Inside the Art of the Dunk

GOATs of basketball past, present and future tell the secret history of the best play in sports—with an assist from Vince Carter 👑 and a kid watching his throne


February 15, 2018

Quick question: What’s the dunk that makes you close your eyes, look down and shake your head in disbelief? Is it Shaq crippling an entire backboard? Vince Carter being half-man, half-amazing? Or Giannis straight hurdling a guy the other day?

Maybe you can’t get a dunk-contest moment out of your head, like Aaron Gordon jumping over his own mascot, or Jason Richardson’s seemingly impossible 360 windmill. (Although Shaq did tell us his kid can do a 720.) Perhaps it’s Brittney Griner thundering to the rim, or Blake Griffin leaping over a freakin’ car. Hell, maybe you remember Michael when he became the Jumpman...or at least Dwight back when he was Superman. (But he can still posterize, too.)

Such is the magical effect of the slam dunk: Even when you know it’s coming, it takes your breath away. Even when Steph’s step-back threes are coming for Vince’s honey-dip throne, a dunk can stretch the imagination with a mix of athleticism, artistry and authority. It can test the limits of humanity, gravity and swagger all at once, just like that.

Have you watched that video up there? 👆B/R invited Vince Carter himself—the man who evolved the dunk like no other—to guide us through five hall-of-fame slams with the help of 5-star high school prospect and jump-out-the-gym Instagram sensation Cassius Stanley.

We’ll get to those—and more of the greatest dunks in NBA history—as we celebrate the slam in the words of 18 connoisseurs, from OGs like Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb to the likes of Gordon and Zach this year’s All-Star Slam Dunk participants: Larry Nance Jr. Donovan Mitchell, Victor Oladipo and Dennis Smith Jr.

But first, another quick question: Why does a great dunk matter, anyway?

It’s more than just two points. “It can get the crowd into the game,” says Richardson, the two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion. “It can motivate your team, get your team excited and get yourself going when you have one of those big dunks—especially if you’re dunking on somebody. Those are game-changers, momentum-changers. You see that at every level, no matter if it’s high school, college or professional.”

To hear legends and legends-in-the-making tell it, there is no GOAT dunker—no best or worst slam, no first dunk ever and certainly no end in sight. To answer questions about the best play in sports, you gotta watch the top 10 (or so) dunks of all time, in no particular order. You gotta let the past meet the present. Because the slam dunk has always kinda been from the future to begin with.  

Let’s start with the ultimate poster, shall we? 👇


Vince Carter > Frederic Weis • Sept. 25, 2000 @ The Olympics

Vince Carter: When it happened, I didn’t actually know it happened—when I found out, it was literally after the game. I knew it was talked about. My friends, obviously. When they saw it—or people in general, when they actually saw it—the next day, because we were so far ahead in Sydney, it was just talked about. So, I knew it was going to be a thing. ... It was pretty cool.

But we’re talking about 16 years later, that Olympics, they’re still talking about the dunk. So, I knew it was something special. Maybe they’ll talk about it again in the 2020 Olympics. I don’t know. But it’s definitely up there as most asked and most talked about. Every time I’m out of the country in Europe—or anywhere, really.

  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Vince Carter
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion, 2000
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Aaron Gordon
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest runner-up, 2016
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Dennis Smith Jr.
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest contestant, 2018
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Larry Nance, Jr.
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest contestant, 2018
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Jeremy Evans
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion, 2012

Aaron Gordon: My favorite dunk of all time is Vince Carter over the 7-footer. It’s a pretty typical answer, but it’s true. It’s just unreal. He jumped all the way over him, dunked on him. It was just so exciting. He almost knocked Kevin Garnett out, swinging his arm. That was sick.

Dennis Smith Jr.: Vince Carter. When he jumped over the 7-footer. That’s just ridiculous. It ain’t even no words for that. That’s just ridiculous.

Larry Nance Jr.: I don’t know if there’s anybody else now or then that could do something like that. Vince is one of a kind. Nobody else would even think about it.

