It's probably unfair to blame the armies of visiting corporate executives for the fact that NBA All-Star Weekend tickets were so scarce as to warrant a $1,500 price tag when they went on sale. It's definitely unfair to blame those executives for the slew of consolation prize events like Practice—that is, watching hungover NBA All-Stars practice—and, for some reason, a Sting concert. It's not fair to blame anyone but Sting for Sting.
There is still, at least, the Slam Dunk Contest. We need it now more than ever.
Although the NBA Slam Dunk Contest as we know it started in 1984, the first dunk contest was held at the ABA All-Star Game in 1976, the same year as the ABA-NBA merger. You have to figure that some of the joy surrounding that merger, a reunion of so many athletes and friends after years of athletic Cold War, made its way into that first contest. That spark was just as integral to the event as the dudes doing the jams.
The joy waxed and waned in the years that followed, spiking during the 1980s Dunk Renaissance powered by Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb, flatlining in the 90s, and then jolting back to life when Vince Carter rescued the Dunk Contest in 2000.
It was a different contest then, both looser and more intimate; most players reclined on the court together like they were at the same big slumber party. In front of the camera, Carter breathlessly hauled out toothy smiles after each dunk, shrugging smack dab between sly and shy, admitting he had no idea where that first one came from ("A winger"), or the second ("Thought of it on the bench"), or the third ("First time I tried it") or the fourth ("I'm just happy"). In doing all this, he reinvigorated the contest and the league, both of which were still on shaky legs after the lockout. The good mood was infectious: this is what the Dunk Contest is for.
In the years since, the dunks themselves have become layered tributes and referential jokes: Gerald Green in a Dee Brown jersey poised to dunk over a cut-out of Nate Robinson; Jeremy Evans dunking over a painting of himself dunking over his own painting, which took him three weeks to paint; Dwight Howard's smiling face looking to where he stuck the sticker of his own smiling face at the top of the backboard; Dwight Howard taking off his jersey to reveal a tighter jersey underneath for no reason; and so on and so forth, forever. The event is simultaneously good and bad, which befits its status as a thing revitalized by ur-cornball Dwight Howard, who took it and turned it into amateur theater during his run as champ in 2008 and 2009. With more rookie players being asked to enter the Dunk Contest, it's become a real platform to identify Players to Watch—case-in-point being Toronto's Terrence Ross in 2013 and the beautiful reaction from KG it gave us—without fans having to worry about their precious wittle angel superstar breaking something.
Between the ritual—Shaq's annual jokes and being mean to Charles Barkley, unchanged and unfunny, are now as much a fixture as the opaque scoring system—and the branding, there is a sense of fatigue here. In Steph's NBA, dunking seems the skills segment that least needs to be watched, but, buddy, you'd be a fool to miss this one.
As a Toronto insider, I have heard all kinds of things about how this year's contest aims to combine highbrow and low, athleticism and witticisms, the Golden PEN and the silver screen. To that end, I've compiled a list—based on dogged ear-to-the-ground, finger-on-the-pulse, absolutely non-speculative reportage and nothing else—of some of the dunks to watch for this All-Star Weekend.
1. The Come Thru It's Can Lit: Andre Drummond hires English Patient author and Canadian literary titan Michael Ondaatje to write a short story, live, under the basket, while Drummond dunks over him. The resulting story will be named "In The Skin Of A Bryant" and given out to everyone in attendance.
2. The Air Gordon: Pulling its name directly from the Magic's Twitter feed and what Orlando coach Scott Skiles adamantly calls "the most successful hashtag of the 21st century," this dunk will be the one to watch. The finale occurs while everyone's fighting with the autocorrect on their phones begging them to change the hashtag from Gordon to Jordan. Subsequently, no one will be watching as Aaron Gordon drops in a perfect layup.
3. The Please Tim Dunk It: Ever the gregarious wizard, Tim Duncan will be summonable by any of the four dunkers to execute a round for them. This all goes wrong when Tim gets wind that there's a Medieval Times location in downtown Toronto. He isn't seen again until the first quarter of Sunday's All-Star Game, with a live peregrine falcon perched on his wrist.
4. The Canadarm: Bismack Biyombo, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Tayshaun Prince, and Jason Maxiell will grab one another's wrists to form a chain reaching from Wayne Gretzky's restaurant, Wayne Gretzky's, to the closest location of Celine Dion's beloved chain, Nickels, which is located in Gatineau, Quebec. The real slam dunk here is that everyone at the All-Star Saturday Night festivities gets a free poutine and some of Gretzky's Slap Shot Sliders, aka Slappies.
5. The Hell Bent for Pleather: In a dig on Blake Griffin's full pleather suit at the 2013 Dunk Contest that thank god somebody finally had the guts to mention, Shaq will once again wear one of the 45 suits he owns made of the exact same material. But he'll do it in a sassy way.
6. The Videodrome: A one-handed dunk Drummond will attempt while using the other hand to record himself with Shaq's 2000 camcorder. In a pleasant twist, David Cronenberg is there doing research for his new project, a play starring Steve Nash called Nash, wherein Steve Nash re-enacts every scene from Cronenberg's 1996 film Crash by himself. Canada's foremost body horror film auteur appreciates the homage.
7. The Spending the Weekend Suspended from a National Monument: Zach LaVine, anxious to keep his title, has the idea to do the CN Tower Edgewalk™ but tethered to a 1,815.4-foot cord that will drop him down into the SkyDome (Rogers Centre), where the ball will be bounced to him by the now defunct mascot of the SkyDome, a turtle named Domer, such that LaVine catches it in midair on his trip down, dunks, and then flies back up. However, given that the All-Star Game is taking place at the Air Canada Centre, which LaVine has mistaken for the SkyDome, nobody but the man in Domer's costume sees it. LaVine is stuck once he stops his vertical ricochets and remains swinging for the duration of the weekend.
8. The 360: This is actually the name of the revolving restaurant at the top of the CN Tower where Will Barton unfortunately couldn't get a reservation the entire weekend. Don't bring it up, he's pretty sore about it.
9. The About to Go H.A.M.: Aaron Gordon completes a fairly straightforward double-pump dunk and takes off his jersey to reveal a Darvin Ham Pistons jersey underneath. "I didn't mean the song, so please don't acronymize it," he says, in at first what seems a weird homage to the 1997 Dunk Contest participant. Gordon goes on to explain that Ham's mother, Wilmer Jones-Ham, was the first female Mayor of Saginaw, Michigan, "and that's pretty cool, I think." It makes everyone feel ignorant as hell. It's a hit.
10. Phil Jackson's iPad: He left it at Wayne Gretzky's, has anyone seen it?