Perspective | That one time LeBron said he’d participate in the dunk contest

Perspective | That one time LeBron said he’d participate in the dunk contest

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

There has never been an NBA all-star quite like LeBron James. On Sunday, James will set the record with his 20th All-Star Game appearance. Two decades of excellence. Yet there’s a small smudge on this sterling record: LeBron, the game’s brightest star, has never competed in a slam dunk contest.

There was that one time, however, when he said he would.

More than a decade has passed since LeBron wore that impossibly loud yellow cardigan and publicly declared he would dunk during the 2010 All-Star Weekend. That brief interview — and maybe that sweater — have faded. A broadcast moment lost in the cobwebs of YouTube. But those 30 seconds live on for the Turner Sports president with history and the NBA on TNT producer with tunnel vision, the Klutch Sports CEO who represents LeBron and the creative director who dreamed of promoting him in the contest and for the league vice president who knew better.

They will never forget the moment when LeBron kinda, sorta, maybe committed to the 2010 slam dunk contest.

Stu Jackson, league honcho: Annually, before 2009, we reached out to several of the game’s elite-slash-superstar level players to participate in the dunk contest. The reasons are obvious.

David Levy, network president: The premier event of the All-Star Weekend is the slam dunk competition.

Rodney Vaughn, show producer: We would start having meetings with the league sometime early in December. About venue, about participants, about the contest, about tweaks that they wanted to do. They would kind of give us ideas on who they were going to approach, and it was kind of conversations back and forth about who was confirmed.

Levy: I’ve been around the All-Star Weekend all the way back to when Michael Jordan won it in Chicago for that famous leap from the foul line. In those days, you were getting Michael Jordan and you were getting Dominique Wilkins. You were getting Spud Webb, and you were getting really big names in this tournament.

Rich Paul, king maker: Back then, that was the highlight of the All-Star Weekend. Everybody grew up wanting to be part of the dunk contest.

Drew Watkins, creative director: You saw things that your imagination couldn’t even bring you to — you had to see it to believe it, literally. And Vince Carter did the same thing [in 2000]. He unlocked something for people that they couldn’t imagine.

Vaughn: The names started to change. J.R. Smith one year. J.R. Smith hadn’t made a name for himself at that time. You know, Rudy Fernández. Uh, I’m trying to think of the former Pacer who did it one year.

Jackson: So in an effort to try and amplify our highest-rated event during our most important weekend, we reached out to some of the league’s best players. And more times than not, we were met with a giant “No.” While we were disappointed as a league, personally I get it. To participate in a dunk contest and not be successful could in some way have damaged their brand and their business.

Paul: I saw Dr. J make a comment the other day about guys don’t do it because of their ego. Obviously, ego plays a role in everything, but for me, just as representation, I advise guys not to do it. These guys coming into the league, first of all, they play way too much basketball, and I look at those takeoffs and landings. My advice is probably not going to be as liked, but I’m trying to preserve them. Me personally.

Levy: I at one point talked to the NBA about possibly having an amateur contest maybe a month before, and the winner then goes on to compete in the slam dunk competition. I thought that would’ve been awesome. How many people would’ve tuned in to see, you know, Bob beat LeBron James? And the NBA said there’s no way we can get that cleared through the collective bargaining agreement. Because they don’t want to be shown up by an amateur, right? It used to be mano a mano and all that, but it’s become brands.

Paul: The one year [2005] that LeBron was going to do it was his second or third year in the league. I think he had tweaked his ankle right before the All-Star Game, so he didn’t do it. He was really excited to do it and was going to do it, and I think he was only going to do it based upon the history of the dunk contest.

Jackson: I don’t recall the number of times that we approached LeBron’s team, but each time we did, they declined.

The stars stopped dunking, and that’s how we ended up with Fred Jones (a.k.a. That Pacer We All Forgot) winning in 2004 and tiny Nate Robinson putting on a cardio show in 2006. He needed 14 attempts — FOUR-TEEN — to execute his final dunk. While working as TNT analysts that night, Magic Johnson searched for something nice to say, while Charles Barkley found a silver lining in Robinson’s physical conditioning.

Magic Johnson, vertically blessed: Nate has done a great job for every little person out there in America.

Charles Barkley, fitness enthusiast: I want to congratulate Nate Robinson. That kid is in phenomenal shape.

Vaughn: You kind of feel it, and it kind of sucks the air out of the truck. Yeah, the energy’s gone out of the building, and it’s one of those things where you really can’t do anything about it except for just cover the moment and hope that the next guy up does something that’s spectacular.

Fast forward to 2009. All-Star Saturday night in Phoenix. The luminaries of the game — Kobe, Shaq, LeBron — were all courtside. And while the night’s entertainers competed for the crown, Kenny Smith and Reggie Miller provided the dunk commentary. As Dwight Howard prepared for his first attempt, Smith issued a challenge.

Kenny Smith, pot stirrer: I don’t know anyone in the NBA that dunks like [Howard] right now. No one. In a game. LeBron James doesn’t jump the way this guy jumps.

Reggie Miller, avid contrarian: Yes, he does.

Smith: Well, tell him to get into the contest and stop playin’.

