Joy in being barred
The Dunk Contest has been struggling for a minute now, and the Associations's helper dogs damn sure know it. Don't let J-Smitty's performance last year con you; if anyone ever saw him play, they'd know that his in-game stuff is nearly three times as invigorating to behold. Thus, it doubtlessly came as a cloak of fright to Stern and his minions to not only find out that LeBron, League Savior, not only has decined to participate (yet again, forever) - he also went out of his way to express his disdain for it. From the Kron Kron Beacon-Journal, via the indispensable Inside Hoops:
"I don't want to be defined as being in the Slam Dunk Contest, it's not me," James said. "When I dunk I'm trying to get two points. For the most part I don't predetermine what I do."Shoals and I offer our takes on the ramifications of Bron's comments for the League and for the game itself.
"I do dunks in the spur of the moment," he said. "I can't think of a dunk and, then, go do it. So we'll leave it at that."
"I'll leave it up to the guys who don't play as many minutes as I do," James said. "Those guys can throw it between their legs and stuff like that."
Brown Recluse, Esq.
Basically, this is all Jordan's fault. From the moment His Airness decided to take his talents to the 3-Point Contest (where he tallied an embarrassing 5 points) in a misguided effort to prove to the world he was an all-around player, he ruined the Dunk Contest for at least the next generation of ballers, if not forever. Since then, the only contest worthy of comparison with the legendary bouts of the 70's and 80's was in 2000, when Vince Carter put on what is arguably the greatest dunking display any mass audience has ever witnessed. Tellingly, Carter has steadfastly refused to participate in any dunk contests since. I'll cut Jordan and Carter (and maybe even Kobe) some slack, since they proved all they needed to, but this new generation of stars (Lebron, D-Wade, etc.) won't even consider doing it once. It's not that they don't have anything to prove, it's more like the Dunk Contest is not only beneath them, but so vulgar (so black?) that it actually offends them to be associated with it.
I put Bron's reluctance to enter the Dunk Contest in the broader context of Jordan's detrimental influence over today's stars. Jordan's legacy, as much as baldies, long shorts, and black kicks, seems to be the dull, unoffensive, and ultimately unapologetically capitalist offcourt persona. As Jordan notoriously said during the Helms/Gantt Senate race, "Republicans buy shoes, too." I have to admit that I respect how well-spoken and mature Lebron seems in interviews, and I can't deny that Wade's humility seems genuine, but would it kill these guys to say something interesting? Worse, watching an interview with Kobe is one of the most frustrating experiences a hoops fan can endure, because you can tell that underneath all the polished soundbites, there lurks not only the much talked about "dark side," but also a truly captivating intelligence.
What these young ballers fail to understand is that Jordan's participation in the Dunk Contest played a large part in creating his legacy - indeed, it literally made him an icon - and it was only after repeated battles with Dominique that he moved on. Therefore, this is a case of players emulating #23, but not understanding the reasons behind the action. It wasn't the contest itself, but the fact that he had done all he could in that venue. After all, only the most reactionary red-stater could be offended by a Bron/Wade dunk off, and those guys don't buy hundred dollar basketball shoes anyway.
One of the great Dunk Contest truisms is that of guards and small forwards having an unfair advantage over big men, whose ability to shock and awe us has little to do with the unexpected. Amare or Shaq astounds us exactly because despite our knowing what's coming, the finish is always more dynamic, more vociferous, more beyond our willing comprehension, than the term of logic we're left with between instances. On the other, fancy guard dunks are, not coincidentally, heavy on the technique and largely technical matters, shit we can recount in writing without coming up short. They're almost meant to be thought of this way, proof that a man can pull of something easily imagined but not yet realized. The figure skating or gymnastics comparison isn't a matter of gendered belittlement, just like calling Vince "elegant" doesn't mean he's a queer. Instead, it's about the way those kinds of competitions work: known vocab, devil in the combinations and contraction of the limits.
This kind of 2/3-centric dunking that the Contest is built around is also largely irrelevant to most of what we know about competitive basketball. As I've said before, dunking with style is all about psychological edge. By and large, though, this is usually accomplished by straight cramming it down someone's face than pulling out the fancy. That's just how it goes down most often (in traffic or on a hurried break), and even if a player's got the chance to improvise, too much cute robs the moment of its raw intensity. LeBron's coming out in favor of this kind of dunking - not denying that it's now key to the sport, but insisting that the art be seen as a contextual, and unexotically competitive, ideal. The "guys that go between their legs" embody meaningless, uninspiring, dunking, and is favored only by champs who get no minutes (i.e., they aren't real basketball players). Once again, a masterful balancing of the old and the new by the King, helping the league long-term even as they think he's killing them.