You probably couldn't get Lloyd's of London to write a whole lot of long-term insurance on the American Basketball Association these days, but if the affair in Denver last week called the Ninth Annual ABA All-Star Game was a dying man's last gasp, it came through as some very loud whoops and hollers. Contributing to the unfunereal gaiety were Charlie (Silver Fox) Rich and the Rhinestone Cowboy himself, Glen Campbell, imported by the host Nuggets to hype the gate with a two-hour pregame concert. Also, the game itself was a cut or two above normal All-Star fare. Acknowledging that the shrunken seven-team league could not be divided into two equal parts, the format pitted the front-running Nuggets against the best of the rest, and it turned out to be a very good game, won by the Nuggets 144-138. But beyond all that, those red, white and blue ball crazies came up with the greatest halftime invention since the rest room: the First Annual Slam-Dunk Contest.
One edge the ABA holds over the rival NBA is the planet's richest stable of slam-dunk artists, and for the occasion of this first ever slam-dunk competition, the league wheeled out five of its best. The first three contestants were Artis Gil-more, the Kentucky giant, and wispy George Gervin and long Larry Kenon, both of San Antonio. Those three could dunk, all right, but everybody knew that the contest would probably wind up as a shattering show-down between New York's Julius Erving, M.D. (Mr. Dunk) and Denver's amazing flying boy David Thompson, Ph.D., who has recently been rewriting the law of gravity.
Dunk-shot artists can fly. They defy physics. In a game shortly before the All-Star break, Thompson was standing at the bottom of the dotted half of the foul circle—seven feet from the basket—with two defenders boxing him away from the offensive boards. When a missed shot came off the front of the rim, Thompson rose his normal nine feet off the floor and in one smooth motion speared the ball with his right hand, sent it screaming down through the rim and returned to earth at the same spot from which he took off. Isaac Newton, had he been at court-side, would have said what the 15,021 fans and sportswriters said: impossible. Yet the Rocky Mountain News documented the historic event with an indisputable sequence of photographs.
The slam dunk has a strange effect on basketball people. They yell and they scream. They wail. They shake their heads and slap palms. They tear at each other's clothes. Among the true believers the prospect of seeing five super dunkers practice their sublime art was at least as enthralling as the game itself.
February 9, 1976
"David's had butterflies all week," reported Thompson's roommate, Monte Towe. "We've been trying to help him, tell him which of his dunks are the best."
"I'll just be David," said the rookie levitationist.
Erving had spent 15 minutes in the locker room before the game, pantomiming his act, moving an imaginary ball around from behind his back and over his head in various hooks and pumps.
Rumors in McNichols Sports Arena were that Thompson would attempt his fabled "cradle the baby" dunk, in which he cradles the ball in the crook of his left elbow, goes high over the rim and punches the ball smartly through with his right fist. Erving, it was whispered, was going to try to dunk from a standing start at the foul line—a distance of 15 feet—by rocking his body back and forth until he achieved take-off momentum. That really is impossible, but Erving had made a $1,500 bet with Denver Assistant Coach Doug Moe that with a running start he could dunk from the foul line, a mean enough feat.
Diplomatically, Erving had asked the New York Nets' Kevin Loughery, who coached the All-Stars, if maybe they shouldn't get a white player into the competition. "Well," said Loughery, "what white players know how to dunk?"
"Um," said Erving.
The rules required five dunks: two compulsory moves—one from underneath the basket, the other from the bottom of the foul circle—and three freestyle—one from the left, one from the right and one from the baseline. A four-man panel graded each dunk as if Dr. J et al. were so many figure skaters. Two extra backboards and rims were ready "in case somebody brings one down," and all the nondunking Nuggets and All-Stars were attentive when the five contestants were introduced. "That is a serious crew," said Kentucky's Maurice Lucas as Gilmore got ready to start the earth trembling.
