Behind The Scenes: How Aaron Gordon's Drone Dunk Plans Went Awry

0:38 | NBA
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Sunday February 19th, 2017

NEW ORLEANS – Two nights before Saturday’s Slam Dunk Contest, in a mostly empty Smoothie King Center crawling with overzealous security guards, Aaron Gordon tested his secret weapon. As NBA executive Kiki VanDeWeghe, former Dunk Contest champion Brent Barry and a small group of onlookers watched, the 21-year-old forward pantomimed his interplay with the Magic’s mascot, smoke billowed off the stage, and the Star Wars theme song kicked in. Then, a custom-build drone, managed by a team of six from Intel, lit up, rose above the hardwood, motored into position, and dropped an alley-oop pass to a waiting Gordon, who passed the ball between his legs and pounded the rim with a right-handed dunk.

Shelly Davis, Gordon’s mother, looked on from the sidelines, laughing about the time when a middle-school-aged Gordon and his older brother, Drew, came up with a concept for a “helium-filled propelled basketball that would hover around the court by itself.” Here, essentially, was that day dreamy concept brought to life in a way that might entertain millions of basketball fans and deliver Gordon a Dunk Contest title.

Despite months of development, testing and fine-tuning for the actual drone and the benefit of exceedingly rare athletic gifts, Gordon couldn’t prevent his carefully-laid plans from going awry. The following is a behind the scenes look at Gordon’s much-ballyhooed “Drone Dunk.”

As a dunker, Gordon went toe-to-toe with two-time champ Zach LaVine in 2016. The highlight of the two-overtime contest was Gordon’s “Butt Dunk,” which led many fans to claim he was robbed of the title. Gordon is quite clearly a dunker’s dunker, studying clips on YouTube and keeping a mental catalog of never-before-seen slams. He recites his favorite props, like Dwight Howard’s cape and Nate Robinson’s Kryptonite, at a moment’s notice. He faults Blake Griffin’s “Over the Kia” dunk for leaning too heavily on the showmanship and not being sufficiently complicated. “The dunk was a four. He played it safe,” Gordon said Thursday. “I like the over-the-car dunks. Not the hood. Jump over the whole car.”

After his practice walk-through, Gordon squealed as another dunker uncorked a gymnastic-like floor routine approach before picking up the ball off the court and attempting a windmill. “I want 10s on 10s,” Gordon told SI.com, his preferred name for dunks that pair maximum technique with maximum flair. His taste for dunking was cultivated in part by his older brother Drew, who played at UCLA and coincidentally was competing in an overseas dunk contest this weekend. Gordon even went so far as to craft a special order for his four-dunk program for Saturday, in hopes of building the hype into a crescendo for the finale.

Gordon’s interest in technology is similarly pure. Growing up in Silicon Valley, the San Jose native played with K’Nex blocks, toured tech museums, and tested early virtual reality goggles on his Playstation (“All they did was give you a terrible headache”). He read Stephen Hawking books passed down to him by Davis, the family’s self-acknowledged “tech nerd,” who spent more than 35 years working in the semiconductor industry before retiring recently to run Gordon’s foundation.

These days, Gordon drives a Tesla, backs a mental awareness app called Lucid, and collects gadgets like they’re stamps or baseball cards. “Aaron and Drew discovered those full-wall projectors,” Davis quipped. “I’d come home and these grown people are doing blanket pillow forts in the family room watching the full projector set up.”

The idea for a “Drone Dunk” came to Gordon this past year as he puzzled over how to top his 2016 performance in Toronto, which featured the Magic’s mascot spinning on a hoverboard. While surfing the Internet, Gordon had his “Aha” moment when he stumbled on a video of a drone delivering packages. “I thought, ‘Why not?’ Why couldn’t it just deliver a basketball? What if it just dropped an alley-oop?” No question, a drone is a clear step up from a hoverboard.

