Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dunk Contest, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)

The All-Star Dunk Contest is a marquee event, one of the ways that each All-Star Break defines itself. It has expanded legends; it has made careers. It has stamped itself on the history of professional basketball. If you've got your ear to the ground, by this point you've probably heard the news that the latest one sucked. That the whole event is broken, even. Now, I don't countenance the notion, no matter how many qualifiers you put on it, that we have exhausted all possible, or even likely, dunks. But the old grey mare, she ain't what she used to be.

The legend of the dunk contest has been built upon a series of performances whose combinations of leaping ability and skill have so exceeded our expectations as to open up, or at least render viable, new conceptual territory for the dunk and, by extension, for the play of basketball. But the development of two trends has fundamentally changed our collective relationship with the dunk and with it, the expectations we bring to the dunk contest.

First, and most simply, the NBA game has been played above the rim for a long time now, and what was once revolutionary is now commonplace. "When Isaiah Rider pulled off the through-the-legs 'East Bay Funk Dunk' in 1994, the entire arena exploded, and Charles Barkley called it the best dunk he'd ever seen. On Saturday, DeMar DeRozan executed a more difficult version of the same dunk and received a score of 42. The problem isn't that dunkers are worse -- it's that we've already seen most every kind of dunk that can be done." 1,2
1: I'm quoting this post by Eric Freeman in The Baseline. I happened across it when this post was in its fetal development, and its formulation of the relationship between in-game and contest dunking obviated everything I had already written on the subject, then took that as a springboard and made a beautiful conceptual jump that hadn't even occurred to me. If you haven't read it in its entirety, please do. Hats off, Mr. Freeman.
2: Dunking is sort of asymptotic-- cf. (with some disclaimers) this post. (To wit: In the name of clarity, I was objecting less to the concept of the asymptote than to its treatment as an absolute, rather than a statistical fit line with accompanying potential for outliers. And, of course, there is an aesthetic component to dunking which is totally irreducible to those terms, though if someone wants to graph it, I want to see.) In any case, the best of all possible jumpers only has so much hangtime before (s)he starts coming back down and has to get the ball into the rim, and that limits what it is physically possible to do.

More problematic is how the internet has made the literally pure dunker a viable phenomenon. Once, a venue for culturally relevant dissemination of dunking had to be earned through actual on-court performance. Now, anywhere there's a camera and a basket, a whole spectrum of guys from the D-League to the And1 tour to the local Y can, untethered by even time, soar. The dunk as spectacle has been developed no less than the dunk as tactic, and much faster. The last time a dunk contest dropped like a bomb was 2000, a full five years before the advent of YouTube; the whole modality of the internet was vastly different.

And as our expectations catch up with the abilities of contestants, we are commensurately less amazed by what we see. They are reduced to plumbing the depths of technical difficulty or to gimmickry. The first leads to lots of missed attempts; the second, while it can be entertaining and occasionally great, is a sort of lateral transposition away from basketball itself. Each in its own way sort of shits on the potential to redefine what can happen on a basketball court.

Look: the problem is not that there is an event which highlights the dunking abilities of NBA players. However jaded we may be, the dunk is still one of the most spectacular and exciting parts of the game, and All-Stars are some of the best dunkers in the world. The problem is the historicity of the event made explicit through the primacy of the dunk qua dunk-- if that's what you want, go YouTube "James White" or "Frederick Weis". The dunk contest needs to be fundamentally realigned, turned away from the past and towards the players themselves.

So, we make the dunk contest into a game of H.O.R.S.E. This would provide bottomless wells of entertainment and drama in trash talking and the attempt to match the best the competition can throw at you. It gets rid of the built-in advantage enjoyed by anyone under 6 feet, which I'm cool with3. It provides strong incentive to hit dunks the first try without losing incentive to make them difficult and creative. It destroys the viability of practicing a few tricky dunks to compensate for a lack in general ability. It will correlate better, if not perfectly, with the sort of body control and adaptability that make one successful at actually scoring on people. And, from the other end, it will never end in a 3-point contest between Durant and Rondo, which come on.

3: If you can get onto a modern NBA roster, you don't get morphological pity votes. Sorry.

Seriously, even handicapping for multiple takes and CGI gadzookery (which do undermine it quite a lot on the level of its actual "dunks"), that McDonald's commercial with LeBron and Dwight beat the entire All-Star weekend at its own game.

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