Dominique Wilkins

The NBA All Star break couldn’t come soon enough for Bulls fans (Pau Gasol just missed a layup as I write this), drugstore but for those whose teams are rolling this time of year, a weekend of outlandish events, more focused on Kevin Hart and over the top fashion than basketball, is not always welcome.  Lucky for them, despite taking the game north of the border to -8 degree Toronto temperatures, All-Star Saturday night delivered for everyone.  The big stars were still missing from the court, but Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon almost made us forget about the team dunk format of 2014 by putting on a true dunk contest reminiscent of the old school battles that featured the likes of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins.

In the last 5 years, the dunk contest has lost the luster of those late 80s battles and the nostalgia of Vince Carter‘s prolific performances by serving up sub par dunks from role players while the All-Stars sat in the stands with their kids stealing most of the attention.  But this year,  Minnesota’s LaVine and Orlando’s Gordon took the NBA’s ultimate power move to new heights by pushing each other to perfect scores, round after round, forcing dunks even they had never seen or tried before.  LaVine and Gordon went beyond high flying dunks and 360s to new and improved moves like grabbing the ball from Stuff the Magic mascot while he spun on a hover board.

While LaVine came out victorious after perfect scores forced a bonus round, the most reality-defying dunk of the night came from Gordon when he leaped over Stuff (my second favorite mascot to Benny the Bull), grabbing the ball off of the pink wings on the side of his head, tucked his legs to a fully seated position and pulled the ball under them before slamming it down.

It’s hard to believe that didn’t seal the deal, but LaVine finally ended the night and took home the trophy with a spur of the moment decision to try a windmill dunk from the free throw line that he’d never even seen himself do.

The 2016 All-Star Weekend was a major stop of the Kobe Bryant retirement tour, with Saturday’s dunk contest coming 19 years after Kobe won the event in 1997.  Earlier in All-Star Saturday, Bryant expressed displeasure with the state of the contest, longing for the days when the NBA’s biggest stars participated.  And he wasn’t wrong, with the last All-Star caliber player to participate in a true dunk contest (disregarding whatever the NBA tried to do with the team format in 2014) being Blake Griffin in 2011 who won amid controversy that the league rigged the event to allow him and Kia, a major NBA sponsor, to win when he jumped over the hood of the automaker’s sedan.  And don’t ever forget that Lebron James has never shown his face on the court in the Dunk Contest for fear of injury or failure.

Nevertheless, the big stars weren’t necessary on Saturday, just the best dunkers, who were dedicated to bringing back an NBA tent-pole event by paying homage to those who brought it to prestige in the first place.  Zach LaVine said he came back in 2016 to defend his 2015 Slam Dunk title as a nod to the days when stars like Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins would compete year after year.  Aaron Gordon, born in 1995, still managed to throw it back to a staple Wilkins move from the late 80s, with a between the legs reverse dunk in an early round.

Dominique Wilkins has been another outspoken critic of the dunk contest in recent years, so if he says it, it goes…

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