Jeremy Evans: I mean, the one that Vince Carter had when he jumped over the guy almost. That was crazy, in-game. You’ve seen a lot of guys dunking in games, windmills, 360s, but have you ever seen anything—besides that—where somebody basically jumps over the defender that’s in front of him?

Carter recently rewatched a clip of that dunk over Frederic Weis. It did, after all, surpass the realms of reality, in addition to inspire a group of dunkers just coming of age. Turns out, he and Garnett were cheering two completely different moments. Carter didn’t originally think he had enough lift to complete the leap in Sydney at all, descending amazed that he had even finished it. Garnett, however, was busy celebrating that Carter had jumped over another human being entirely. It was a definitive moment for Carter, who since a young age has studied the mechanics of the slam dunk, its history and form.

Vince Carter: I watched and studied the art of dunking and what guys are thinking about when they do it. I just looked at it different. People, in my mind, saw the dunk for what it was right there. Whatever he did—360, the windmill. He went in between his legs. I was more so: “Yes, he did it, but why? What was he trying to accomplish in that dunk? What was he trying to show you?”

I think back in the day, they’re trying to show you stuff. Why did Dominique do the two-hand windmill? A lot of people were doing one-hand windmills. It was the power. He was trying to show you, "Yeah, I can get up as high as you on a one-hand windmill with two hands." That's how I broke dunks down back then. You look at the dunks different.

Dominique Wilkins • Feb. 9 , 1985 @ The Dunk Contest

Dominique Wilkins: It was one of those things where I was angry, because I didn’t get a call. When I went up, I tried to dunk as hard as I could. I wanted to put something extra on it—so it just happened, basically by accident.

It’s definitely an art. It’s graceful. It’s poetry in motion. It’s a very graceful talent that a lot of guys don’t have. A lot of guys can pretty much dunk. But can you dunk in traffic? Can you move the ball in your hand? Can you change your body to elude contact? There’s a lot of different ways that you finish, and the great dunkers, that’s what you do.

  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Dominique Wilkins
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion 1985, 1990
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Jason Richardson
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion 2002, 2003
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Shaquille O’Neal
    Backboard breaker

Jason Richardson: Dominique Wilkins is one of my favorite players. I used to watch those dunk contests and every now and then, we'd get an Atlanta game on TV. I'd get to watch when they played the Pistons, and I used to study his dunks. I used to do them on my little hanger, put them on my door and get a sock and imitate Dominique's dunks all the time.

Growing up, that’s what you look forward to—watching the All-Star Game dunk contest and seeing your guys. You’re seeing Dr. J. You’re seeing Dominique Wilkins. You’re seeing Michael Jordan.

Shaquille O’Neal: Dominique, Dr. J, Michael Jordan. If you look at my emblem, I stole my emblem from Rony Seikaly—the way he used to dunk in college, he used to kick his legs up like he was crazy. So, I started doing that. Then I was in college, and I was taking a marketing/branding class. I looked at Michael Jordan's emblem and the way he dunked, he spread his legs out, and I said, “You know what? Michael has the jumpman, so I’m going to make mine dunkman.”

Shaquille O'Neal 🍸💔  • April 23, 1993 @ Nets


Aaron Gordon: My brother was, for sure, my favorite dunker growing up. He had all types of tricks. He had 360s. He had reverse pumps—like, he would reverse pump religiously in a game—and then I would study guys like Vince Carter, T-Mac, Nate Robinson, Spud Webb, Dominique Wilkins and MJ. I was looking at a lot of dunkers when I was younger.

Dennis Smith Jr: I liked T-Mac…[Dwyane] Wade. Who else? Jordan. Jordan, he used to be flying through the air. I like watching Jordan tapes. Those were probably the ones I watched the most.

LeBron always be prevalent, whenever you talk.

Vince, too. Vince Carter.

