What became an annual event in 1984 with nine superstars (including winners like Jordan and Vince Carter) has since morphed into a niche event for up-and-comers and high-flying outliers, one that is simultaneously celebrated and maligned for its theatrics. The Dunk Contest is the only All-Star event that invites suspense: The Celebrity Game is painful to watch, the Rising Stars Game is a fun but disorganized jumble and the Skills Challenge is an expeditious but usually rote relay. The All-Star game switched formats recently but is still mostly an overly friendly, rhythmic seesaw of the best basketball players in the world lightly jogging back and forth up the court. The Dunk Contest, All-Star Weekend’s midpoint in an overproduced, sponsorship-heavy, blurry three days of predictable pageantry, has become its weird little beating heart. It’s one of professional sports’ last strange, silly, subtext-free and wonderfully overwrought occasions.
In order to appreciate the Dunk Contest, it helps to understand the move it revolves around. The dunk’s official origins are murky: The word “dunk” was used as early as 1935 to describe a shooting movement that may or may not have been the shot as we know it today. Wherever it started, by the 1940s it began to draw ire from critics who claimed that it was diminishing the value of more traditional shooting, and the tenets of accuracy and passing. When dominant college athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) added it to their repertoire, criticism of the dunk often had racial undertones (or overtones, retrospectively). In 1967, the N.C.A.A. banned the dunk, and during the nine-year period that the move was outlawed, the directive was known as “the Lew Alcindor rule.” At the pro level, the shot became more prominent. The American Basketball Association held the first official dunk contest in 1976 to sell more tickets and show off its talent, and by the early ’80s, the N.B.A. began using special rims that accommodated dunking.
A manifestation of vulnerability, intense clarity, power and ability, the dunk exists in a split-second span of decision making. The dunker toys with velocity and time itself. The move offers a break in the sport’s fourth wall; it’s a reminder that pro basketball is in fact meant to be entertaining, despite how serious and moneyed the game has become. In a league known for the personalities of its players, the dunk is the most signature move there is, because it is dictated by a player’s particular tendencies; it’s an autograph scrawled in the air. It’s no wonder that the dunk, not the three-point shot or the crossover, is the move that’s most immortalized in posters: It’s a snapshot of basketball’s overwhelming grandeur.
Although it’s become common in contemporary gameplay — even the best players get dunked on — “posterizing” someone used to be considered an ego-ender; the idea was that the dunker turned the defender into a joke. Now the action is just part of the sport’s iconography. The move is so normalized that references to it have entered pop-culture lexicons. To “dunk on” someone is to vehemently make fun of or criticize them. So often the dunk is seen as a humiliating gesture, but maybe it’s better to lean into the second definition. Dunking is an emphatic form of critique: When players dunk, they undermine physical limitations.
As a forum for this kind of epic, athletic drama, the Dunk Contest allows contestants to lean into basketball’s theatricality, and the audacity it takes to fly and potentially fail at a high level. Dunkers, by necessity, always go big. (I’ve embraced this quality in my own life — as a reminder to be bold, I have the words “DUNK CONTEST” tattooed on my arm.) The act of slamming a ball in one vociferous swoop is one of the stagiest things a player can do. Dunking puts the player in league with great performers of all kinds: actors, wrestlers, rappers. It is literally over the top.