The N.B.A. may be a tall man’s league, but in the slam dunk contest, the taller you are, the harder it is win.
In 1984, Larry Nance, a 6-foot-10 forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, beat out Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler and five other competitors to become the N.B.A.’s first slam dunk champion. In the years that followed, Michael Jordan and Wilkins turned the contest into a marquee event for the league, and it evolved to celebrate the ability to jump, above all else and all others. Because of that, it took more than 20 years for another player as tall as Nance to take home the title. To this day, the only players 6-10 or taller to have won the contest are Nance, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin.
On Saturday, there is a good chance another name will be added to that list as a field of four will vie for the title, and in a throwback to the contest’s first year, in which Nance and the 7-4 Ralph Sampson competed, two participants will be big men:Mason Plumlee of the Nets and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks.
Antetokounmpo, at 6-11, is the tallest participant this season. But unlike Plumlee, he has shown artistry in some of his 67 dunks this season, including a one-handed jam against the Phoenix Suns in January that was immediately compared to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s famously unstoppable skyhook shot, with the difference being that Antetokounmpo slammed the ball home rather than releasing it in midflight.
Virtually all of the All-Star players said Antetokounmpo was the participant they were most looking forward to seeing, because of the dunking ability he has shown.
“He had a nice dunk against us in Milwaukee,” said Damian Lillard, the All-Star point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, who competed in the slam dunk contest last season. “I knew he could jump, but he did a one-leg windmill in transition against us.”
As others around him recounted the explosive dunk, Lillard was quick to point out, “It was off my turnover, too.”