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The 10 greatest Slam Dunk Contests

The dunk contest has benefited from the presence of (from left) Spud Webb, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Vince Carter and Dwight Howard. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images [2]; John Swart/AP; Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images; Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)


By Ben Golliver

At its best, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest is a spectacle that makes you jump out of your seat, shove the person sitting next to you like you're in a rave and scream random noises like Kenny Smith does. At its worst, the dunk contest can be a train wreck, a bore or a total conundrum.

The NBA has held 27 dunk contests since 1984, skipping the event in 1998 and losing All-Star Weekend to a lockout in 1999. The Point Forward already counted down the five worst dunk contests. Now it's time to rank the 10 best.

Each contest was rated out of 50 possible points. The following five criteria were used, based on a 1-to-10 scale.

1. Star presence: Did big names participate? Did they do well?

2. "Wow" moment: How good was the best moment from the Dunk Contest?

3. Rivalry: Was there a back-and-forth between at least two of the competitors to build the drama?

4. Variety: How many unique or cool dunks did the various competitors attempt?

5. Legacy: Will the dunk contest be remembered for positive reasons?

Without further ado, here's our list of the 10 greatest dunk contests. (Check back Thursday for the 10 best dunks in the event's history.)

10. 1990 Slam Dunk Contest

Dominique Wilkins won the second of his two dunk titles in 1990. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Dominique Wilkins

1. Star presence: 10 out of 10. Dominique Wilkins, an all-time great in dunk contests, was back for a swan song after sitting out 1989 and losing an epic head-to-head matchup with Michael Jordan in 1988. Jordan, retired from dunk contests, was not in this field, but plenty of other stars and near-stars were, including Scottie Pippen, Shawn Kemp, Rex Chapman and the 24-year-old Kenny Smith. Defending champion Kenny "Sky" Walker, Billy Thompson and Kenny Battle completed the eight-man field. The latter two weren't heard from after the first round.

2. "Wow" moment: 8 out of 10. Wilkins, even at his height in the mid-1980s, succeeded on consistency and power rather than a singular moment. That remained true in 1990. Arguably the best dunk came from Smith, who stood with his back to the basket at the free-throw line, passing the ball through his legs and off the backboard to set up a reverse, two-handed dunk. It wasn't completely mesmerizing, but it was a little ahead of its time and sharply executed. (See the dunk at the 1:48 mark in the video below.)

3. Rivalry: 7 out of 10. The 1990 contest took on the feel of a poor man's 1986 edition, when Wilkins dueled 5-foot-7 Spud Webb. In 1990, Wilkins' shorter competitor was Smith, who had all sorts of bounce in his 6-3 frame. The 1986 electricity just wasn't there in this one, though. Don't blame Smith, who had a nice 360-degreee self alley-oop (2:30 mark below) to complement the dunk mentioned above. After all, there's only one Spud Webb.

Wilkins stuck to his playbook of power slams, double clutches and windmills to secure his second title. His superior name recognition and reputation didn't hurt.

[Dominique: I never prepared for dunk contests]

4. Variety: 8 out of 10. Smith's reverse had some company among the unusual offerings in 1990. Chapman had a pretty flip alley-oop pass over his head to set up a dunk (20-second mark), Pippen went to the Jordan playbook by dunking from the free-throw line (42-second mark) and Kemp flipped one to himself on his way to some reverse rainmaking (1:59 mark). Walker brought the whole package, too. He had a cuff reverse dunk along the baseline (2:10 mark), a 360-degree one-handed cuff dunk (2:20 mark) and a two-handed 360-degree dunk with a double pump.

5. Legacy: 7 out of 10. Wilkins' victory enabled him to join Jordan as the only two-time winners at that point. 'Nique, then 30, went out on top and cemented his status as one of the contest's influential founding fathers. Just as Jordan's 1987 win paled in comparison to his 1988 triumph, Wilkins' 1990 title lacked the juice of his first success, when he took down MJ in 1985.

Total: 40 out of 50. This yearshut the door on the early glory days of the dunk contest. All of the names that popped up regularly in the 1980s gave way to a new wave of dunkers in 1991. In that sense, it was fitting that Wilkins put a bow on the era by winning in 1990, especially after close losses to Webb in 1986 and Jordan in 1988. This contest amounted to a solid last stand by a deserving, relentless competitor.

