When the six competitors in the 2013 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend were announced last Thursday, the lion's share of NBA fans' attention went to the presence of Indiana Pacers wing Gerald Green, who won the 2007 competition and brought us the iconic "Birthday Cake" dunk the following year, and New York Knicks swingman James White, who's built a reputation as arguably the best dunker in the world over the past decade. Compared to Green and White, the third member of the Eastern Conference's dunk team — Toronto Raptors rookie Terrence Ross — has kind of flown under the radar, despite authoring some of this NBA season's finest in-game throwdowns. And apparently, that's just the way the 22-year-old shooting guard likes it.
BDL caught up with Ross via telephone on Tuesday before the Raptors' 109-108 win over the Denver Nuggets at the Air Canada Centre to talk about his preparation for Saturday night's dunk contest, unrealistic expectations, the element of surprise, "raw dunking type of experiences" and more.
First thing's first: How does it happen? There had been that social media campaign — the #LetRossDunk movement that fans and commentators had been talking about — but who actually first reaches out to you and says, "Would you like to be a part of the contest?" How does that process go?
Actually, my agent was the first person to let me know. He asked me if I'd be interested in doing it. I guess people from the NBA had called him and asked if I wanted to be a participant, and I was like, "Of course."
How long ago did that happen?
About a week ago.
OK, so you only have about a week to get things together — how do you go about figuring out what you want to do? I know you've got a couple of teammates who have participated in the Dunk Contest in the past in Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan; I know you're a University of Washington guy like Nate Robinson, who's been in it before and won it three times. Do you start reaching out to people for advice and suggestions?
DeMar and Rudy have been the main ones helping me out. They've been giving me ideas on what to do and what to expect. They've been the two that have been helping me for the most part.
What kind of advice have they been giving you?
Just certain dunks to do, how to do them — certain things I can put my own twist on, and things like that.
I know DeMar in the past has been pretty vocal about the way the Dunk Contest has gone with people tending to do more stuff with props and gimmicks and stuff like that, because he got kind of bit by that while he was doing some pretty amazing raw dunking. When you look at what you want to do in the contest, do you view that as two separate roads, and if so, which one do you see yourself wanting to take?
I prefer without props, because it kind of lets you see the athleticism of a dunker — rather than paying attention to something else that he's going to do, you're actually paying attention to how he's doing a certain dunk.
Along those lines, what's your take on the other dunkers in this year's competition? There are a couple of guys that we've seen in the past, like Gerald Green and James White, whose dunks in past competitions have tended more toward showcasing athleticism, and of course you've also got athletic freaks like Kenneth Faried, Eric Bledsoe and Jeremy Evans, who are also really talented in that regard. Are you expecting everyone to go primarily with that straight-up raw dunking? Are you expecting to see some props and gimmicks? What are you expecting to see, and what are you hoping to see, in the competition?
I mean, I don't know. I don't really know what other guys are going to do, but I'm hoping to see a lot of the raw dunking type of experience. I know that what I'm going for, anyway.
Circling back a little bit to the way you've been talking with Rudy and DeMar, I'm sure you've also been hearing from tons of other people, whether it's fans on Twitter or people you run into the street, with all kinds of suggestions on what you should do. Is any of that ever helpful, or is that just a lot of noise that you have to filter through? Can you take anything away from that stuff?
No, some of it's helpful. But at the same time, you've got to kind of stick to what you know you can do. Some of the stuff fans and certain people say are kind of unrealistic, but at the same time, you can put your own little twist on things, so some of it can be helpful.
In terms of the "unrealistic" stuff, what's the most ridiculous thing that someone's suggested you do so far?
Go through the legs twice and put your arm in the rim.
Wow. OK. When someone says that to you, are you like, "I appreciate the suggestion and the estimation of my athleticism, but that's … tough?" Do you explain it to them, or do you just say thanks and keep it moving?
I kind of just tell them when things are way too unrealistic. Like, certain things, you have to tell people, "No, that's just impossible," but sometimes, you have to just entertain it.
I read an interview with our friend Holly MacKenzie where you told her you've been rewatching old dunk contests going back 30 years to get ready. What are you looking for when you do that?
I'm looking, like … I don't know, certain things that guys did that people might have forgotten about. You know, like an old dunk that really caught people's attention or a dunk that really paved the way for people to go ahead and do their own dunks. Just a combination of different things.
