All-Star games, regardless of the professional sport they’re for, are solely for the fans. And as you might have guessed, sometimes it’s the skills competition that precedes the All-Star game that makes for the most memorable part of an All-Star event. For the NBA’s All-Star weekend, the standout skills competition event is none other than the Slam Dunk Contest.
Introduced by the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1976 — coincidentally the first year the slam dunk became a legal play in the college game — the Slam Dunk Contest didn’t become a competition at the NBA All-Star Game until 1984.
The format has changed numerous times over the years, but what hasn’t is its popularity when it comes to the NBA’s All-Star weekend. On that note, let’s take a look back at the 15 best NBA Slam Dunk Contests to date as we ready for the next one that’s set to occur in early February at the All-Star weekend in Chicago:
15. The First One (1976)
Even though it was the ABA, we have to tip our hat to the very first professional Slam Dunk Contest to take place in an all-star basketball game. Unlike today, when a separate day is dedicated to the skills portion of All-Star weekend, this first Slam Dunk Contest actually took place during halftime of the actual ABA All-Star game.
For the record, Julius Irving of the New York Nets won the contest thanks in part to a dunk he slammed down from the free-throw line. We imagine this was the best halftime show, like, ever.
14. The Second One (1984)
Though this was technically the second official Slam Dunk Contest, it was the first one hosted at an NBA All-Star event. Coincidentally, it was hosted in the same city as the first one at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, Denver.
Also fittingly, the event included the winner of the first Slam Dunk Contest, Julius Irving. Irving couldn’t complete the “repeat,” however, and Larry Nance of the Phoenix Suns defeated him.
13. Zach “Space Jam” LaVine (2015)
The LeBron James-starring Space Jam 2 is set to come out in 2021, but Zach LaVine paid tribute to the 1996 Michael Jordan-starring classic in the 2015 Slam Dunk Contest with a high-flying dunk that channeled that of which Jordan threw down in the live-action/animated film.
It’s fitting, as LaVine credits the original Space Jam as the reason he started playing basketball. What better way to pay tribute to that than by winning the Slam Dunk Contest with one of the dunks from it?
12. The High-Flying Gerald Green (2008)
Gerald Green doesn’t have fond memories of the Slam Dunk Contest, telling various outlets on the record that it’s a closed chapter in his life, and he’s tired of talking about it. So I guess we’ll talk about it here instead. Like in 2008, when he put a cupcake, complete with a lit candle, on top of the rim only to coolly blow it out when he went up for his slam.
“The Birthday Cake” dunk has become one of the most memorable in Dunk Contest history. Green may not want to talk about it, but we will.
11. The “East” Wins (2014)
A lot of people remember this Slam Dunk Contest as a total bust, as the format was changed to pit dunkers from the Eastern Conference against those from the Western Conference. Yes, the new format wasn’t great, and there was a bit more waiting around between rounds.
And while the Slam Dunk Contest has always been an individual event that pitted the game’s best high flyers against each other, we still enjoy the 2014 Dunk Contest for the star power that it featured. For the record, the East team of John Wall, Paul George, and Terrence Ross wound up winning.
10. Donovan Mitchell’s Big Night (2018)
Donovan Mitchell was a rookie sensation for the Utah Jazz in the 2017-18 NBA Season. Yet, he was only invited to participate in the 2018 Slam Dunk Contest because Aaron Gordon had to pull out due to injury. Gordon’s loss was Mitchell’s win — literally. Mitchell became the first rookie to win the contest since the aforementioned Zach LaVine.
9. Jordan’s First (1987)
Before he elevated from the free-throw line for a classic “Air Jordan” dunk in 1988 (more on that later), he performed another memorable dunk in the Slam Dunk Contest, when he basically “kissed the rim” on an attempt in 1987. The dunk helped him earn his first of back-to-back titles in the Contest and also helped open the league’s eyes to the special type of player that he had the potential to be.
8. Dee Brown’s No-Looker (1991)
Eyes closed. Arm covering his eyes, just for good measure. There was no peeking when Dee Brown elevated in 1991 to slam down a no-look dunk and win the 1991 Slam Dunk Contest. Brown, who admits that the dunk was the highlight of his career, says that he had to think of something special to do on the spot to compete with Shawn Kemp.
