Dud dunk contest sets back Saturday

By John Hollinger

DALLAS -- Inevitably, it doesn’t matter how good or bad the events are leading up to the finale -- the dunk contest always defines All-Star Saturday. When it’s good, fans come away slobbering enthusiastically, like they did in Atlanta in 2003 after the epic dunk-off between Jason Richardson and Desmond Mason.

And when it’s bad, it leaves people walking away with mouths agape and palms upturned, wondering why they just spent the last hour watching such dreck. Saturday’s Sprite Slam Dunk contest, unfortunately, fell in the latter category. It was without a doubt the worst one since the infamous Wheel of Fortune contest in 2002.

That Nate Robinson won for the third time is a mere footnote to the been-there, done-that nature of every attempt of the night save one. Even that bright light in an otherwise dank tunnel -- a windmill slam by Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan after Sonny Weems passed it off the side of the backboard, deservedly earning the night’s lone perfect score -- was marked as much by the skill of the passer than the dunker.

This year's event also lacked two other key elements: star power and theater. The past couple of dunk contests weren’t works of art either, but were salvaged by Dwight Howard’s Superman routine and Nate Robinson’s Krypto-Nate response.

This year? There was nothing. Robinson could hardly get worked up about facing off with a rookie from north of the border, and no other notable rivalries filled the void.

Which was to be expected given the participants. Memo to the league: If the biggest star you can get to participate is Gerald Wallace, it might be time to either up the prize money or rethink the contest.

Somehow, the league needs to restore the originality, creativity, and what-will-they-think-of-next wonder that the contest supplied for most of the past two decades. It was running on fumes the past few years, however, before the event's fuel tank hit E Saturday. Without some new ideas, it’s unlikely to last as Saturday’s signature event.

It’s a shame the dunk contest was so lame because the rest of the events were pretty good. The Foot Locker 3-Point Contest featured such sharp shooting that it took 17 points just to get out of the first round, and Boston’s Paul Pierce won it with an equally sharp shooting display in Round 2 to outlast Golden State rookie Stephen Curry.

And in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, Phoenix’s 36-year-old Steve Nash rallied from (his estimate) two and a half hours of sleep and a missed practice session to prevail over three competitors a decade younger.

“It makes it OK when you win a resume-builder like this," he joked afterward.

Nash won despite the fact that a lollygagging camera crew nearly low-bridged him at the start of his final run.

“I just wondered if they wanted me to jump over them," said Nash. "I'm just lucky that I didn't hurt myself because I was already a little stiff. So it was nice that they could move."

Nonetheless, the strong undercard couldn't make up for the weak finish. For the NBA to get more mileage out of All-Star Saturday, it needs to rethink the dunk contest. Between the lack of star power and the absence of originality, the current arrangement no longer cuts the mustard.