9. 2003 Slam Dunk Contest

Jason Richardson (left) outdueled Desmond Mason in 2003. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Jason Richardson and Desmond Mason

1. Star presence: 6 out of 10. The best player from the quartet wound up being Amar'e Stoudemire, but the headliners were defending champion Jason Richardson and 2001 winner Desmond Mason. Richardson's powerful, complicated dunks and major hops made him a natural to build on the groundbreaking work done by Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady in 2000. Mason, meanwhile, is one of the forgotten stars of the contest's history. A right-hander, his dunks often looked cooler simply because of his tendency to use his left hand. Richard Jefferson was the fourth entrant. No one is quite sure why he was invited and the good news is that he didn't last long.

2. "Wow" moment: 10 out of 10. Richardson's off-the-glass, through-the-legs dunk in 2004 was tremendous, but his best from 2003 just might have been better. Starting in the right corner, Richardson threw a high, bouncing lob toward the basket. He took off from the protected circle and secured the ball with his right hand and passed it through his legs, backward, to his left hand, before finishing a reverse dunk all in one motion. It was so sly that slow-motion replay was needed to see exactly what he had accomplished. That's not a dunk you go out to the park and nail on the first time; this was a craftsman's work. (See the dunk at the 2:58 mark in the video below.)

3. Rivalry: 9 out of 10. This was a solid dunk-off between Richardson and Mason that included traditional favorites and new flourishes. Mason rocked the baby (32-second mark), scissor-kicked while flying in for a one-handed jam (1:25 mark) and had his dunk of the night when he put the ball between his legs, almost as an afterthought, before finishing with his left hand (1:58 mark). His final dunk, a two-handed windmill, just wasn't enough to keep up with Richardson, who repeated as champion.

Richardson went way up for a one-handed windmill to get a 50 (55-second mark), used a 360 windmill double-clutch hammer to advance (1:39 mark) and had a double-clutch reverse that abused the rim (2:22 mark). He shut the house down with the backward between-the-legs number.

[Photo Gallery: Slam Dunk Contest Winners]

4. Variety: 9 out of 10. As noted, Richardson and Mason supplied many new twists, pushing forward the idea that in-air combinations would become the future of dunk contests. Meanwhile, the 6-10 Stoudemire went through his legs while in midair (17-second mark), no small feat for a man his size. Jefferson's efforts were pathetic. He tried and failed to replicate Vince Carter's arm-through-the-rim dunk. Let's never speak of it again.

5. Legacy: 7 out of 10. Richardson, regarded as one of the best modern contest participants, would surely get even more love from casual fans if he had blossomed into a perennial All-Star guard. Carter cast such a long shadow with his 2000 performance that the legacy factor for Richardson is limited a bit. Richardson's dunks were marvels of timing and strength that hold up well, though.

Total: 41 out of 50. Contest enthusiasts should be very glad that 2003 worked out as it did, because Richardson had terrible luck with event rules. He won in 2002 despite a distracting "wheel" that participants had to spin to determine what kind of dunk they needed to execute. Lame. His 2004 appearance was ruined by dumb rules that messed up the ending and gave the title, unfairly, to Fred Jones. If he had executed some of his high degree-of-difficulty dunks in 2004 and competed under more sensible rules, Richardson easily could have been a three-time champion and been mentioned more regularly among the greats in the contest's history. At least he has 2003.

8. 1987 Slam Dunk Contest

Michael Jordan's performance in 1987 was just a warmup act for his theatrics in 1988. (Andy Hayt/SI)

Michael Jordan

1. Star presence: 10 out of 10. Michael Jordan was in it. What else needs to be said? Jordan, who missed the 1986 contest because of injury, was seeking his first title after losing to Dominique Wilkins in 1985. His competition was power-dunking small forward Jerome Kersey, 360 specialist Terence Stansbury, future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, Ron Harper, Johnny Dawkins, Tom Chambers and Gerald Wilkins, Dominique's younger brother. There was no shortage of star power and talent, but the absence of 'Nique and 1986 champion Spud Webb took away some of the magic.

2. "Wow" moment: 8 out of 10. Without the head-to-head drama between Jordan and Dominique that defined the 1985 and 1988 contests, everything feels a touch flat when you look back on it. Jordan's best moment in 1987 was his free-throw-line dunk; the slam improved on the one he offered in 1985 because he made it look a bit easier, but it lacked the "ooh, ahh" factor of his 1988 foul-line winner. At least you could see his tongue wagging clearly. (See the dunk at the 3:23 mark in the video below.) His sideways, hanging, leaning into the rim dunk was top-shelf too.

3. Rivalry: 9 out of 10. Kersey essentially played Dominique's part in a stand-in role, flushing powerful dunks with his left hand, right hand and both hands to advance against Jordan. A chiseled, powerful forward, the 6-7 Kersey had enough hang time to rock the ball back and forth and kick out his legs to add style points to his delivery. He attacked the rim hard but didn't have the Human Highlight Film's length, which minimized the visual impact of some of his better dunks. Still, Kersey finished a clear second by going as hard in the contest as he would diving after loose balls for the Trail Blazers.