Flamboyance is not Gilmore's style. "When I dunk, I try to make the ball stick to the floor," he says. With one ball in each hand, Gilmore sent himself up from underneath. Wham! Slam! The crowd went ohhh, as if it had just witnessed a terrible accident. The Nugget PA announcer cautioned the photographers who were lying on their backs underneath the basket: "Please back off. The Denver Nuggets fear for your lives." One of Gilmore's dunks, a ferocious left hook, was slightly off-center, and vibrated rapidly between the sides of the rim. "Yeah!" yelled Lucas. "A rub-in!"
Next came Gervin, called the Iceman. The 6'7" guard—the only one in the contest—looked shaken after Gilmore's performance. He approached the basket with two balls in his hands, looked at the balls and at the hoop and then sheepishly rolled one of the balls away. "I know I can throw one through," he said, "but I ain't gonna try something I know I can't do. Might get hurt." One of Gervin's dunks was the "coiled snake," his whole right arm wrapped around the ball, uncoiling like a snake with the ball rolling down his arm and fingers. Kenon then turned in a "rim shaker" and a flying baseline assault, but like Gervin he missed one dunk and was out of the running.
The Denver fans had seen Thompson work plenty of magic in the half season he had been there, and they wanted more from him now. The dunkers were being judged on artistry, innovativeness, body flow and crowd reaction, and Thompson naturally had 100% in the last department. For his compulsories, he slammed one ball with two hands backward from a standing start under the basket and made a high running windmill from the left baseline. Then he drove from the right and brought the ball from his waist, back behind his head, slamming it down so hard that the force of the shot seemed to propel people from their seats.
Suddenly Dr. J looked worried and started loosening up. Then David zoomed in from the left and tried a bank dunk—he actually attempted to dunk the ball off the glass, but missed. His finale was a spectacular 360-degree midair miracle performed with Baryshnikovian perfection. The players leaped to their feet. "He is a mile high," shouted St. Louis' Marvin Barnes. "No, we're a mile high," said Lucas, remembering what city they were in. "He's two miles high." While everyone was screaming, the low-keyed Gilmore looked at his shoes and muttered, "Oh, no, Doc's in trouble."
Doc was not in trouble. When it was his turn, the rest of the players moved onto the court and sat cross-legged on the floor. The Doc coolly walked up to the basket with two balls and jammed them both backward behind his head. Wham! His compulsories done, he stood at the foul line, staring at the basket, then turned dramatically to pace off 10 long strides to the top of the foul circle at the other end of the court. He held the ball like a marble in his long fingers, took two quick steps and three antelope strides and he was airborne. His arm started a swift and powerful windmill, releasing the ball like a speeding particle from a cyclotron. The All-Stars were moaning. Only primitive, guttural sounds could be heard. "Hey, the Doc is the best ever," yelled Moe, who was happy because Erving had taken off two inches inside the foul line. "He moves like liquid Prell."
Dan Issel, Denver's center and one of the white players not invited to dunk, said, "Hey, this is nothing. Where are all the white guys? At the final buzzer of the game I'm going to be doing a trapeze act."
Erving was the unanimous winner. First runner-up Thompson was a little sorry he hadn't tried the "baby cradle." "Maybe I should have," he said, "but there's a 50-50 chance I might have missed it. And besides, it's dangerous."
The Doctor said his greatest dunking days were behind him ("My knees are only 75% of what they used to be"), but he didn't apologize for not trying the standing-rocking foul-line dunk. "There ain't enough rocking in the world for that," he said, adding that a great dunk shot was a time suspension, "an opportunity in a team sport for an individual to express himself in a memorable way. If you fly or hang in the air so long in a way that only you can do, it's a great rush. Like that commercial, 'There's nobody else exactly like you.' Well, for just a split second I'm just that, and I don't think there's anybody who doesn't know it."
Except, perhaps, Issel, who performed his trapeze act as promised: a soaring dunk of an offensive rebound, the fifth "white dunk" of the game. That gave the Nuggets an eight-point lead with 1:17 left, and they held on for the win. Afterward Issel made an official announcement: "I hope that dunk impressed the slam-dunk selection committee enough so that I might be invited to compete for the designated dunker title next year. I want...the Doctor."