Later in the show, Howard was about to dunk again, and TNT sideline reporter Cheryl Miller tracked down LeBron for an interview.

Levy: The whole LeBron thing, to be honest with you, was probably our executive producer knowing how challenging it is to get these guys to play in it and “Hey, let’s go up and see if we can convince them to play in it?”

Vaughn: It wasn’t planned.

Levy: A lot of times we try to do this, you try to intimidate — that’s the wrong word — you try to encourage live. You want to get that commit.

Vaughn: Earlier in the show, Kenny and Reggie were talking about LeBron needing to get into this competition to solidify his legacy. And they wouldn’t let it go. And as a producer of that show, all I’m trying to do is to keep the train on the tracks and also let them do their thing. That moment itself, the only thing that was planned was me telling my director that Cheryl’s going to go get LeBron. We should definitely make sure that we’ve got a camera there to cover it.

Cheryl Miller, intrepid reporter: Now Kenny Smith is trying to out you for next year’s competition. You guys are pointing at each other. Inquiring minds and the fans want to know: LeBron, are you going to compete next year?

LeBron James, potential dunker: Right now, I’m preliminary putting my name in the 2010 dunk contest on Saturday night. LeBron James is saying that in 2010, in Dallas Stadium, primarily I’m putting my name in the dunk contest.

Wait. What? LeBron James just announced live on TV that he’s going to dunk in 2010!?! Cue the reactions.

Watkins: When he made the statement, everybody in our edit truck lost it for a little bit.

Vaughn: What does he mean “primarily?”

Levy: It would be a ratings boost. It would be great for the NBA brand.

Vaughn: I thought he said “preliminary” but he came back and said “primarily.”

Watkins: We understood what it represented for us. As the group that makes the commercials and promotions for NBA All-Star TNT. We were like, “Okay, wow!” This is going to be the biggest promotional push that we’ve been involved in for All-Star because we finally we’re going to have this moment for LeBron, fulfilling a lot of people’s dreams of being in that contest.

But this blue sky fantasy lasted for only so long. The night’s producer had to get on with the show. The creative director tried to hush his doubts. And the league executive remained planted in reality.

Vaughn: It didn’t make us think anything other than “Okay we’ve got something to look forward to.” If I’m not mistaken, Dwight Howard still had another dunk, which he was going to don the Superman cape. So we were on to the next thing at that point.

Watkins: Honestly, it was in real time tinged with a little bit of “Is this too good to be true?”

Jackson: It was a very significant public moment, but from a league office perspective, I was — how should I say this? — apprehensive about whether or not a year later LeBron would participate in the dunk contest.

Watkins: You ever sit around with your friends and discuss what you would do if you win the Powerball or something? You know deep down inside, you’re probably not going to win, but it’s fun to sit there and think about how big you can go with it. So we had that similar moment where we sat down and talked about how big we can go with it, but all the while kind of knowing in the back of minds there’s a long time for this rug to be pulled out from under us. That was the mood in the truck.

Jackson and Watkins were right. LeBron’s flirtation with the dunk contest was just that.

Jackson: I didn’t think it was going to happen, but I kept it to myself. And then at the appropriate time I followed up to see if there was interest. And I don’t remember when I followed up with his camp, but I did, and once again, we were told “No.”

Levy: He probably went back and people said: “What are you doing?!”

Vaughn: I don’t think that the league was going to try to hold him to that, but I think probably planning for the next year in Dallas, we got word pretty early that he wasn’t going to be a participant. And there’s nothing you can do about it. It would’ve been the most viewed, first of all. From a business standpoint of what that would’ve done, the ratings would’ve been phenomenal. In my opinion, there’s no doubt he would’ve won.

Jackson: LeBron will go down in history as one of the greatest players to ever play the game, deservedly so. But I always felt that, with the dunk contest, that maybe he felt his style of dunking — which is very powerful and very emphatic, almost like a runaway locomotive — was not conducive to a style and flair for a NBA dunk contest. I always felt that perhaps he may have felt that he wouldn’t be as creative or as fluid as some of the other dunkers in the past to get that type of execution and wow factor in the scoring.

Paul: As time went on and he started to focus more on his body, he shied away from it. He didn’t want to do it. I’ll never push him to do anything he didn’t want to do. I just feel like that ship has sailed.

Watkins: I actually think what he did was very important in this other thing that he’s building his legacy off of, which is enhancing the idea of player empowerment and control of your own narrative. Him not being in the dunk contest and rejecting the Michael Jordan path, and the Michael Jordan path says when you’re young and exciting, go and be in the dunk contest.

LeBron finding inspiration but not necessarily having to emulate everything that Michael Jordan did and doing it his way, that’s important. And maybe you have to sacrifice that night of seeing him in the dunk contest to get the other stuff that comes along with personal choice. I’m probably a little more understanding than most. Most people would be like: “Whatever, dude! We just want to see him dunk!”

And so we have one of the great “What If?” moments in NBA history. What if LeBron James had dunked in 2010? What if he had revolutionized the contest? What if his participation had influenced today’s generation of reluctant superstars? We will never know. Alas, the memory lives on, and we will always have that yellow sweater.

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