NBA All-Star Weekend: The Evolution Of The Slam Dunk

Dunk greats

Although Wilt Chamberlain gets the credit, no one quite knows when the first slam dunk took place, but one thing is for certain, it wasn’t James Naismith’s idea when he created basketball back in 1891.  Like most sports, basketball has gone through quite a number of changes since its inception, one of the most popular being the slam dunk.

Known originally as the dunk shot, this exquisite move is considered a typical field goal attempt, worth two points, but the player jumps up and powers the ball through the basket.  There’s no one way to do it, with many unique styles and combinations as we later found out. However, this move was not widely accepted by both the NCAA and the NBA early on.  In fact, it was banned all together in college from 1967 until 1976. 

But while the NCAA banned it, the NBA was embracing it.

It was Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn who coined the phrase “slam dunk” in the late 1960s and from there it stuck – just in time for a 6-foot-7 Long Island man to popularize it.

Julius “Doctor J” Erving started his career in 1971 with the Virginia Squires of the NBA’s rival league, the ABA (American Basketball Association).  From there, he made his way home thanks to a deal with the New York Nets and with him he brought an explosive style of basketball that included a hefty dose of dunks.  But unlike college dunking sensation Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who started a few years before, Erving wasn’t a once-trick pony; no he had plenty of moves in his repertoire.

New Jersey Nets

From the two-handed slam, to the one-armed jam, Doctor J made it look easy, with a certain sense of style and showmanship.  The man was doing stuff people had never seen, he could even slam it from behind the backboard.  But on January 5, 1983, he pulled out perhaps the most legendary dunk of all-time, jamming over Michael Cooper of the Lakers during a playoff game.  It was incredible, like nothing fans had ever seen, and it took several replays to dissect just what had happened.

While he might not have been the only one doing it, he certainly helped make the dunk the sport’s most recognizable move.  It became such a staple that in 1984 the NBA added the Slam Dunk Contest to its All-Star weekend festivities, with Erving narrowly losing to Larry Nance of the Phoenix Suns.  It wasn’t the first professional Slam Dunk Contest, however. The ABA had created theirs eight years earlier.

As time went on, players were naming their moves.  There was the Double Pump, the Tomahawk, the Windmill, the Under the Leg and many more, each made famous by at least one athlete in particular.  It was Darryl Dawkins who broke backboards with the Double Pump, Dominique Wilkins who Windmilled his way to Slam Dunk Contest victories and Isaiah Rider who introduced the whole world to the Under the Leg move, which he coined the "East Bay Funk Dunk."  But those all paled in comparison to what happened in 1987.

It was during that year, that a young, still relatively unknown kid from North Carolina made a name for himself, creating a dunk, an image and a brand – all in a matter of seconds.  As 6-foot-6 Michael Jordan approached the foul line during that year’s dunk contest, no one believed what he was about to do — dunk from the foul line. Well that’s just unheard of… 

With his tongue sticking out in front of a stunned Seattle crowd, Jordan pulled off the huge dunk and with it came the spotlight, a shoe empire and even the nickname “His Airness”.  It launched an NBA Jam-like dunk fest in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Once Jordan became old news, it was on to bigger and better and the torch was soon passed to Vince Carter.  Carter was a slam dunk sensation in 2000, winning the dunk contest with several rarely seen slams, including the 360-Windmill and the “Elbow in the Rim” dunk.  Kids on the playground imitated him and professional players on the court tried to duplicate him, with little luck.

As Carter became old news, so did the dunk in general.  There weren’t too many new moves being thought out; nothing blowing people’s minds. It appeared as though the dunk was no longer able to grow – but then a new group came along.

Lead by the Dwight Howard’s, LeBron James’ and Blake Griffin’s of the world, the slam dunk and more importantly its contest, got a major overhaul. Thanks to props such as Superman capes, ball boys, to actual automobiles, dunking has found its resurgence simply by taking what players wished they could do as a child on their local court and applying it to a much larger scale.

The slam dunk is still relatively young in the grand scheme of the sport, however in almost 40 years in the NBA it’s gone through some diverse changes and makeovers, thanks to new players, new moves and even new props.  It spawned awesome nicknames, fast-selling shoes and one hell of a competition during All-Star Game weekend – not too bad if you ask us.  But what do the next 40 years hold?

Ed Miller is a contributor for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillyEdMiller or “like” CraveOnline Sports on Facebook.

Photo Credit: Getty