We've seen guys in the past that have tried to go throwback with stuff like bringing back free-throw line dunks or putting on throwback jerseys of past dunkers and things like that, but what you're talking about sounds different — are you trying to find a particular style that people haven't seen in a while? When you talk about "a combination of different things," what goes into that combination?
It really helps when you find a dunker from the past that you can kind of relate to, and that kind of takes the same style that you have. So I think with me, I'm just trying to find someone that's been in the Dunk Contest that's a similar dunker to me, so I can kind of get an idea of how they approached things and what dunks they did.
As you've gone back through, who have you found that you can relate to? Who has seemed similar to you when you've got back and watched?
I think probably Josh Smith and … I'm trying to think of another one. But definitely Josh Smith, because he jumps off one foot a lot. I don't know … there are some other dunkers I've definitely been looking at.
After the announcement gets made, a lot of people find themselves going to YouTube to try to check out what the different dunkers have done before. Some fans have made highlight reels of your dunks and the Raptors just released a "dunk resume" clip of some of your best slams this year, and there are also some things from your past, like the dunk-off you had with Lamar Hurd a couple of years back — people can go and see some dunks that you've done in the past. Does that present any sort of difficulties when you're trying to come up with new ideas or things that you think might work well? Is the thought ever running through your head that, "Oh, someone might have seen me do this?"
Well, I don't have too many videos doing trick dunks, and I think it's going to help me in the long run, because I think some people will be surprised.
So could that be a downside for someone like James White or Gerald Green, whose trick dunks more people have seen before? Do you think there's any kind of element-of-surprise advantage?
Yeah, that's what I'm looking for. Hopefully, they — I mean, I don't know. It's hard to say, because you never know what them guys are capable of. I really don't know what to expect from them, because people could have an idea of what they think [the other competitors] are going to do, but at the same time, those guys are unpredictable.
Whereas you're on the flip side of that.
Yeah, I think that's a big thing for me. I mean, people kind of have an idea of what they think that [the other competitors] are going to do, so I think it's going to be a little harder for them to showcase something different. But for me, I don't think too many people know what I'm capable of.
Along those lines: You see other people talking, because I'm sure it must be hard to avoid someone like White going out last week and saying he knows he's got five dunks in his back pocket that can get 50s right off the bat. When you see that kind of talk, does that in any way register with you? Do you just say, "OK, let's see them, and I've got confidence in what I got, and we'll go from there?"
I mean, I have confidence, but I think the biggest thing is just to keep it under wraps until people actually see it.
Oh, so you're not going to tell me what you're doing off the bat?
What constitutes a successful All-Star Weekend for you, and what constitutes a disappointment? Is it just about winning the competition or losing it, or are there other shades in there?
Really, it's just being there. There's a lot of players in this league that can all do a lot of different dunks, and so many other players that are capable of being in the Dunk Contest, so just being in this select group means it's already a success for me.
About "being there" — there are so many other things going on, with the Rising Stars game, the practices, the workouts, the Hall of Famers being around, etc. What are you looking forward to outside of your own competition? Is there anybody in particular that you want to try to talk to or experience in all the other stuff?
I'm just looking to have fun. I mean, this is my first time going to an All-Star Game, so I'm not sure what else to look forward to.
One last question, and it's about planning. There's the entry rounds, the preliminary first couple of dunks you have to do. You have to be ready to do as many as five or six different dunks, but you also know that if you don't really nail it down with those first two, you might not get the chance to go on to the next round. When you're planning this, are you thinking, "I've got to keep something in the back pocket?" Or are you thinking, "I've got to come out with my best two right away and try to blow people away?"
I'm still debating on it, because I feel like I should … I don't know. I'm just going to have think about it, and just space it out, and really just kind of put them kind of somewhere in the middle.
NOTE: At the end of my chat with Ross, I asked him if there was anything else he'd like to make sure the readers knew about him before heading into this weekend's competition; he declined, saying he was pretty sure they'd already heard everything. Perhaps he was just being modest — later Tuesday, NBA.com's Jeff Caplan reported that Ross will be taking part in a campaign aimed at raising money to combat cancer, and that he'll "donate $2,000 to 'Dunk Cancer' for every round he advances in the three-round slam-dunk competition" on Saturday night. Y'know, in case you needed another reason to root for the rookie underdog.