It has been a long time since any Lakers have had any success in the Slam Dunk contest.
The franchise hasn’t had a player win the event since Kobe Bryant in 1997, a year when the event was so widely panned that the league skipped it in 1998 before Vince Carter and Co. brought it back with a vengeance two years later.
The Lakers have only had one player even compete in the dunk contest since then, back in 2010 when Let Shannon Dunk turned out to be a dramatic misnomer of a campaign. Pau Gasol was weirdly present as a passer for Spanish teammate Rudy Fernandez in 2009, but that effort resulted in another fourth-place finish.
Larry Nance Jr. was supposed to end the streak in 2018 — at Staples Center, to boot — but he was traded to Cleveland right before All-Star Weekend and took the floor in a Cavaliers jersey. It was a nice homage to his father, the inaugural NBA slam dunk champ whose jersey is retired in Cleveland, but it continued a dry spell for the Lakers.
That ten-year absence from the premier event of All-Star Saturday finally comes to an end in 2020, as Dwight Howard will be representing the Lakers in his fourth appearance in the dunk contest. Although Howard is a legend of this event, at 34 years old, he isn’t expected to bring another trophy back to Los Angeles. Instead, Howard’s waning athleticism makes his participation more of an oddity than a draw for fans, myself included.
As I’ve given Howard’s past dunks another look, though, I’m getting more and more excited about his inclusion, and that’s because Dwight Howard understands the showmanship of the Dunk Contest. He may not be able to dunk on a 12-foot rim anymore, at least not with the ease he did in 2009, but there’s no reason Howard shouldn’t be able to entertain in this year’s event. And that’s really the whole point, isn’t it?
I love the Dunk Contest. It’s silly. The audience — specifically the NBA players in attendance — is itching to celebrate with abandon, waiting for something special to make them jump out of their seats. Magic Johnson uses the same catch phrases each year, Kenny Smith is more invested in his analysis of the dunks than any TNT Thursday night game, and there are always gratuitous crowd shots of Jerome Williams. It’s a ridiculous night, compounded with ridiculous outfits, and it’s usually a ton of fun.
The beauty of the Dunk Contest is that the best moments aren’t necessarily the ones that feature the most difficult dunks. The theatrics make the show.
Dwight Howard is remembered most for his Superman dunk in 2008, when he removed his Orlando Magic jersey to reveal a hilariously-undersized Man of Steel costume that his teammate Jameer Nelson later adorned with a cape. The dunk was certainly impressive, given that Howard essentially threw the ball in Space Jam-style, but it wasn’t on the level of his behind-the-basket dunk later in the competition, or even when he tipped the ball off the backboard to himself and dunked with the other hand.
But the hilarity of Howard emerging as Superman makes that dunk the most memorable, and the most fun to rewatch. The dunk contest is admittedly designed to celebrate the athletic feats of the NBA’s bounciest players, but even the best dunks require some production value.
Think of Blake Griffin bringing out a choir, and a Kia, to perform probably his most basic dunk of the 2011 competition. Or Aaron Gordon enlisting the help of Stuff the Magic Dragon on a hoverboard, and then instructing him to spin.
My personal favorite Dwight Howard dunk is the sticker dunk of 2007. It’s yet another original from Howard, and the forethought to print and sign a sticker with his face on it, while also having a sign ready with the height of his jump, shows that Howard understands that there’s more to the dunk contest than simply dunking.
The dunk was dramatically underscored, probably because the judges didn’t realize Howard had a sticker in his hand until after the dunk was complete. Howard learned from his mistakes and made no attempts to be subtle in 2008.
And that’s what Howard is going to have to lean on in this year’s competition: his charisma. He doesn’t have the best vertical in the field, and he might even be fourth considering what we’ve seen from Aaron Gordon, Derrick Jones Jr., and Pat Connaughton. Those three are firmly in their athletic primes while Howard has aged out of his.
But Howard has embarked on a real-life redemption story this year, and for the first time since arguably the last time he appeared in the dunk contest, he’s likable. That can’t hurt with the judges. Fun fact: One of them is Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker, who happens to be Howard’s former high school prom date.
There’s a popular narrative that the 3-point shootout threatens to eclipse the drama of the dunk contest because all of the biggest stars choose to participate in that event while very few elect to dunk. Even LeBron James once said he’d do the 3-point shootout if invited while he’s famously ducked the dunk contest for the entirety of his career.
But Dwight Howard is a big name, and an icon of the Dunk Contest. His return to the competition, however belated, brings some real star power. A franchise long associated with glitz and showtime should be a part of the biggest spectacle of All-Star Weekend.
Howard has clearly put some thought into his participation. He held off on confirming his rumored appearance for weeks, presumably because he wanted to own the moment of his own announcement (again: showmanship) and he even said he had reached out to Bryant to help him, later adding that Bryant had indicated he would help him in some form. Howard isn’t taking this lightly, and that is reason enough to tune in.
Dwight Howard’s 2019-20 season has been a blast from the past, a pleasant surprise as Howard has regained some of the production and the dominance that defined the earlier part of his career. Bringing back the levity and the success from those early All-Star Saturday appearances would be another wonderful chapter in his storybook return to the Lakers.
NBA All-Star Saturday night will kick off on TNT at 5:00 p.m. PST, with the dunk contest being the last of the three events. You can find the full weekend schedule and thread here, and for more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.