Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
One of the most interesting trends over the last few years is the downfall of the dunk contest. This is particularly interesting because for the most part--a few Vince Carter, J-Rich dunks aside--the contest actually does get more technically involved and more creative every year. But people hate it.
What's the problem? I don't know, but I have some ideas. Part of it, obviously, is that the weight of expectations has to grow every year and there's no real way to do it. They don't make people more athletic than primetime Vince Carter, or Dominique Wilkens, so the result is an endless series of prop dunks and what is probably best referred to as foreplay. This gives the proceedings an aspect not unlike those Larry Bird, Michael Jordan McDonald's commercials where an endless series of impossible challenges obscures the real skills of the players involved.
Because this isn't a commercial, sometimes it feels like the strength, finesse, and athleticism of the players is obscured by bounces off any possible fixture, jumping over an endless series of teammates, children and school-busses. This can lead to a misappropriation of resources in a big way. Using Mark Eaton, career average of 3.5 block a game, in your dunk attempt is cool. Having him sit in a chair is less cool.
Probably a big part of the problem is there's no way you can sit there expecting someone to do something completely amazing and not be disappointed a little bit when, whatever else is true about that something, it's still just a dunk against no defense.
But the rest of the problem is, I think, how slowly professional sports processes are to react to changes in the culture.
The truth is, you'd rather see Kevin Durant in the dunk contest than Terence Ross, even if Ross is a much better dunker. You'd rather see LeBron James or even see how much Vince Carter has left for one more time than Jeremy Evans. No matter how good James White is at dunking, and you can get geeked on youtube videos all you want, why would anyone think the difference between why we watch sports and why we watch skills competition would be so great?
You want to see the best do what they do, and that's not the same thing as watching someone who's the best at the thing they're doing. None of this year's dunk contest participants would be at the All-Star game for other reasons and that matters. The excitement of MJ and Wilkens going head to head was just as much about who they are as it was about what they were doing, and that matters.
Just as important an issue is the stifling rules. Watching someone fail and fail to complete a dunk, watching round after round, is like watching the spelling bee.
What if it were LeBron, Durant, and Griffin and you let them figure it out themselves? One after another, no rounds, no time limits, just throwing down a bunch of dunks for fifteen minutes or so. Afterwards, you'd decide by audience acclamation. Wouldn't that be more interesting?
Maybe half a decade ago, I saw a Pro Bowl skills competition between Peyton Manning and Michael Vick. They were to throw the ball at targets while standing, and then while running. The competition was completely idiotic, and highlighted the problem with suits trying to come up with what people want to see.
Of course Peyton dusted Michael in both contests. Vick is better at RUNNING not throwing while running. There isn't a thing involving throwing the ball that Peyton can't do better than Vick, and that would be obvious from a moment's reflection. But it did come closer to what an audience would like to see than basically anything I've seen since. You d o want to see the guys with a lot of prestige doing their thing. How bout seeing if Peyton or Joe Flacco or Jay Cutler could throw it farther? How bout seeing if Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald can grab more passes in two minutes, homerun derby style?
Forget this three-point contest. Let 'em shoot 50, however they want. Instead of a timed obstacle course for a skills contest, what abut a basic swag kind of thing? Like the dunk contest, but it's scored based on style, passing and trick-shooting. Why not? Why not have Chris Paul throw a crazy, between-the-legs bounce pass for a Blake Griffin dunk, then a behind the back for a Jamal Crawford three and then a bounce pass layup?
Part of the answer is that today's athletes don't tend to enjoy that kind of thing. When all exposure is over-exposure, all that can happen for LeBron James in a dunk contest is that he either wins, which everyone expects, or loses and loses face. If he were interested in losing face, he'd have stayed with Cleveland.
But these are competitive guys. Some of them must like to go head to head, some of them must want to take that risk to show that they're the best. Why not? Why not give the people what they want?