  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Cassius Stanley
    5-Star Recruit, Class of ’19
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Zach Lavine
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion 2015, 2016
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Spud Webb
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion, 1986

Cassius Stanley: I watched a lot of NBA TV when I was growing up. Every time it was All-Star Weekend, it would always just replay dunk contests and I would record them and watch them.

Vince Carter 💪🏽↘🗑️ • Feb. 12, 2000 @ The Dunk Contest

Vince Carter: We saw, Oh, he hung on the rim. Ah man, I’ve never seen that before! But what I was trying to show you is—if this is the rim, I can jump this high above the rim. While being that high, I still have the ability to hang on the rim and still hang without hurting myself. Different things like that. That’s what I was trying to show you.

Cassius Stanley: The elbow in the rim…if you rewatch that, everybody in the arena’s just silent, and their jaws just drop. Because that’s just never been done before. And I think that’s my favorite—how simple everyone thought it was, but then once you rewatch it, how hard it actually is, how hard it is to do that and not get hurt. I have tried it.

Zach LaVine: I was a big Kobe fan. Vince Carter. Michael Jordan, obviously—his influence with dunking was incredible. Those were pretty much the big three for me. They just had such a big influence, and you just watched them, because you can't replicate some of the stuff that they did. Everybody is an individual and have their own unique style and stuff like that, but it's just people you look up to.

Kobe 🌪️✈️ > Sprewell • Feb. 6, 2003 @ MSG

Jordan > Ewing • April 30, 1991 @ Knicks

Spud Webb: [Today,] I watch LeBron. I watch the young guy in Orlando, Gordon. And I watch the one that just got traded to Chicago [LaVine]—he’s pretty good. Those guys are guys I like. The Greek Freak—love to see him. And now Dennis Smith Jr.—everybody’s raving about him. I go down and see him just about every night he plays. It just comes natural to him that he can do all those dunks. I can just imagine if he gets into a dunk contest what it can be like.


Before it became the centerpiece of All-Star Weekend, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest (launched in January 1984) showcased pure athleticism—no props were allowed. But the ABA invented it for halftime at its own All-Star Game in 1976. That contest started with a bang: with Julius Erving taking flight from the free-throw line. MJ, it turns out, was a second coming.

Dominique Wilkins: The guy I always talk about—the granddaddy of us all, because he kind of put it in art form—is Dr. J.

Julius Erving 🛫  • Jan. 27, 1976 @ The ABA Dunk Contest

Dominique Wilkins: The best athletes got in the dunk contest. We all wanted to put on a show. But we all wanted to compete and win. We wanted to know who the best was. ... It was just using your imagination and a ball.

Dwight Howard: One thing that people don’t understand is, you don’t have the crowd behind you like for a regular game, no momentum. You’re sitting down; then you have to get up and dunk the ball. You have to make your own energy. It’s a lot different than being in a regular game. In a game, it’s a lot of guys who are game dunkers, but they’re not dunk-contest dunkers. It’s totally different.

Aaron Gordon: The energy that Saturday night brings is just a hell of an energy. All eyes are on you and it’s your time to shine. Either you step up or you don’t.

Jeremy Evans: There’s so much pressure, just because as a spectator and someone watching, it’s always in the back of somebody’s head—that that’s already been done, unless you come out with props or other things that you can use, because basically anything done with a ball has been done.

Jason Richardson: People asked me if I was nervous or excited. I said, “I’ve been waiting for this all my life since I was a kid.” So, when I was out there, it just put me right back to when I was a kid in my room with a hanger and a sock. I don’t remember a crowd or a judge. I was just out there seeing that rim. It was my opportunity to show the dunks I had been working on since I was a kid.

  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Dwight Howard
    NBA Slam Dunk champion, 2008
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Derrick Jones Jr.
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest runner-up, 2017
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Dee Brown
    NBA Slam Dunk champion, 1991

Derrick Jones Jr.: I just took it as another dunk contest that I been in. It wasn’t nothing serious. I mean, it was. [Pause.] The NBA dunk contest.

