NBA at 75: Spectacle takes center stage at the 1986 Slam Dunk Contest

Atlanta Hawks, NBA All-Star Game, NBA at 75

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The Over and Back NBA podcast is celebrating the NBA at 75 by rewatching some of the greatest Slam Dunk Contests in NBA history.

The 1986 NBA slam-dunk contest is famous for being the night when spectacle took center stage.

5-foot-6 Atlanta Hawks point guard Michael Anthony Jerome “Spud” Webb probably wasn’t the night’s best dunker. He didn’t have the biggest or the best dunks, but none of that mattered. What Spud lacked in traditional “great dunks” he made up for in showmanship. The 1986 NBA slam-dunk contest was a changing of the guard moment for the competition.

What was a “great dunk” anyway?

What determined who the best dunker was?

The competition featured several guys who fit the mold of a traditional great dunker: shooting guards and small forwards around the 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-8 range, all explosive athletes capable of rising well above the rim to slam home a dunk.

Traditions are meant to be broken. And in 1986, what we knew about great dunkers and great dunks was thrown out the window.

On this night, the dunk contest became much more than just an athletic competition. It became a spectacle, a sideshow in all the right ways.

Spud Webb took the 1986 Slam Dunk Contest in a whole new direction

Fresh off an appearance on The Tonight Show, Webb, a rookie, dazzled his hometown audience in Dallas en route to a shocking defeat of teammate Dominique Wilkins.

Still, the shortest player to ever win a dunk contest, Webb’s performance led to him receiving national endorsements from Coca-Cola, Hardee’s, Chips Ahoy! and more.

From 1986 onward, the NBA slam-dunk contest became as much of a sideshow as a competition. The crowd’s influence in determining a winner became apparent and would be a central theme throughout the years of the competition.

On this night, tradition was thrown out of the window.

The 1984 contest was about looking to the past to build for the future, in 1986, the future had arrived and it arrived in the smallest package possible.

The 1986 Slam Dunk Contest competitors

Roy Hinson: One of the key players for the still-rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers, Hinson parlayed a career year with Cleveland into a trade that saw him move to Philadelphia for the 1986 #1 overall pick (Brad Daughtery).

Jerome Kersey: The second-year Portland Trail Blazers forward was still figuring out his place in the NBA. He would eventually become a franchise cornerstone for the Blazers.

Paul Pressey: A steady role player for the contending Milwaukee Bucks.

Terence Stansbury: Perhaps the first true “dunk contest guy.” Stansbury would play only three NBA seasons but participate in three NBA slam-dunk contests (1985, 1986 & 1987).

Terry Tyler: The oldest competitor in the slam-dunk contest, Tyler broke in with the 1979 Detroit Pistons as a reliable forward on both ends of the court. He’s representing the lowly Sacramento Kings at this point.

Spud Webb: The 87th overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft, nobody could have expected Webb to even make the league at 5’6 let alone participate in a slam-dunk competition.

Dominique Wilkins: The constant of the first three NBA slam-dunk contests, Wilkins is a full-blown superstar at this point and would lead the league in scoring this season.

Gerald Wilkins: The younger brother of Dominique, Gerald was a late replacement in the competition for the injured Orlando Woolridge. A very good player unfortunately in the shadow of his older brother.

The competition

The beautiful absurdity of the 1986 slam-dunk contest began almost immediately as Webb did a reverse dunk that hit off the top of his head and out of the basket, confusing judges and fans alike as to whether the dunk actually went in.

Stansbury, who above I mentioned as the very-first “dunk contest guy”, is one of the more underrated dunk contest dunkers of all time and he started his run in the 1986 contest by hitting his legendary 360 Statue of Liberty dunk.

Stansbury, unlike many of the early dunk contest participants, wasn’t a well-known or high-level player. He’d play three total NBA seasons and participate in a slam-dunk contest during each of those years. Over the years, we’ll become familiar with several guys who are in the dunk contest simply because they are great dunkers but Stansbury is perhaps the first and arguably one of the best.

Not content with simply being Dominique’s younger brother, Gerald scored a 50 with a beautiful free-throw (ish) line dunk over a chair. Terry Tyler did a basic dunk a few feet in front of the free-throw line… thanks for coming Terry.

