Dominique Wilkins and Nate Robinson Explain Why the Dunk Contest Still Matters

Old School vs. New School is an eternal sports debate. No matter the sport, the topic, or the actual significance of the conversation, there is almost always a stark divide between the people who remember what ball was like in the ‘80s and those who came of age in the 21st century. The NBA Slam Dunk Contest—which has in recent years been consumed by “This used to be better!” chatter—is certainly no exception. But there’s one gigantic difference between the old heads and the younger crowd when it comes to the Dunk Contest—according to members of each generation who participated in it.

“I never went in the gym before the Dunk Contest and practiced those dunks. Not once!” said Dominique Wilkins, winner of the 1985 and 1990 contests. “I can tell you, neither did Michael [Jordan]. He didn’t have to practice that. He was doing it in the games! I hear about guys now going to secret gyms and all that stuff. We didn’t have to do none of that.”

Counterpoint: “I would practice them all the time,” said Nate Robinson, king of the new school, and the only three-time Dunk Contest champion. “After practice, I would always dunk. In high school, after we got done hooping, working out, training, whatever, we always dunked. That’s how we fell in love with the Dunk Contest. It was always on my mind.”

The 39th edition of the Dunk Contest—which, for many fans, remains the signature event of NBA All-Star Weekend—is set for Saturday night in Indianapolis. Wilkins will be one of four judges, while Robinson will serve as AT&T’s Chief Dunk Officer, providing firsthand analysis and expertise on what it takes to excel on dunking’s biggest night. Both men have heard the unavoidable noise about their beloved exhibition being just that, an exhibition. In speaking to the pair, though, I clocked a true sense of pride in their accomplishments, as well as several reminders that their high-wire act is not nearly as simple as the average joe might think.

“I can tell you, it’s not a dog and pony show,” Wilkins asserts. “People who have never dunked don’t realize how difficult it is to do some of that stuff. When you get out there, you have to have a creative mind and the athleticism to do something spectacular. It’s not easy. Anyone can dunk in a game. That’s not difficult at all. But when you’re trying to use style to be better than everyone else? That’s tough to do.”

Apart from playing in disparate eras—Wilkins’ Hall of Fame career spanned from 1982 to 1999, while Robinson’s time in the NBA lasted from 2005 to 2015—the other main separator between the two dunk doctors is their height. Wilkins stands at a towering 6’8”. For Robinson, the Dunk Contest is usually the second thing people think of when his name comes up. The first? His 5’9” stature. “Do you know how hard it is to throw it off the backboard, catch it, go between the legs, and dunk it? At 5’9”! It’s almost impossible,” Robinson says with a good-natured laugh.

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