Zach LaVine: You just gotta go out and try performing.

Dee Brown: My thought going into the last dunk was I needed a signature dunk—some dunk that was unique, that identified me like Michael Jordan from the free-throw line, like Dominique Wilkins’ windmill. … I’m sitting on the box, thinking, I need a signature dunk. I need a signature dunk. What can I do? What can I do? It came to me. That’s what came to me. That’s exactly how fast it happened.

Dee Brown 🚫 👀 • Feb. 9, 1991 @ The Dunk Contest

Dee Brown: The last dunk, the no-look dunk, I’d never practiced before. I had never did it. So I had no idea I was going to do that dunk. I made it up as I was running to the basket. That was the first time I ever did that dunk. I was originally just going to close my eyes, but nobody would’ve saw that. So, I said, “OK, I’ll just put my hands over my eyes.” And as I jumped, the hand just kept going. My eyes are still closed and then my head went into my elbow and the rest is history. Either I was going to make it and we talk about it 25 years later, or I was going to miss it and we talk about it 25 years later.

The dunk contest appeared to be running on tired legs near the turn of the millennium. The 1997 All-Star Game featured the likes of Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Shawn Kemp, but they all sat out the dunk contest. Kobe Bryant was dynamic in winning it, but his competition featured little-known players like Chris Carr, Bobby Sura and Darvin Ham. “Guys had too much stuff going on, especially with star players,” Wilkins says now. “For whatever reason, it was the last thing on their radar.”

The NBA bypassed the contest at All-Star Weekend in 1998 in favor of the WNBA-NBA 2Ball Contest at Madison Square Garden. The following year’s lockout knocked out the All-Star festivities altogether.

But some key league executives argued for the contest’s return—and in 2000, Vince Carter made the case for himself. He put on an incredible aerial display that left fans eagerly anticipating what lay ahead for the dunk. Maybe it had NOT all been done before? In 2002, the Warriors’ Jason Richardson followed Carter’s example, finding inspiration from an unexpected source...

I know if I get to the dunk contest … I could get an extra five or six inches on my jump. Because I’m excited.


Jason Richardson: Gilbert Arenas. He was my teammate in Golden State. He always had these crazy ideas for dunks. He could never get up that high, but he used to have all these crazy ideas. And we used to be in the gym. He used to always come up with these things: “You need to do this. You need to do that.” He’s like, “I’ve got a dunk for you for the dunk contest.” “What are you talking about, Gil?” He was telling me about this dunk and I was like, “Yo, I don’t think I can do it.” “Trust me, J. You can do this dunk.”

I tried it like two or three times and I couldn’t complete it. But I know if I get to the dunk contest—that was something I always dreamed about as a kid and always wanted to do—I could get an extra five or six inches on my jump. Because I’m excited in that situation. So, I said, “OK, I need to save this for my last dunk. I think I can pull it out.”

So, we get to the dunk contest, and Fred Jones comes with a spectacular between-the-legs dunk. I was like, Oh, my goodness. I said, “I don’t know if I’m going to win this dunk contest.” And I remembered Gilbert gave me this dunk and I said, “OK, let me try it and see if I could do it.”

Jason Richardson 🔄🎡 • Feb. 9, 2002 @ The Dunk Contest

Jason Richardson: And when I did the dunk and I landed, I didn’t know if people were going to be excited or what, because I never completed the dunk in practice. So, I was trying to wait and see. You could see when I landed. There was a pause.

It shocked me at first. I was like, Wow, I actually did this dunk that I thought I couldn’t do—the take-it-between-your-legs, reverse, and dunk-with-your-left-hand. And I was like, Wow, I actually did it.


In 2016, the three-point contest seemed primed to usurp the dunk contest in All-Star Weekend popularity. The long-ball revolution, led by Golden State’s “Splash Brothers,” Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, was long underway—three 👓 had become the new poster. Many thought the dunk contest was undergoing a lull in originality, too—props were the rage, but how are you ever gonna top a car? And there were no marquee names who could lend the contest some much-needed star power.