7. Elevating Spud (2006)
We’ll get to Spud Webb’s improbable Slam Dunk Contest win in a minute, but let’s venture to the 2006 Contest right now – another contest that Webb himself was involved in. The first Dunk Contest in history to feature a “Dunk Off” overtime, the finalists were Nate Robinson and Andre Iguodala. Robinson won the competition, and one dunk that helped him was elevating over Spud Webb to slam one home.
6. J-Rich Goes Between the Legs (2003)
Upon being drafted with the No. 5 pick in the 2001 NBA Entry Draft, Jason Richardson quickly became a fan favorite in Golden State for his dunking ability. And though he wasn’t as highly regarded elsewhere around the league, it’s this ability that netted him the 2002 and 2003 Slam Dunk Contest titles.
His 2003 title was capped off with an impressive between-the-legs slam, making him the first player to win back-to-back Dunk Contests since Michael Jordan did it in the late 80s.
5. Spud Webb’s 360 Slam (1986)
Before Vince Carter would pull off his 360-degree slam in 2000, it was Spud Webb who did it in one of the Dunk Contest’s early year events. There were lots of things impressive about this. There was the fact that Webb topped his teammate and defending Dunk Contest champ, Dominique Williams, who is on record saying he’d never seen Webb dunk before the Contest.
Then there’s the fact that Webb is listed at only 5-feet, 7-inches in height — not exactly great dunking metrics. You could make the argument that the 1986 Slam Dunk Contest is what Webb is best known for.
4. Gordon v. LaVine (2016)
Basketball fans remember the 2016 Slam Dunk Contest as a competition between Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon. LaVine would go on to eventually out-duel Gordon, but we don’t remember the winner so much as we remember some of Gordon’s slams. The one that sticks out in our mind is when he snagged the ball mid-air from the Stuff the Magic Dragon mascot underneath his legs and then slammed it home. Great stuff.
3. Dwight Howard Channels Superman (2008)
Just as the game of basketball evolved, so too did the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star weekend. For instance, around the turn of the century, Dunk Contest participants began to incorporate more and more props into their dunk routines as a way to add further showmanship and appease fans. Dwight Howard is one of those Dunk Contest participants who embraced props. It’s what he’s best remembered for during the 2008 Contest when he was still playing for the Orlando Magic.
Donning a Superman cape, Howard took a pass just inside the free-throw line and slammed it down, wowing the crowd and sending his fellow NBA peers into a frenzy on the sidelines. When it comes to the best dunks NBA All-Star contest, this one is right up there.
2. Air Jordan (1988)
Michael Jordan didn’t get the nickname “Air Jordan” for nothing. In his second of back-to-back Dunk Contest titles, he showed why that’s true when he elevated from the free-throw line in front of his hometown fans at the old Chicago Stadium. The still photo of Jordan in mid-air between the free-throw line and the net, about to destroy the rim, is one of the most iconic images in basketball history. Who cares if he needed a running start to make it happen.
1. Vince Carter Electrifies (2000)
When it comes to all-time great NBA Slam Dunk Contests, nothing can top 2000 — and for several reasons. First and foremost, there was Vince Carter (more on him in a moment). But another thing that made this particular Slam Dunk Contest special was that it was the first competition of its kind in a few years, as the NBA scrapped the event from All-Star weekend in 1998 and 1999, thinking it had become too stale.
OK, back to Vince Carter, who was anything but stale and boring when it was his turn on the night of February 11 in Oakland, California. Carter’s first — and arguably best — dunk of the night was a 360-degree windmill that launched the crowd into a frenzy. Another great slam was a between-the-legs jam off a bounce pass from his then-teammate Tracy McGrady. And what made his performance all the more impressive is that it was largely improvised.
In other words, Carter ditched most of his planned dunks at the 11th hour. “Vinsanity” was born, and Carter cemented his reputation as one of the NBA’s most feared dunkers. He also likely saved the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in the process. Carter alone makes the 200 event one of the best Slam Dunk Contests ever.