NBA commissioner David Stern delivered his state of the union in a crowded interview room beneath Staples Center last Saturday afternoon. In a sobering address he discussed the imperiled franchises considering relocation, the disgruntled headliners politicking their way off teams and the unshrinking chasm that separates owners and players in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.
About a hundred yards from the stage where Stern held court were two men, who work for a company called Cosmetic Car Care, flitting around a silver sedan. The commissioner's portentous words had just floated through the tunnel, but the men were obviously unaffected as they rubbed the car with pink feather dusters, preparing for the extravaganza to come.
The slam dunk contest was conceived 35 years ago as an entertaining interlude to the regular season, and never has the event served its oh-my-God-did-you-see-that? purpose at a better time. Just as All-Star weekend was about to be hijacked by reports of the Kings fleeing to Orange County, Carmelo Anthony lighting out for New Jersey (or New York or Houston) and the league taking one step closer to a lockout, a flock of young leapers flew in and offered a sideshow for the ages.
They arrived with more props than a magic troupe. The Wizards' JaVale McGee brought his mother, former WNBA star Pam McGee, who was flanked by four bodyguards in suits and sunglasses when she presented him with a shiny black case containing a multicolored ball. The Thunder's Serge Ibaka brought a young boy who ran out of the stands claiming to have lost his stuffed animal on the rim. The Raptors' DeMar DeRozan brought Sir Slam himself, Darryl Dawkins, to read the names of his dunks off posterboards carried by a slender blonde. And the Clippers' Blake Griffin, facing expectations so high he'd have to jump over a car to meet them, brought the glossy silver ride—a 2011 Kia Optima, 72 inches wide, though not nearly as tall as the power forwards Griffin has scaled this season.
The contest has provided some must-save snapshots in recent years—Jason Richardson going between his legs, Dwight Howard levitating in his Superman cape, Nate Robinson hurdling Howard—but like the NBA itself, the competition was doomed by constant and unforgiving comparisons to the '80s. The dunks that looked so fresh and balletic when Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins were doing them became dull and predictable. The performers were partly to blame (Chris Andersen needed 15 attempts to escape the first round in 2005), but fans also grew numb to acrobatics they used to find unfathomable.
Then came this season of slam, led by Griffin and his 137 dunks, and it only figured the contest would reach new altitudes. A record 8.1 million viewers tuned in, up 49% from last year, and while the audience came for Griffin, they stayed for choreography that the Globetrotters would have found outrageous. In what is traditionally a little man's event—or at least a swingman's—the 7-foot McGee, 6'10" Ibaka and 6'10" Griffin were as spidery as Spud Webb.
McGee dunked two balls into separate hoops and then three balls into the same basket. Ibaka dunked after taking off from behind the free throw line and later dunked after snatching the lost stuffed animal from the rim with his teeth. But Griffin had the home court advantage and the hidden horsepower. For McGee, Ibaka and DeRozan the dunk contest was to be a coming-out party. For Griffin it was to be a coronation, a chance to show what he could do without anybody standing under the rim. Never has a Clipper been such a prohibitive favorite in anything.
Griffin has long been fascinated by vehicular obstacles, so much so that after he watched Vince Carter win the 2000 dunk contest, he parked his bicycle underneath the hoop outside his house to jump over it. He would graduate from two wheels to four.
With the Kia parked in the paint, point guard Baron Davis in the driver's seat and the Crenshaw Elite Choir singing I Believe I Can Fly in their robes at center court, Griffin took a lob from Davis through the sunroof, soared for the two-handed dunk, swung on the rim and alit on the hood. All of his ligaments survived intact, though his employers may have incurred some heart palpitations. The Clippers have lost star players, including Griffin, in endeavors far less risky.
"Nothing's going to beat the car unless I bring a plane," McGee said afterward, sounding rueful. Such is the evolution of the dunk contest. Players admit they have run out of new ways to spin and contort and corkscrew their airborne bodies. They can't impress anybody by simply putting a ball behind their head or between their legs. They need to simultaneously be suspended over a circus animal. "It's a different kind of creativity now," says Wilkins, a two-time dunk-contest champion. "But it's still great because of the production and the theatrics."