Yet, when the lights came on, two young and relatively unknown entrants found a way to again reignite the imagination and defy gravity.

Jason Richardson: Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon, they had me excited at home. Those guys did dunks I never thought of.

Aaron Gordon: I practiced with about five weeks out...just a lot of lifting, a lot of plyometrics, a lot of leg work and then just a lot of excitement. There was so much excitement toward it. I was so happy to be doing the dunk contest, especially at the highest level and preparation. It was grueling.

Aaron Gordon 📈🐲👀 • Feb. 13, 2016 @ The Dunk Contest

Victor Oladipo: When Aaron Gordon jumped over Stuff two years ago, I was there. That was incredible. That was one of the best dunks I've ever seen.

Aaron Gordon: That first one, that was great. It was just so much fun. I had so much joy doing it. People recognize me. They still tell me that I should have won.

  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Victor Oladipo
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest contestant, 2018

Zach LaVine: I’m just glad I was able to go out there and put on a show.

Dominique Wilkins: They actually brought the dunk contest back, those two guys. They put on a beautiful show. They really did.

Zach Lavine 🛫✂️ • Feb. 13, 2016 @ The Dunk Contest

Zach LaVine: We both do our job. We’re entertainers for the weekend, and we went down and said we wanted one of the better dunk contests in history.

I still got a couple dunks I’m going to save up my sleeve. Possibility I might be able to do it again if I want to, so I’m going to have to leave that to speculation. ... I’m trying to get my full bounce back again, but I still got a couple dunks left I might be able to do.

Aaron Gordon: I don’t think Zach’s going to do it [again]. He already won twice. If anything, he’ll do the three-point contest.


Vince Carter participated in only one NBA dunk contest. But it wasn’t for a shortage of ideas; he has visions of other dunks you’ve never seen before. “I’m not sharing them, because someone’s going to take them and take credit for them,” Carter says. “But yeah, I have a few.”

It does raise the question: Which dunks have not yet seen the light of day?

Some are tight-lipped, like Carter. Other players were happy to detail the dunk-contest ideas lost in time. 

Dwight Howard: What I tried to do in my dunk contests is make it a real-live show—not be over the top, but dress up and get the fans involved, like, “Oh my God. He’s fitting to do something sick.” It can be subtle as when I was in it, I did the Superman dunk. I put the tape down by the free-throw line that I was going to take off from. So, everybody's like, “Why he’s got the tape there?”

Dwight Howard 💪🚀 • Feb. 16, 2008 @ The Dunk Contest

Dwight Howard: I had practiced all those dunks that I used, and I still had more to go. I started trying to give them to guys who was in the dunk contest, stuff that I had been working on for years. Stuff that I haven’t even done yet.

Some of the ones that Gerald Green did in the dunk contest that he was in [were my ideas]. There were some dunks that I was doing in the back for warm-ups, and he actually did one in the dunk contest. Blake [Griffin] did one. But I didn’t tell him. I had told somebody else. Then Blake ended up doing it. I wasn’t upset about it. One of my friends is friends with DeAndre [Jordan], and I think he showed him the dunk or I showed DeAndre and DeAndre showed him, but it was just fun to see. …

There’s this dunk that I was doing in high school. It’d be hard to explain for a fan, but I would take one dribble from half court and two steps and just take off, either go between the legs or just fly, take off and dunk. I would literally take one dribble, boom, two steps, one, two and then take off. And that was kind of like my thing. The other one I was working on, I couldn’t quite get it, and I can see guys are working on it now. It’s a double between the legs. The last one is the double windmill. I was working on all that stuff. I hurt my back. After that, I wasn’t able to do it like I wanted to do it.