[GOLLIVER: Handicapping this year's Slam Dunk Contest]

4. Variety: 8 out of 10. The mid-1980s contests just go on and on, demanding dunk after dunk from the participants who advance. Jordan did well to mix things up, using a rock-the-cradle move, a beautiful sideways gliding dunk that had his head near the rim (5:25 mark below), some reverse action, a double-pump spread eagle and his bread-and-butter free-throw dunk. Kersey kept up with all manners of reverses (including one off the glass, at the 3:14 mark), windmills and double-clutch moves, but the final round swung hard in Jordan's favor before too long.

In the early rounds, Stansbury did his trademark 360 statue of the liberty (46-second mark) and a scissor-kick self alley-oop finish; Drexler went off the glass for one (28-second mark) and performed an under-the-hoop reverse for another; and Harper threw a slightly goofy alley-oop (1:02 mark).

5. Legacy: 8 out of 10. The 1987 contest proved that even Jordan can get lost in his own shadow. This was far from a bad showcase or an unimpressive effort from him, but it simply didn't hold a candle to 1988, when Dominique was back in the building, the contest was at Jordan's home arena in Chicago and the drama unfolded perfectly for a smash ending. This will be remembered only as Jordan's first dunk-contest title, not his best.

Total: 43 out of 50. The contest's golden era stretched from 1985 to 1988 and this one winds up the weakest of the four, mostly because the head-to-head aspect that shaped 1985 and 1988 (Jordan versus Dominique) and 1986 (Spud Webb vs. 'Nique) didn't materialize to the same degree. This was a nice prelude to 1988, though, because it gave Jordan and Dominique one title each, setting up the next year as a showdown.

7. 1991 Slam Dunk Contest

Dee Brown, a 6-1 rookie guard, pulled out all the stops to win the 1991 contest. (John Biever/SI)

Dee Brown

1. Star presence: 8 out of 10. As mentioned above, 1991 marked a sea change, with all of the regular participants from the 1980s officially in dunk-contest retirement. That opened the door for an enthusiastic rookie Celtics guard named Dee Brown to emerge from an eight-man field that included 1990 participants Shawn Kemp, Kenny Smith and Rex Chapman, along with Kenny Williams, Blue Edwards, Otis Smith and Kendall Gill.

2. "Wow" moment: 9 out of 10. The 6-1 Brown had the most memorable dunk when he covered his face with his right arm to finish a "no-look" slam. (See the dunk at the 4:28 mark of the video below.) The 22-year-old's shameless product placement -- he pumped up his Reeboks before doing a lob dunk -- was a good decade ahead of its time and is chuckle-worthy in hindsight. The 6-10 Kemp, the runner-up, produced the most jaw-dropping dunk when he double-clutched coming down the paint and kicked up his legs so high that it looked like he was riding an 8-foot-tall bicycle or running at a full sprint several feet off the ground (4:05 mark). The angles that his legs and arms took made you wipe your eyes in disbelief.

3. Rivalry: 10 out of 10. For two guys with no previous history and a fairly big disparity in on-court talents, Brown and Kemp staged a great two-man, back-and-forth contest. Brown relied more on the gimmicks than Kemp, who oozed athleticism, but the two made sure that the entire event took place above the rim. Kemp brought back a flip trick from 1990 and added a new over-the-shoulder flip to himself on a later dunk (2:34 mark). Brown did a two-handed windmill and a two-handed reverse double clutch that went down clear to his ankles (3:20 mark). Brown got creative with two balls, resting one on the back of the rim that he dunked after he put a first dunk through. He didn't execute the double dunk smoothly, but it still represented a new look. He closed with a two-handed spinning finish on a bouncing self alley-oop that looked nice given his size (4:15 mark), followed by the no-look, arm-covering-face dunk to take home a well-deserved title.

4. Variety: 7 out of 10. Filling out around Brown and Kemp was Kenny Smith, who repeated his between-the-legs, off-the-backboard dunk from 1990 (four-second mark), had a 360 lob finish and completed a reverse dunk with a hard backboard slap (1:05 mark), something we should probably see more of in dunk contests than we have. Chapman went to his flipping bag of tricks (1:15 mark), just as he did in 1990, and added a lob off the glass.

5. Legacy: 10 out of 10. Brown carved out a lasting piece of contest history for himself with his relatively simple bag of tricks. Using his shoes, an extra ball and his off arm, he was able to add new elements to three dunks that are pretty easy to recall all these years later. The no-look dunk was a staple across American playgrounds for the better part of the 1990s and there's a genius to its simplicity. That he beat the much taller Kemp, one of the most athletic players of his generation, adds to Brown's aura and staying power.