Jerome Kersey, who would trade high-flying for stable all-around play on the court, threw the ball off the backboard for a beautiful one-handed dunk. He and Stansberry would soon enter a dunk-off to break the first-round tie. Stansbury dazzled with a double-clutch reverse, Kersey missed his dunk and lost the dunk-off.

In the second round, the momentum of Webb was building. This guy wasn’t just here because of the hilarity of a small guy dunking, it was clear this dude may win the whole thing. Webb staked his claim to the second round with a bounce off the court then the 5-foot-6 guard grabbed the ball and did a reverse that made the crowd go insane.

Another 50.

Could he really do this?

It wouldn’t be fair to say Dominique Wilkins was jealous of his Hawks teammate but he definitely wanted to remind people this was his competition and the defending champion threw down an explosive windmill to take back control. Later in the second round, Hawkins hits another one of his famous dunks: a split-legged double-clutch reverse dunk that’s delivered with such velocity you would’ve thought a grenade went off in the building.

Despite a valiant attempt by Stansbury, we ended up with an all-Atlanta Hawks final as Webb battled the defending champion, Wilkins, for the crown.

Webb started the final round with an insane 360. A 360. Spud Webb is 5-foot-6. Spud Webb couldn’t palm the ball. Before the contest, Webb told the New York Times, “I can do any dunk the rest of them can do, except dunk two balls at a time like Dr. J… my hands are too small to palm the ball.”

It didn’t matter. Spud Webb just did a 360 dunk.

Wilkins countered with a 360 dunk on his own, it was insanely impressive, it was Dominique hitting a 360. It looked great, it sounded great. It had everything you could want out of a traditional dunk contest dunk.

Tradition stinks.

This showed the new era of the slam-dunk contest, the gimmick, the sideshow, the spectacle. It was all done to perfection here. With each subsequent Spud Webb leap through the air, the crowd grew more and more invested in their hometown boy.

Who among us can’t find inspiration in Webb, a man with the height of a very normal human being, quite literally floating in the air to throw down dunks nobody his size should have any business doing. Webb was defying both gravity and logic. On this night, the Dallas crowd had no time for the naturally-gifted athletes and instead was fully invested in the man called “Spud” defying the odds.

The judges award Wilkins a 50 for his 360, the Dallas crowd booed heavily. They’d made their choice. They’d picked their winner. Don’t take this from them.

Spud’s final dunk continued this night of unbelievability as the ball bounced off the floor, against the backboard and threw it through the rim with one hand. Ladies and gentlemen, it was over. Another 50.

This was Spud Webb’s night.

Wilkins finished the competition with his infamous nuclear-bomb baseline windmill. The judges — including Cowboys legend Roger Staubach and, who else, of course, women’s tennis legend Martina Navratilova — took their sweet time getting the scores in. As they decided, chants of SPUD! SPUD! SPUD! rained out over the arena.

Wilkins got a 48 and it was over. His quest to repeat … dashed. The slam-dunk championship stayed in Atlanta but the trophy — which was only a couple feet shorter than Webb — was in his hands. The storybook ending.

For this win, Webb took him $12,500. That’s NBA league fine money in 2022. It would barely make a dent in most players’ salaries today. In 1986, though, that $12,500 represented roughly 20 percent of Webb’s yearly rookie-minimum salary of $70,000.

Webb would participate in future slam-dunk contests but never reach the highs he did on this night.

His actual NBA career would defy logic as well as he went from a bench/role player on the competitive Atlanta Hawks to the centerpiece of the early 90s Sacramento Kings, scoring a career-high 16 points-per-game in 1992.

This night, though, Webb not only transformed his life but gave us all a look at what the slam-dunk contest could be. Everything that has made slam-dunk contests fun, theatrics over the last four decades, can all be rooted in this night, this moment and the 5-foot-6 Spud Webb gliding through the air as a raucous Dallas, Texas audience chanted his name.

SPUD! SPUD! SPUD!

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Check out more reflections in our NBA at 75 series and subscribe to The Whiteboard to make sure you keep up with all our latest NBA news and analysis.

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