  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    DeMar DeRozan
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest contestant, 2010
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Glenn Robinson III
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion, 2017
  • Bleacher Report | The Art of The Dunk
    Donovan Mitchell
    NBA Slam Dunk Contest contestant, 2018

DeMar DeRozan: I had a couple. I doubt I can do them now, but yeah. I had a couple. Hopefully, I can get Norman [Powell] in the dunk contest and he can use them. So, I don't want to give them away too much. I've been holding them, so hopefully they’ll be seen. If they do happen, I’ll make sure I put my name on it.

Dee Brown: I had one dunk. I couldn’t really do it, because they wouldn’t let me take the nets down. It would’ve taken too long. So, for me to do this dunk, I would’ve taken the nets down and just have the rim. It was a dunk where you dunk it and when it comes out the rim, you catch and dunk it again. [With] the net, it would’ve been too hard. I tried it and it didn’t work, because it would slow it down and I wouldn’t be able to get the ball out quick enough to dunk it. And then the other one I had was throw it off the bounce, catch it off the bounce, touch the backboard and do a 360. I had that one in my pocket, just in case.

Derrick Jones Jr: That’s a secret, just in case if they call me back again.

Glenn Robinson III: I’ve got a few things up my sleeve.

Victor Oladipo: I'm just looking forward to having a good time and trying to do something that's never been seen before.

Dennis Smith Jr: It’s in L.A. this year? Shoot, I’d probably get someone out there to throw me a nice lob. Somebody that’s a big-time guy out there. And I’d just try to bring some flavor to it, win it and enjoy myself.

The common link with all these dunkers: There’s nothing like their first slam—a private moment, typically not captured on film, but forever etched in their memories.

Dee Brown: Everybody’s goal is to dunk when you play basketball. It doesn’t matter—black, white, boys, girls. You feel like if you can dunk, not only can you impress your friends or maybe have a chance to make the high school team, you can impress everybody else. You can impress the girls and all that. That was a badge of honor as a young basketball player.

It’s kind of like finding a new toy as a kid … feeling like I can fly over the top of people and people can’t stop me from throwing it down.


Aaron Gordon: It’s kind of like finding a new toy as a kid. You just want to play with it over and over again. It’s still a new toy for me. I love doing it. It’s so much fun being out there, feeling like I can fly over the top of people and people can’t stop me from throwing it down.

Vince Carter: I was in sixth grade on the outside courts with some friends, fooling around. It was just one of those times where I worked my way from a golf ball to a tennis ball, to a little volleyball, to a girl’s ball to a basketball. Me, if I visualize it and practice it and practice it, I’ll get it. That’s how I learned how to of muscle memory, knowing how high I had to get up in the air. I was just going through it. I remember doing one hand, one leg out there on the outside courts. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Dee Brown: I’ll never forget my first dunk in a game. I got a dunk and was so excited. The next possession, I got the ball and was bringing the ball up court and...I was still thinking about the dunk! Brought the ball over half court and threw the ball back to my teammate who was on the other side of half court, because I kind of just lost it. Wow, I dunked in a game in front of a crowd.

Everybody was cheering, and that’s what a dunk does to you. When I had my first dunk in high school, all I remember about it was getting pulled right after the dunk. Because the next possession, I was still thinking about the dunk. I made a turnover by throwing the ball into the backcourt to my teammate.

Donovan Mitchell: You feel the adrenaline in your body. You feel it in your legs. I think that's the best part. Your legs feel like you can get up there. It’s easy mentally to feel like you can get up there, but if your legs aren’t there, your energy’s not there, then it’s a different story. But if your whole body is on the same page with what you want to do, I think that's the best feeling.

Donovan Mitchell 🔨 > Lakers • Oct. 28, 2017 @ 🏠

Victor Oladipo ⚡⛈️> Hawks • Dec. 5, 2016 @ Atlanta

Jason Richardson: I was going into the eighth grade, 12 years old, and I’m just out there practicing. I’m going through my workout by myself. I was like, I’m touching the rim now. Let me see if I can go dunk. I grab the ball, go up there and I dunked it. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, Wait a minute. I just dunked.

