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How The Best NBA Dunk Contest Ever Made Two Cranky Adults Feel Like Little Kids Again

Verizon Slam Dunk Contest 2016, Dikembe Mutombo, Zach LaVine,
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Our Jack Winter and Spencer Lund are in Toronto for NBA All-Star Weekend. Here, they discuss last night’s remarkable Slam Dunk Contest.

Jack: If you were really paying attention, the best Slam Dunk Contest ever shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Aaron Gordon’s first dunk on an absolutely electric All-Star Saturday night wasn’t anything like his following five. The judges granted him a 45 for a relatively routine near-360 Eastbay, and the Air Canada Centre crowd was merely impressed as opposed to outright amazed.

But seeing how easily the Orlando Magic forward completed the insanely difficult slam – not to mention hearing his mic’d-up audible confidence immediately afterward – should have been enough for the millions watching across the globe to know he’d have a shot at taking the dunking crown.

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So, why were they skeptical? Because Zach LaVine, as he proved with every breathtaking jam of his own to follow, might be the best aerial artist this game has ever seen.

On Saturday, though, I’ll contend he wasn’t even the best dunker in Toronto. There wasn’t a loser here, but Gordon should have been the one holding that trophy at mid-court and randomly addressing the crowd with bug eyes last night.

Spencer: Dunk contests bore me to death. I’m an adult, so I’ve witnessed more dunks in my life than bottles of whiskey consumed and I’m definitely the cranky person you hate on the internet who is preprogrammed — due to age and inclination — to loathe almost anything deemed “viral.” Even that words bugs me. Except, LaVine makes the most difficult slams I’ve ever seen look like a day kicking it with his friends at the park, where the locals are smoking Ls and marveling at the scrawny kid who is kissing the sky.

I told Jack this last night and I’m pretty sure he shot me an annoyed expression because it was a baseball simile from the 1950s: LaVine makes everything look so effortless. It’s like those grainy black and white clips of Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio racing around the outfield to snag a fly ball and you think he’s just strolling to the fridge to grab a beer.

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What I’m trying to say is this: LaVine makes the extraordinary seem doable, and there’s no better place to start than his triumvirate of jumps near the free throw line. That’s just not even fair, and I loved Gordon’s dunks as much as anyone.

Jack: That near free throw line distinction is very important, though. Literally every charity-stripe slam ever performed in the Dunk Contest hasn’t actually been from behind it. Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, and the rest all bisected that line with their leaping foot as they took off for 15 mesmerizing feet of flight.

LaVine was no different on his effortless lob from Andre Miller or similarly easy soaring windmill. But take a look at his lift-point for that contest-winning Eastbay “from the free throw line.”

Incredible dunk, by the way. Jaw-dropping. I literally leapt from my chair. But it wasn’t from the free throw line, and I contend it wasn’t superior to the jam for which the judges confusingly awarded Gordon a 47.

Maybe that difference of opinion comes down to personal preference, though. Think about this: All six of Gordon’s dunks came off two feet, and all six of LaVine’s come off of one. Some prefer the grace of the latter, while some prefer the power of the former.

Count me among that second group.

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Spencer: It’s hard to say Gordon got robbed because LaVine was so good, but a cursory inspection of Twitter last night and then a couple hours later Sunday morning makes it seem like that’s the prevailing way people are framing the result.

Gordon’s “47” was bullsh*t. His brother had every right to smash his phone in anger, but it probably wasn’t necessary to then IG the smashed phone; too meta for my tastes — like a T.S. Eliot reference that’ll take an hour of Golden Bough skimming to track down.

Anyway, the best part of the dunk contest, at least for me, was how consistently they kept bringing it on every attempt after tying in the final round. ‘Nique and MJ had their showdown in ’88, but this was like a quadruple overtime version of that one. And, even though everyone was bitching at Shaq, including me, for failing to give LaVine a 10 on his second dunk of the first round, he was fair to penalize players for not connecting on their first attempts.

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Did you notice both LaVine and Gordon connected on their first tries after that? Shaq demanded more and we all reaped the rewards. I’m not a fan of his mumblecore analysis, but you gotta give the man props for this one.

Before I hand it back over to Jack, I have to tell you about his moment of prescience in press row. After Gordon sent Air Canada Centre into one of its first delirious moments of delight with — in my opinion — the best dunk of the night, everyone was saying it was over. But Jack thought there was still a way LaVine could come back. I’m paraphrasing here because who records their staff writer, but the gist was, “He’s gonna have to do a windmill from the free throw line.”

Welp.

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Jack: My incredible and embarrassing omniscience when it comes to the Dunk Contest is exactly why I’m right about Gordon! Obviously. To be clear, I’m not in the overzealous camp who believes Gordon was “robbed.” As LaVine so beautifully put with an impromptu speech to Air Canada Centre after he was named dunk king for a second straight year, “We should damn near share the trophy.”

Indeed. Everybody watching won last night, and both LaVine and Gordon did, too – even if the event’s format dictated that a “real” winner had to be chosen.

Speaking of the viewers, I couldn’t help but be perplexed at giddy reactions of the in-house crowd to announced perfect scores. The buzz inside ACC was its loudest not after Gordon and LaVine completed dunk after dunk the contest had never seen before, but immediately following the judges awarding them 50s.

Why?

Shouldn’t watching Gordon clear a mascot, put the ball under his legs, and throw down a lefty, over-head jam elicit a more visceral response than watching O’Neal and other old-timers grade what you already knew might have been the best dunk ever? The same can be said for any of LaVine’s free-throw line leaps, his now-underrated behind-the-back reverse to tip things off, or Gordon’s hoverboard-aided, one-handed 360 windmill.

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I posed that very question to Spencer as the mayhem ensued, and again hours later after we’d had time – which still wasn’t enough, by the way – to process what we were lucky enough to witness first-hand.

“You’ve seen at least 15 of these and watched a few in-house,” he said. “Most of the people there were kids, or might as well have been because they were watching their first Dunk Contest. Perfect scores heighten the drama.”

Spencer’s sage explanation was right, obviously, but allowed me to realize something else far more important – and certainly something indicative of this night’s instant-classic significance, too.

As did countless other normally reserved media members sitting on media row, I reacted to Gordon and LaVine’s epic show like no one could see me. Like I did in 2008 when Dwight Howard made the impossible otherwise, and like I did 16 years ago when Vince Carter single-handedly brought the dunk contest back from its dormancy. Like I was a kid again, basically.

There’s no higher compliment to be paid to Gordon and LaVine than that one. And watching literally everyone in attendance hark back to days of youth, it’s clear I’m not the only one who felt that way, either.

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