floated up there.

We could watch an already impossible display of athleticism become fortified with tricks and showmanship when we watched them. That’s why I loved dunk contests.

Scene 3: Saturday’s contest, at the American Airlines Center
Enter the valiant contestants, Craig Sager’s screaming suit and unfortunate Cheryl Miller.

Wolf* Blitzer walks down the aisle of American Airlines Center and takes a courtside seat in the third row. Darryl Dawkins, in a suit ostentatious by everyone’s standards except for Craig Sager, sits next to Dominique Wilkins and Robert Horry, looking very Fresh Prince-esque, in the first row on the court, diagonally in front of Blitzer. Spike Lee has a courtside seat across the floor from them.

*Who would have thought? A blog post that includes two people named after Wolves.

Saturday is officially here. Dunk contest night. This is about star-studded glitz, through your-legs-flash, off the heezy for sheezy power.

Let’s have Gerald Wallace explain to Cheryl Miller and the whole arena the exact superlatives that this contest is about.

Miller (talking to Wallace at halfcourt on the loudspeaker): How much creativity will it take to get by Robinson?

Wallace: I don’t know.

Yep, that’s how it all starts on Saturday night. Gerald Wallace, looking like he just stumbled off the set of Half-Baked, says his first complete sentence of the weekend.

You might guess that now the crowd is ready to erupt. NBA dunk contest excitement, after all, had already reared its head a month earlier courtesy of Robinson and LeBron.

Robinson, the two-time winner and former “rising” star like Fred Jones, told New York media that he didn’t want compete. He would compete, though, because he had had to.* He certainly didn’t desire the championship, and he said this.

*Someone later explained to Robinson that this was not the case. He did not HAVE to compete. At this point, though, he had already committed.

LeBron, apparently, didn’t either. Captivated by Dwight Howard and Robinson in 2009, he made an on-air promise to Miller that he would compete in the Dallas 2010 contest. The NBA’s greatest theater would again have its King, the great James.

When January rolled around and the NBA asked for a commitment…uh, not so much.

LeBron’s spurn left the league in a predicament. It needed a fourth dunker. But we all know how the NBA reacts to predicaments. It creates the Dunk-In, a wonderful televised event for “rising” stars to introduce themselves.

DeMar DeRozan wins this over Eric Gordon and says he hasn’t lost a dunk contest since the ninth grade, a Roman-Empire-grand period of domination that has lasted all of five years.

So there you have it. Saturday’s storylines: Will DeRozan preserve his Ripken-esque streak, will Nate Robinson have to accept the inconvenience of winning another contest, will Shannon Brown show off his “rising” star-ness, will Gerald Wallace do his best Gerald Green impression and place a weed brownie on the rim so he can blow out the candle?

DeRozan is the first contestant to dunk, the first one with the opportunity to build on the fervor started by Wallace’s announcement.

He completes a been-there-done-that reverse, going through his legs after jumping from under the goal. He scores a 42, and the on-court announcer says DeRozan is setting the tone. Oh my.

Next up is Shannon Brown. Brown actually seems like he wouldn’t rather be spending his millions of dollars on one of the strippers that were flown into Dallas solely for this All Star Weekend. He got into the dunk contest because of fans. They started a Web site, LetShannonDunk.com, petitioning for his spot.

His story line actually is interesting. Like Jason Richardson or Desmond Mason in the past, he really has the opportunity to spice up a contest that on paper looks like a dud.

Brown fails on a running dunk from midcourt. Then he jumps, and in mid-air switches from his right hand to his left hand for a dunk. Uh-oh.

Wallace is now up. Uh-oh, indeed. He performs a standard reverse dunk. Repeat. He performs a standard reverse dunk.

On-court announcer: Wallace, with the old-school!

Time for Robinson, time for Krypto-Nate, time for the one of the smallest, most creative dunkers we’ve seen. He gulps energy gel on the court. OK, this looks promising. Then he begins his run to the hoop and completes an average two-handed dunk off the bounce.

It may just have been a coincidence but the arena’s giant TV screen shows Spike Lee. He’s covering his eyes.

I look over at Blitzer. He’s tinkering with his phone.

We know what happens after this. DeRozan finishes a nifty, 50 dunk after taking a pass from the side of the backboard, but the pass, from Sonny Weems, seems more remarkable. Brown fails again. Wallace decides to go even more old school and shoots a jump shot on his next turn. Robinson wins because he asks Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders to stand next to him on the court for seven seconds.

Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, I can only guess, must be ravenous with disgust. Blogs and columns will be all over this. Where’s Vince Carter? Where’s Kobe? The dunk contest is dead, again.

But there is progress. This dunk contest isn’t all about nothing. In the media room afterwards, with Robinson sitting next to his trophy, the Fox Sideline Reporter Law of Questioning is finally broken.

Media: Nate, are you going to try and go for a fourth title.

Robinson: No, no, no. I can’t bear that anymore.

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