I run down to my grandmother’s house. It’s like not even 400, 500 yards away, and I get there and I’m telling all my aunts, uncles and cousin, brothers and sisters. They’re all sitting down. “I can dunk. I can dunk.” Everybody’s like, “Yeah, right.” “Come to the park and come see it.” So, next thing you know, we all go back down to the park. My whole family’s out there. And I’m just out there, just dunking. Four, five, six, seven times. Just dunking the ball with ease. And they all were like, “Wait a minute. This is not supposed to be happening. You’re in the eighth grade.”

Dennis Smith Jr: I was in eighth grade, and one of my homeboys threw me an alley-oop, just trying to get my first dunk down. He threw me an alley-oop, and I went and got it with two hands and dunked with one.

Zach LaVine: First time I dunked was the eighth grade. I was at a high school jamboree. Went up for a regular layup and just got high enough to be over the rim that I surprised myself. I didn’t really know what I did at the time, and I didn’t dunk again for another year. I think it just must have been adrenaline or something crazy. Maybe the rim was low. But it was a good feeling. I was in shock.

Glenn Robinson III: I used to use ankle weights. I tried dunking for so long that my grandmother told me to focus on other parts of my game.

I felt like if I started dunking, that’s all I would want to do. … After the first dunk, all I wanted to do was smash the rim, dunk on people, take their heads off.


Dwight Howard: I didn’t want to ever dunk the basketball, because I felt like if I started dunking, that’s all I would want to do is just get up there and dunk. I would always work on shooting and stuff like that. They said, "Man, if you’d dunk the ball, you’d scare everybody." I said, "Man, I don’t know. If I started dunking, I really might not stop." After the first dunk, all I wanted to do was smash the rim, dunk on people, take their heads off.

Cassius Stanley: It was in sixth grade. It was the first day in orientation for school, and I was just in my collared shirt and Vans and shorts. I was just playing around in the gym, and I always was close to dunking, but I never got it. Then just that day, I tried to do it, and I got it and I was excited. It was like a threshold I crossed. I felt like, before that, it was only a couple things I hadn’t done in basketball.

Shaquille O’Neal: For me, it was a process. I was messing with this military guy. So, he had me doing calf raises. So, I did about a million calf raises, and then I started off by dunking a sock. Then I dunked a softball. Then I dunked one of those red runner kickballs, and then I finally dunked a basketball.

First time [I broke a backboard] was in high school. I dunked it. The backboard was cracked and the rim was bent. But the place didn't have a breakaway, so the second half, the other team, all their jumpers were off, because the rim was bent.


The feeling of a first dunk is hard to replicate. It may have been a rim-grazer that barely went in, but the memory is seared forever in the minds of a dunkmaster. They, like Vince Carter, moved the dunk forward and are expecting a new generation to stretch the slam even further beyond the realm of human possibility.

Dwight Howard: I think people are expecting to see something so crazy that they’ve never seen before. I think the evolution of the dunk is much different, because guys are stronger. They jump higher. They’re more creative. I think back in the day, there wasn’t a lot of creativity—now, guys can take a 360 and they’re going between their legs and they’re doing crazy stuff. I think people just want to see something they’ve never seen before.

Blake Griffin 🌊 🚗 • Feb. 19, 2011 @ The Dunk Contest

Jason Richardson: It’s getting to the point of, what else can anybody do? We’ve seen guys jump over cars. We’ve seen the typical windmills. You’ve seen the 360s. Aaron Gordon jumping over a mascot, the things Zach LaVine can do with the ball, and it’s like, “What’s next?” I think that’s where a lot of people and some guys are scared to get into the dunk contest, because they don’t have these ideas.

Cassius Stanley: I try not to watch Instagram videos of those professional dunkers, because once you see their new dunk, there’s only so many things you can do now.

Larry Nance Jr.: It’s right in front of your face on those [Instagram] Discover pages. ... A lot of what those guys do, I’d have to sit around and practice for way too long in order to do some stuff like that. It’s pretty impressive.

