PHOENIX -- There's no more important part of All-Star weekend than the dunk contest. If you want to know the state of the NBA in any given year, check the Saturday night dunks. It's the one-stop measure of athletic ability and creativity, the essence of the league. Without those two components, we'd still be looking at two-hand set shots.
A couple of hours after commissioner David Stern proclaimed this a "golden age" for the NBA, Nate Robinson and Dwight Howard demonstrated why, from a competitive and artistic standpoint, the league is thriving right now.
These dunkers have gone literally beyond the regulations and boundaries of the game. In the first round you had Rudy Fernandez running from out of bounds, catching a lob from behind the backboard and throwing it down. Denver's Sonny Weems threw an alley-oop from the stands to teammate J.R. Smith.
But the night really belonged to Howard and Robinson. Howard threw a ball off the side of the backboard, cocked back to the right edge of the lane and slammed in a dunk so nasty it made Robinson wince over on the sidelines. Howard also brought out a 12-foot rim and dunked on that.
Robinson's big moments came within the 94x50 court. He dunked on the standard 10-foot hoop. The only rules he defied were the laws of physics.
There's no way someone 5-foot-9 should be able to hang in the air long enough to catch a ball, wheel it all the way around and slam it home. He can't be expected to step off the back of Knicks teammate Wilson Chandler (who was on his hands and knees) and still elevate all the way to the hoop.
And he definitely shouldn't be able to soar over the shoulders of the 6-foot-11 Howard (wearing his cape) and do him like Vince Carter did Frederic Weis. It was like a remixed version of the old TV show intro: "Able to leap tall Supermen in a single bound." That was the one that sealed it for the 2009 champion.
"I thank God for the ability to be able to jump," Robinson said. "It's pretty cool. Pretty awesome."
But if it was simply about soaring high into the air, they could have had a pole vault competition at USAirways Saturday night. Guys like Robinson and Howard understand the show-biz element of the NBA. They know sometimes mere competition isn't enough.
Howard made a dramatic entrance into a phone booth and emerged with his Superman cape. Not to be outdone in the costume department, Robinson changed into a green Knicks uniform, with shoes that matched the lemon-lime soft drink sponsor's color scheme. (I'm sure Stern would have given him a perfect 50 just for the corporate tie-in.)
Robinson claimed he was now KryptoNate, to nullify Howard's super powers. Clever. Too bad that line came from Robinson's agent.
It was all entertaining ... and all very necessary if the league is going to keep advancing.
There were some great dunk contests in the 1980s, when the NBA was in its heyday. You had stars like Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins, the precursor to Nate in Spud Webb, with the occasional Terence Stansbury thrown in. Those were classic.
The forgettable dunk contests of the mid-1990s, won by the likes of Isaiah Rider and Harold Miner, reflected a league that was struggling to find a post-Jordan identity during his first retirement. Carter's scintillating 2000 performance might have revived the dunk contest (after it had been canceled the previous two years), but the event fell into a funk again in subsequent years.
The contest started turning around in 2005, thanks to Josh Smith's throwback nod to Dominique in Denver, the site of the NBA's first dunk contest in 1984. And we've had a good run ever since, with more props, more jaw-dropping dunks and more innovation, like Gerald Green's birthday-cake dunk.
It works these days because the competitors really care. Howard seemed genuinely disappointed that he couldn't stay behind the free throw line for takeoff on his final dunk. Robinson was ecstatic to claim the trophy that's almost as big as him.
Most important of all, there's inspiration. The game can't advance without minds seeking out new directions, imagining greater things. Someone had to think up the crossover dribble, then develop it. A new mind will have to come up with the next move. Think of the dunk contest as the test lab for the new level of hoops.
I asked Robinson how he keeps coming up with new ideas.
"Believe it or not, video games," Robinson said, citing NBA 2K9. "They got the dunk contest, they do crazy dunks. You go back and play NBA Jam, like in the '90s, they got the crazy dunks on there, the two-hand windmill, front flip. You've just got to use your imagination. When you do that, the sky's the limit."