Kenny Smith Still Gets A Thrill Out Of Calling The Dunk Contest

That 2000 NBA Dunk Contest revived the event after a two-year hiatus, as Vince Carter put forth a performance that is still talked about to this day. It was a superstar-making performance for Carter, who solidified himself as a household name thanks to five dunks in Oakland on a Saturday night, but he wasn’t the only former North Carolina Tar Heel who became synonymous with the Dunk Contest that night.

Kenny Smith joined Marv Albert and Mike Fratello on Dunk Contest commentary for the first time in 2000, and his calls — “LET’S GO HOME” after the first dunk and “IT’S OVAH!” after Carter’s windmill — became iconic. As Smith gets prepared for the 2024 edition of the Dunk Contest, where he’ll again join Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller on commentary on TNT (and expand that role to all of Saturday night’s events, starting at 8 p.m. ET), he still gets a kick out of how often he still gets people referencing that very first one.

“People play that like it was yesterday,” Smith told Dime over the phone. “Like, really that was over 20 years ago. The guy’s retired and it still gets replayed. I think it’s because of the urgency in it and the authentic reaction both of us and everyone had in it. Because the one thing that I’ve always been when I do a Dunk Contest or I do a Three-Point, I’m a fan first. You know, I was a fan of basketball before I was good at it. So I just become a fan for those 15 to 20 minutes. And I talk like a fan but at the same time, I talk like a fan who has insight and inside information. So I can get excited. I could be sarcastic or I could be whatever. But Vince Carter, that moment I think solidified me even, as if he’s not calling the dunk contest, it’s not really official.”

Smith truly has become the soundtrack to the Dunk Contest, providing commentary that’s etched into our minds right alongside the dunks we can’t forget. That said, for every iconic dunk and great contest, there are plenty of brutal ones, and for Smith, calling those is where he thinks his job becomes even more vital to keeping people who are watching engaged.

“I think of Darrell Armstrong, Birdman. Guys who missed [a lot],” Smith recalled of the worst contests he’s seen. “But that’s part of what I do. Like, my job is to find the humor in that. And so I can take a poor performance and I can make it entertaining by what I’m saying. And that comes in as the broadcaster. If I don’t do that, then I’ve done something wrong.”

For a long time, the Dunk Contest was all about innovation and doing dunks never seen before. But as we approach the 2024 Contest, Smith wants to emphasize that “new” doesn’t necessarily mean better, especially if it means you can’t execute. For Smith, mastery of a great dunk is more important than inventing something new, and it’s something he thinks too many guys forget when they emphasize using props or coming up with something new.

“I don’t think you have to come up with anything new; I think you have to be an expert at what you do,” Smith said. “That’s the confusion that some of the guys come in, they want to do something new. But if you’re mastering the windmill and you’re 10 feet in the air, it’s still gonna look artistic. And it’s gonna be unbelievably appealing to the eye. So you just have to master it. So if you’re windmilling, it should windmill. It should go from top to bottom and back up. You can’t cheat the dunk. So what happens is when you cheat it, then it’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve seen that before.’ But when you do it and you masterfully take off and do it, it doesn’t matter. If you jump from the free throw line, you’re jumping from the free throw line. [Laughs]. We’re gonna be excited.”

When someone can build on the foundation of great dunks we’ve seen before, execute, and add their own flair? That’s when you get something magical like the 2016 and 2020 Contests, where we saw dunks we’ve never seen and guys pay homage to great dunks of the past with their own twist. This year we’ll see Mac McClung defend his title against Knicks two-way player Jacob Toppin (brother of 2022 champ Obi), Heat rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr., and Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown.

Brown will be the Dunk Contest’s first active All-Star participant in seven years, and Smith hopes we can see that more going forward. Now we mostly see All-Stars on Saturday night in the Skills Challenge of Three-Point Contest, but as Smith explains, the Dunk Contest is “the only event that you could be the Emperor with no clothes on,” and that has kept top stars away. Brown can shake that up with a strong showing and maybe bring bigger names back to the Contest, but for the guys that do compete, it’s a chance to make their name on a national scale.

Plenty have done that over the years, but maybe none more successfully than Smith himself. As he gets set to call it once again, 25 years later, he can’t help but be excited for what could be.

“I know the Three-Point Contest, it has more consistency,” Smith said. “But the Dunk Contest, when it’s at its best, there’s nothing better.”