Photo via Ben Golliver

Gordon and his agent, Calvin Andrews, passed the idea to Davis, who briefly worked at Intel’s Sports Group last year. For Intel, a computer chip company seeking to increase its visibility and presence in the commercial drone market, the dunk concept represented a stimulating challenge and an opportunity for exposure. At the Super Bowl, Intel drones helped power Lady Gaga’s performance. In the field, the company’s drones are designed to withstand harsh conditions and to aid disaster response efforts. Compared to assessing damage to a bridge after an earthquake or to an offshore oil rig in extremely windy conditions, how hard could it be to drop a basketball inside a stadium?

Still, care was taken at every step of the design process. Cindy Ng, Intel’s Business Development and Marketing Director for Commercial Drones, explained that the “Dunk Drone,” as it was called internally, was designed with multiple redundancies to prevent against mechanical failure. The six-wing drone, known as a hexicopter, weighs just shy of 11 pounds, carries up to 4.4 pounds and has a battery life of 26 minutes, far more than was needed for All-Star Saturday. According to Ng, the drone was designed to work inside a stadium, where GPS control wouldn’t be possible, and was operated by “very seasoned” pilots.

Photo via Ben Golliver

Intel reps refused to disclose the price of the drone, citing its one-of-a-kind and not-for-retail-sale nature, but the company’s investment in the final product was significant. “The claw part that holds the basketball was custom designed, developed and built just to do the dunk,” Ng said. “It’s not like we had a claw sitting around ready to carry a basketball.”

When Gordon first tested the drone in California, he realized he would need to account for the force of the spinning wings, which emit an audible whirl. “I have old videos of me in Santa Monica with my shirt being blown and my pants being blown,” he said. “There are a lot of variables.” One such variable was height, and the drone was deployed at multiple altitudes to pinpoint the proper height for the ball’s bounce off the hardwood. Gordon and the drone pilots also worked out hand signals to coordinate the ball’s release.

“I’m not worried about technical difficulties. I trust the tech,” Gordon said on Thursday. “It’s just about my timing.”

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The NBA, Intel and Gordon worked zealously to protect the drone secret. Only a small handful of media outlets were informed of the concept before All-Star Saturday. When a writer strayed too close to the court during Gordon’s practice, he was confronted by an official who asked what he was doing in the private practice area. Intel tracked social media for hints of leaks and imposed a strict embargo on drone-related coverage. Gordon, seeking every competitive edge, hid a second drone dunk that he planned to unveil if he advanced to the final round on Saturday. He also asked a reporter not to tweet a photo of a second prop that he planned to use.

As Saturday night approached, everyone copped to nerves. Davis, who had enjoyed Gordon’s 2016 Dunk Contest in blissful ignorance because she hadn’t been prepped on his plans, was “really nervous” this time around, in part because he had featured so heavily in TNT’s marketing. “When any one of your kids is prominently featured, it’s always nerve-wracking as a parent.” Ng, who had never been to or watched a Dunk Contest before, had full confidence in the drone’s capabilities, but was “nervous for Aaron” given the obvious pressure. Gordon, who was shaking off a foot injury, was most worried about months of planning coming down to a “one-time thing.” He knew the drone could be quickly reloaded if he missed his first attempts, but he didn’t want to undercut the audience’s reaction.  

The secrecy worked. When Gordon walked onto the court as the last of four competitors in the first round, the Dunk Drone hadn’t yet been spoiled. Unlike with Griffin’s dunk over the Kia, which began leaking in the hours before the contest, the Smoothie King Center crowd had no idea what to expect. Gordon and the mascot went through their back-and-forth routine. The smoke effects went off without a hitch. The Star Wars music played. The drone launched, circled the court and settled in right in front of the hoop, exactly as planned. Meanwhile, fans ooh’ed and ahh’ed while raising hundreds of cell phones to document the scene. Gordon’s initial vision – to merge basketball and tech in a new way – was playing out perfectly.

But then his biggest fear, the dunk’s timing, spoiled the show.

