Schooled: The Most Underrated NBA Dunk Contest Ever

I came up when the Jumpman was more than just a logo. We made sure our Js were laced and tied tight before we got on the court. Our hoop dreams gave us a lift, even if many of us could only dream of dunking, and so we relished what we could from watching the game.

During All-Star Weekend, nothing excites me/disappoints me more than the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Some of its best moments, like the days of Michael Jordan rocking gold-link chains and going up against the “Human Highlight Film” Dominique Wilkins, with the crowd energy of a heavyweight boxing championship bout, bring on nostalgia every time. That’s because seeing titans of the game clash for the title seems like a retired concept now. Instead, the league lends the contest to rising stars or those on the come up.

Though we can agree or argue on most GOAT moments, one of my favorite dunk contest moments to get swept under the rug of history has to be the 2003 Slam Dunk Contest. To begin with, it featured a remarkable cast of contestants judging from today’s standards: Richard Jefferson, Amar’e Stoudemire, Desmond Mason, and Jason Richardson. The series of judges included past winners Dee Brown, little-man Spud Webb, a GOAT of the game Dr. J, a French fashion-inspired Michael Jordan, and Dominique Wilkins.

The night got off to a mellow start with Richard Jefferson leading it off. Amar’e, going up second, was the one to up the energy in Atlanta’s Phillips Arena with a between-the-leg dunk that, although it had been seen several times before, had never been done by someone of his stature. Desmond Mason, with fantastic legwork, paid homage to MJ with a cradle dunk for his first go-around.

However, you could tell who the most confident man in the building was. Defending champion Jason Richardson set an early benchmark with a perfect-50 dunk: a self-alley windmill dunk. TNT’s “Total Motion” camera added extra entertainment value for those of us watching from home as the still of J-Rich’s dunk showed his head just above the rim.

We’ve seen the format of the contest change several times these last few years, yet 2003 was one of the few recent times where the NBA got it right. The two best dunks with the highest scores got you a pass to the second round and you had just one replacement dunk. That was perhaps the only place they got it wrong. Amar’e didn’t make it to the second round because of a missed first attempt on his second time up, after doing the same thing on his first dunk. Amar’e should have at least gotten a second chance.

Besides that, J-Rich again wowed the crowd with a self-alley Dominique Wilkins/Vince Carter-inspired 360 windmill dunk in which he brought the ball all the way down to his hip and then back up again. Definitely one for the history reel.

The final round came down to Desmond Mason and Jason Richardson. As a former champ, Desmond Mason proved why he was there by going up from the right side and doing a left-handed, between-the-leg dunk, one of the most difficult dunks ever seen. Kenny Smith couldn’t handle it. (“He’s got the flu right now. He’s sick! He’s sick!”) Danny Ainge wanted to give it a “55.” Magic Johnson almost lost his mind. And all of the judges agreed: It had to be one of the top 10 dunks of all time.

While it was apparent in previous years that the dunk contest had lost some of its luster, there was no question these two brought it back, even if it was for just one year. For his first dunk in the final round, Richardson tried to equal Mason’s classic jam by throwing a bounce alley to himself and catching it for a double-pump reverse jam. It was nice, very nice, but lacked the impact that Desmond’s dunk had left on the arena.

The moments leading up to the last dunks by the two finalists brought the crowd in Phillips Arena and everyone watching from home to the edge of their seats. Mason had a chance to seal the contest but he chose instead to play it safe, giving J-Rich enough room for a chance to win it. For your final dunk, you either bring your best or go home. In all his years in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, Richardson understood that better than just about anyone. Again, it’s not always about who wins the contest. It’s often about who leaves the greatest impact. It’s when you combine the two that you officially become a legend.

That’s when it happened, though, the last time I remember a dunk getting me off my couch. Jason Richardson came through when it mattered most. A backwards…between-the-legs…left-handed…self alley-oop. The dunk that single-handedly brought the dunk contest back. Michigan State came through and represented, and the dunk contest was never the same again.

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