There is opinion. There is fact. There is sometimes opinion that is fact. And the fact is this: the NBA Slam Dunk Contest is the best individual event in team professional sports. Once again, it delivered Saturday night, won in spectacular fashion by Zach LaVine of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Like it or begrudgingly want it to disappear — because you’re still salty the best players in the league no longer hold it in reverence and you need to Google the names to figure out what team the participants play for — it keeps delivering, making stars out of the young and mostly unknown.
Last season, All-Star Saturday drew a 4.4 rating but a 5.3 for the dunk contest, meaning that nearly 20 percent of viewers tuned in just for that one event. You can anticipate similar ratings this year. The dunk contest continues to be the band everyone shows up to see after the first few acts play to a smaller crowd. LaVine will have a chance next year, should he take it, to become the first three-time dunk champion other than Nate Robinson, who won the event in 2006, 2009, and 2010.
No one has won it three consecutive seasons. LaVine could break through that barrier.
The contest started off sleepy, with The People’s Champ Will Barton of the Nuggets putting down a dunk on the first try that he never really got credit for before Andre Drummond of the Pistons missed several times before dunking, and people tend not to be excited when 7-footers dunk for whatever reason.
It wasn’t until LaVine’s first dunk that people started to get a little hyped, quickly mellowed out by some flaccid moments from Barton and Drummond. Then, the fun started.
LaVine and Aaron Gordon of Orlando traded 50 scores multiple times, Gordon doing what big men normally can’t do, capped off by a most impressive catching of the ball from Stuff, the Orlando Magic mascot, and putting the ball BELOW both legs and stuffing it.
LaVine needed no props, and the son of a gun went into overtime … if that can be such a thing … before the judges seemed to want to just end the thing by giving someone a score other than a 50 in spite of earning it. Shaq, multiple times, was the lone judge to not give a 10 on a few dunks, leading to some spectacular heckling of him.
In the end, it was LaVine’s third dunk from around the free throw line that got him the win, and what made it more impressive is that these guys weren’t needing four tries to do it. They were routinely hitting their dunks on the first try.
Honestly, it might have been the best showing for the event in its history. There weren’t many theatrics, just plain-old stuff you couldn’t have imagined before two world-class dunkers took flight.
The dunk contest will always be an electric, special event. Last night, though, may have been the most special it’s ever been. Welcome to household-name status, Aaron Gordon.