Cassius Stanley: That’s just one of the biggest things that’s hard to be a creative dunker—because the next thing a double backflip dunk, and that’s just impossible.

I think you could start bringing in props, like crazier props—there are more limits we could push it to.

Shaquille O’Neal: I always just tell [my son, Shareef, a University of Arizona commit] when he jumps to get his legs up. But he’s doing stuff I wouldn't even think about doing. We were messing around one day and he did a 720. He put it between his legs and put it down. I could have never done nothing like that.

Zach LaVine: Dunking is just such an exciting thing. Shooting is such a big skill set that pretty much every NBA player has. You have to put the ball in the basket to be an NBA player, but from the fact that kids get excited at seeing dunking—you know, I feel like Steph Curry has sensed a little bit of that from three-point perspective, but I feel like dunking is still just a main thing everybody gets excited over.

Dominique Wilkins: It’s a change of the times, a sign of the times that the game is more hybrid than—I don’t want to say old-school, because I don’t even like that term, "old school," but traditional, high-octane and uptempo basketball. The game was played from the inside-out, not the outside-in.  

Dennis Smith Jr: The new dunkers ain’t got the status of Steph. All the young kids, they want to shoot. They see Steph more on TV and things like that. They want to be more like Steph. You go to any game, I bet you see all the kids try to shoot from deep, any little rec league, ’cuz everybody want to be like Steph.

Either you’ve got it or you don’t. It’s called genetics.


Dee Brown: It’s the opposite now. Everybody wants to shoot like Steph. Everybody wants to dribble like Kyrie and shoot like Steph, if you’re six feet or seven feet. ... Kids grow up trying to be shooters and ball-handlers. Because you can develop a skill on that. You can work on that and become a better dribbler, ball-handler, shooter. I don’t know if you can develop being a better jumper. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. It’s called genetics. At a certain point, genetics are going to kick in, and you’re going to be able to jump or you can’t.

Cassius Stanley: There’s also a factor of, dunking is something just a lot of people can’t do. I know it’s hard to make a half-court shot, but I know a lot of people can attempt it, but if you just pull a random person off the street and tell them, “Try to make this dunk,” a lot of them won't be able to even touch the backboard.

Jason Richardson: Now, it’s more about, “I’m going to bomb from the three like Steph and I’m going to get a killer crossover like Kyrie and I’m going to get a jelly.” I had to find out what a jelly was—it’s making a difficult layup.

I don’t think kids are really thinking about dunking anymore. It’s funny, my son and his AAU team, I’m talking to these kids and I was like, “What is a jelly?” And he told me, “Just a difficult layup.” I guess dunking isn’t what it was for some of these kids. ■

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wireavailable right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.

Cam Kirk (director), Karin Hammerberg (executive producer), Chika Okafor (associate producer), Frankie Coto and Ivan Dudynsky (directors of photography), Jimmy Duhon and Matt Guidry (camera ops), Craig Carter and Corey St Amant (camera assistants), Dan Hagouel (jib op), Mike Provence (jib op AC), Stephanie Wilmers (UPM), Geoffrey Petersen and Gregory “SLICE” Chestnut (production coordinators), Jay Carey, Noland Rogers and Tim Jones (gaffers), Tony Garcia (DIT), Juan Nunez and Josh Wood (audio), Ryan “Owl” Dwyer (art director), Chris Coto (art PA), Ashley Cordova (makeup), Zach Stauffer, Chase Rubin and Jamila Jackson (production assistants), Don Meek and Marni Colon (deviants producers), Rob Arrucci (senior editor), George Anagonostakos (post producer), Scott Owsley (junior editor), Maxwell Carow and Lance Becker (GFX), Sage Velastegui (color).

Music by YSL Gunna "Drip or Drown." Starring Vince Carter. Featuring Cassius Stanley.

Headshots via Getty Images. Highlight footage via NBA, TNT, ESPN, ABC, NBC.