Gordon’s first effort at the alley-oop finish, which involved passing the ball through his legs to dunk with his right hand, wasn’t particularly close. The drone team quickly reloaded the basketball and the pilots quickly repositioned the drone for a second effort, and then a third. The contest organizers then allowed him a fourth try, which he converted to earn 38 points out of a possible 50. Instead of celebrating, he shook his head with a somewhat disgusted smile, and his score reflected the judges’ intolerance for the missed attempts.

“You can’t [recover],” he told SI.com by telephone, still sounding clearly disappointed more than an hour after the contest’s end. “After I didn’t get the first one down, I knew I was eliminated. I knew it was pretty much over after that.”

After months of planning, the rest of the night quickly turned into a blur. Gordon struggled through his second dunk—a modified version of the “Butt Dunk”—and earned the lowest combined score of the four dunkers. He never got the chance to unveil his second, secret drone dunk, as he failed to make the cut for the final round. With some fans heading for the exits early, Glenn Robinson III bested Derrick Jones Jr. in an underwhelming championship round. The tweets and headlines poured in immediately, calling the entire night a “bust” and “boring,” and plenty of other things in between.

Gordon rushed through his league-mandated post-game interview, departing the mixed zone interview area before Jones and Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, his fellow competitors. He then retreated to the locker room, where he was met by his sister, Elise, who played basketball at Harvard, and his agent. Intel reps, proud that the drone had functioned well but sad that Gordon’s plan had fallen short, initially struggled to reach him.

As Robinson III posed for pictures kissing the championship trophy, Gordon left the building empty-handed for the second year in a row. “I’m not thinking about any dunking unless it’s in a game right now,” he told SI.com, adding that he would not compete in the 2018 Slam Dunk Contest in Los Angeles. “This event takes a lot out of you when you approach it as seriously as I do."

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The alternate reality is easy to picture: Gordon pulls off the Drone Dunk, builds momentum as he hoped, takes the lead in the final round with his secret dunk, and then captures his title. If he could rewind the Drone Dunk with a little cleaner catch, a little smoother finish, or a little better luck, and that much happier version of events would have been in play. There’s a  reason “It’s a game of inches” has become a common sports saying.

This is only the Dunk Contest, though, and life will go on. Ng, the Intel executive, will soon head to Europe in a few days to work on her next assignment. Intel’s teams will continue their work developing multiple drone lines in hopes of delivering life-saving applications for their corporate and governmental clients. Davis will return to work running Gordon’s foundation, which hopes to provide educational opportunities and exposure to meditation undeserved communities in the Bay Area. And Gordon will return to the Magic, where he should see his role increase following the trade of Serge Ibaka to the Raptors.

Despite the disappointed audience and critical voices, Gordon should leave New Orleans with zero regrets. He pledged Friday to build on his 2016 performance – “I’m looking to one-up myself and I’m not looking to play it safe” – and he took his shot. He wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before, and he did, even if it took a few extra tries. He showcased his love of technology and got the crowd buzzing. His team executed his carefully-laid plan to a tee, and he even accurately assessed the weakest point in the entire system. “It was just the timing,” he repeated afterwards. “I rushed it a little bit.”

Importantly, he didn’t go into hiding when the Drone Dunk was being mocked on social media. His voice soft on the other end of the telephone line, Gordon made a point to thank Intel for its work on the project and to tell Magic fans that he planned to “work his tail off for the last part of the season.”

Gordon’s final thought from the night, unsurprisingly, concerned the dunks that remain untouched in his bag of tricks. “I had a pretty crazy lineup,” he lamented. “It would have been nice to execute. The drone worked perfectly. I just missed an opportunity.”

Last year, Gordon pulled off one of the best Dunk Contest dunks of all time, the type that will be endlessly replayed alongside Vince Carter’s elbow dunk and Howard’s flying Superman slam. This year, he’ll have to settle for one of the better Dunk Contest dunks that never was. 

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