Total: 44 out of 50. Brown wasn't Spud Webb, to be sure, but he became the little guy you couldn't root against as this contest unfolded. It helped that Kemp and Kenny Smith pushed him, improving the contest's overall quality, but Brown had that "it" factor that so many dunk contests lack. This was the best 1990s dunk contest. The next guy to be as captivating and memorable as Brown was Vince Carter in 2000.

6. 2011 Slam Dunk Contest

Blake Griffin brought out quite a prop while winning the 2011 contest. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Blake Griffin

1. Star presence: 8 out of 10. Blake Griffin joined Dwight Howard as the only true superstars to enter the dunk contest post-Vince Carter in 2000. Griffin's entry was the most anticipated in years. His in-game dunking exhibitions were legendary. He benefited completely from YouTube, Twitter and the viral-video phenomenon. He offered power at his size not seen since Dominique Wilkins. The contest was so hyped that details of his gimmicks began leaking out of the Staples Center in Los Angeles hours in advance of the actual show. He's going to do what? Jump over a car? What?

JaVale McGee, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka complemented Griffin in a great field. None of the three were established stars, but the 7-foot McGee brought next-level quirkiness, DeRozan got his feet wet in 2010 and Ibaka was an extremely athletic wild card.

[DeRozan throws down massive dunk over Mozgov]

2. "Wow" moment: 10 out of 10. Yes, Griffin's car jump stretched the boundaries of dunk-contest gimmickry past their breaking point. It was overly commercial, way over the top and technically not that much more impressive than leaping over someone seated in the paint. Disclaimers aside, it was totally riveting and outrageously ostentatious, and the alley-oop from Baron Davis was cleanly executed on the first try. Most important, it was unforgettable, immediately vaulting near the top of the list of indelible dunk-contest moments. (See the dunk at the 6:20 mark in the video below.)

3. Rivalry: 8 out of 10. The biggest knock on this contest is that Griffin's star power dwarfed that of his competitors and a fan vote was going to decide the outcome. There was always an itchy feeling that McGee, who advanced to the finals, wasn't going to be able to win a close contest; indeed, he was blown out in the fan vote despite an excellent showing. The lesson learned for future fan-driven contests is that there needs to be zero stars or at least two stars in the interest of fair play. Nevertheless, kudos to McGee for his performance. He put up a spirited fight and left many viewers feeling he got snubbed. (Others thought DeRozan was snubbed, too, highlighting the depth of this group.)

4. Variety: 9 out of 10. The variety was this contest's strongest suit. All four guys showed out. DeRozan went smoothly through the legs off a pass from the baseline on one attempt (35-second mark) and executed a gorgeous self alley-oop cupped reverse (2:20 mark). Ibaka took off from the free-throw line on one attempt (55-second mark) and retrieved a toy from the rim with his mouth (!) on another (2:59 mark). Not bad for two guys eliminated in the first round.

McGee presented multiple new dunks. He found a way to dunk two balls into two different baskets with a toss involved (1:25 mark), and he dunked three balls in one jump with the help of an alley-oop (3:28 mark). Amazing. His other dunks: a Michael Jordan-style wrist cuff, in which he nearly hit his head on the backboard (4:37 mark), and an off-the-backboard alley-oop while gazing down into the rim. He ran out of steam a bit at the end, but it was still a bounty of goodness.

Finally, Griffin was Wilkins-esque in his early offerings -- a two-handed 360 and a windmill off a catch -- before replicating Vince Carter's famous arm-through-the-rim dunk from 2000 (5:14 mark). He even held that one longer for an extended effect. The contest ended with the car dunk, earning Griffin his trophy.

[Griffin adjusts in mid-air on huge dunk over Hawes]

5. Legacy: 10 out of 10. No yawning here, as 2011 assaulted the senses in every possible way and, for that reason, generated polarizing results initially. Griffin is a big reason for the polarization: He has millions of fans and also a large group of detractors. Polarizing, in this case, is good, because he delivered on substantial hype, created a moment that will live for decades and forced you to watch. That he paid tribute to Carter and, less directly, Wilkins was a nice touch for dunk-contest diehards.

Total: 45 out of 50. This was clearly the second-best contest of the gimmick era, trailing only the 2008 version, which featured Dwight Howard's Superman act and Gerald Green's cupcake dunk. For some, ranking this contest at No. 6 overall might feel too high, but this one should age very well because of Griffin's presence, his signature moment, the high quality of the competition and McGee's imagination.