Blame league, not LeBron

DENVER -- Disappointed that LeBron James isn't dunking this All-Star Weekend?

Me, too.

Very disappointed, actually.

But not with LeBron.

I'm the last guy who's going to single out the kid for passing on the dunk contest when every other name dunker does it ... and when he's showing up for everything else this weekend in spite of a bad ankle and the flu ... and when obsessing over LeBron's participation overshadows the real issue.

The league, folks, needs to fix the dunk contest first before we start hammering James for skipping it.

The abomination known as the spinning wheel didn't work. Neither does this Rising Stars stuff where only dunkers with three years or fewer of NBA service are invited to thrill us.

The NBA needs to try something else: cash. However sad it is that today's young stars are probably only going to be lured back to the dunk stage by big money -- and we're agreeing with those of you who want to rail about what a disappointment that is -- it's reality. It's just how it is now, and Michael Jordan would probably have the same attitude if he were dunking today.

So it's time, Commish.

Unless there's some way you can force All-Stars to participate in the various weekend events through the force of collective bargaining -- an idea that has been discussed, incidentally -- it's time for David Stern to spare no expense to restore the dunk contest to its proper glory.

Let's make one last well-financed run at fixing this thing. Let's get the shoe companies and all the league's other sponsors kicking in something until the jackpot reaches at least seven figures. Maybe you make it winner-take-all. Maybe you wheel out a barrel full of green right onto the floor, surrounded by armed guards, before the dunkers start taking off. Year after year we've seen sponsors put up $1 million for some fan who'd be lucky to hit the rim from the 3-point line. It's the opportunity of a lifetime for the fan who's shooting the Million Dollar Shot, but what does that do for the public's greater good?

Imagine instead how sleepless we'd be the night before a high-stakes dunk contest offering riches so high that none of the big names could say no.

Kobe Bryant. Vince Carter. His cousin T-Mac.

Amare Stoudemire to represent the big guys.

Manu Ginobili as the foremost foreign flier.

Steve Francis from the small set.


There are more good dunkers now than there were in the glory days. Jason Richardson, Desmond Mason, Josh Smith ... put some of those guys with the names above and you'd have a dunk epic to make Mike vs. 'Nique seem pedestrian.

Maybe I'm gullible. Maybe I'm taking a leap when I bet that if the money were right, the big names would come back. They'd have to, wouldn't they? How strange would folks look refusing a dunk invite with so much cash on offer?

I guess I'm gullible enough to believe that pride and peer pressure would help us out if the dollars on offer were significantly sizable.

Maybe that's because Golden State's Richardson recently told me that, as disappointed as he was not to earn All-Star reserve honors in the West, he'd have been dunking in Denver had he known for sure that LeBron was competing. The best attract the best.

That's why I truly believe the dunk contest ain't dead yet. Sure it'd be nice if we didn't have to beg the big names back with exorbitant amounts of cash, but it's not the same NBA it was in 1984. And if it's the fans who stand to benefit most, sponsors, isn't the expense worthwhile?

Regular readers of the Stein Line know how much we treasure the dunk contest. Your faithful correspondent grew up on the not-so-mean streets of south Orange County, where the best baller in our neighborhood was Adam Keefe. Yet even so, even in our sheltered O.C. world, there was nothing bigger than the dunk contest on the calendar. Nothing. It was bigger than the prom. The fever started for me here in Denver -- in 1984, when the NBA resuscitated the ABA's concept -- and I can't remember any party, movie or group gathering from my high school years that generated more anticipation. And I felt that way long before my fave Cedric Ceballos took off blindfolded to win the 1992 dunk-off.

So it's no exaggeration, to me at least, to make such a big deal about what's happened to our favorite All-Star Weekend event.

It likewise makes no sense in this cyberspace to bash LeBron, even if during Friday's rookie-soph matchup he showed he was healthy to compete, or even if he's saving his very best dunks for Sunday's real deal. LeBron alone can't save the dunk contest.

Once the league decides to put some money into this fixer-upper project, then we'll start bashing the dunkers who snub the All-Star fandom.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.