HOUSTON — The Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, the main event of All-Star Saturday Night, is just hours away, and the anticipation is building. Six dunkers — three from the Eastern Conference, three from the West — will vie for this year's dunk contest crown in a field that includes two former champions, one undersized third-year dynamo, one rim-rattling second-year monster, a world-renowned dunk competition legend and a rookie whom said legend called "the most talented" participant of the six.
I spoke with that rookie, Terrence Ross of the Toronto Raptors, about his plans for the competition earlier this week. I spoke with the contest's small fry, the Los Angeles Clippers' Eric Bledsoe, on Friday afternoon for a standalone piece (stay tuned for that). What follows, in brief, are some thoughts on the competition offered by three of the remaining four competitors during a Friday media availability session in advance of tonight's contest.
Absent, sadly, is defending champion and Utah Jazz forward Jeremy Evans, because I didn't get a chance to get a minute with him before the end the All-Star Saturday Night media session. Evans said he hasn't gotten the respect a reigning title-holder should receive; while this is true in my case, I suspect I will be writing much more about his dunking prowess if he follows through on his promise to make a statement and win tonight.
That caveat in place, let's hear from Indiana Pacers swingman Gerald Green, New York Knicks wing James White and Denver Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried.
Gerald Green made his mark in the NBA by winning the 2007 Slam Dunk Contest while a member of the Boston Celtics, soaring over the competition — and, ultimately, a press table — en route to hoisting the hardware. After being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Green returned to defend his crown the following year and pulled off two classic dunks — a through-the-legs slam in just his socks and the famed "cupcake dunk" — but wound up losing the competition to Dwight Howard.
Now with the Indiana Pacers and returning for what he says will be his final dunk contest in his hometown of Houston, Green explained that while some fans might have loved the dunks he pulled out in '08 (and agreed about other people not "getting" them), he doesn't view the five-year anniversary of his runner-up finish as an occasion for any sort of throwback or homage.
"I think I want to do something different. I want to try to do something that … obviously, you know, I think this is going to be my last dunk contest, so I want to do something that everybody will remember," Green said Friday. "A lot of people remember the cupcake, but I remember it really didn't get a good score. That's what I remember about it. I want to try to do something that's a little better than that."
And, while he wouldn't reveal details, he said Friday he was hard at work on developing that something.
"I got this one dunk that — hopefully, if I could complete it [in practice on Friday] afternoon — this could be one of the greatest dunks of all time," Green said. "So we'll see how everything goes, and hopefully I can piece it together and be able to complete it by Saturday."
(Not to get our hopes up too high or anything.)
Win, lose or draw, though, Green intends to show out in what he's said will likely be his final competition, because that's the way he remembers the great participants of the past doing it.
"… Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan — those guys weren't worried about if they didn't win the dunk contest; obviously, they were competitors, but they were doing it for the fans," Green said. "And for me, man, that's what it's about. I'm back at home — I think if it had been any other place, I probably wouldn't do this again. But just because it's going back home, and I get to do this in front of the fans that I grew up with … I mean, why not?"
A lot of people have touted James White's reputation as one of the great contest dunkers of all time in the run-up to Saturday night, and he hasn't exactly been dissuading them from doing so — flat-out saying that he's got five dunks guaranteed to get 50s from any panel of judges at the ready at all times speaks to a certain level of confidence. And while the 30-year-old White's overall ups might have diminished just a tad from his younger days, his sense of self-assuredness hasn't.
"When you were a 10, at the top of your leaping ability, what are you now?" a reporter asked.
"I'd say I'm a solid 8, 8 1/2," White said. "But I think that's good enough."
Good enough to win, White expects, and good enough to win without practicing.
"We had a practice [Thursday] and I didn't do anything. I just left," White said. "I just went, came in, shook hands, kissed babies and rolled out."
The reasoning? At age 30, with every high flight taking a little longer to recover from these days, White doesn't want to expend any energy or waste any jumps he doesn't have to.
"You gotta save them, man," he said with a laugh. "I just thought I'd get some good stretches in. I've got to do too much to warm up to it. But I got it, though. I know I can do it."
Spoken like a competition veteran who, in his own words, "has LeBron stats in dunk contests." Confidence is a beautiful thing.
I'm just going to assume that Kenneth Faried is a big "Calvin and Hobbes" fan, for two reasons. One, because I think the Denver Nuggets power forward is pretty awesome, and it seems to me that a pretty awesome person would like "Calvin and Hobbes" a bunch. The other reason? His comments to reporters during Friday's Rising Stars Challenge media session about the Slam Dunk Contest suggested he's very familiar with young Calvin's philosophy on lowering people's expectations.
So what can we look forward to on Saturday night, Kenneth?
"Nothing," he said. "Maybe a layup here and there."
Oh. Well, that's a bummer.
"Oh, no, wait, it's a dunk contest. Excuse me. A dunk contest," he said with a smile. "I don't know … maybe a two-hand power dunk. A behind-the-back dunk. Like, turning 180 and see what happens."
On one hand, "turning 180 and see what happens" seems like kind of a loosely defined plan. On the other, as we saw during his MVP performance in Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge — and especially in the dunk-filled closing minutes of Team Chuck's win — he seems pretty good at making something awesome happen with relatively little advance preparation. (And, as he said after the late-game dunking exhibition, "That was just a preview [...] That's nothing compared to what I'm going to do tomorrow.")
Then again, Faried's dunks on Saturday might not be quite so spontaneous. Unlike his fellow participants, who've largely seemed uninterested in deploying props in their dunks, Faried seemed open to making use of them.
"I like the props, because it does show a little bit of how creative you are," he said.
Or maybe it's just that he's aware that choosing to go the other way can have consequences.
"Let's say I go down and do a windmill, and somebody else goes down and does a windmill with props involved," he asked. "Which one are you going to like more?"
I guess it depends on the props. Like, if someone is jumping over a literal windmill from a miniature golf course while doing a windmill dunk, then yeah, that sounds pretty rad. But if he's, say, dressed like the Little Dutch Boy in an homage to the famed windmills of the Netherlands, then ... well, actually, no, that'd be pretty rad, too. I guess Kenneth Faried is right. Eschew props at your own peril, dunkers.