Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins’ controversial Dunk Contest finish needs a deep rewind

Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins’ controversial Dunk Contest finish needs a deep rewind

February 23, 2020 100 By Stanley Isaacs


– It’s judgment time. It’s February 6th, 1988. NBA All-Star Weekend at Chicago Stadium, where the home crowd is going bananas for Michael Jordan’s final
dunk of the competition. The stylish, gliding, one-handed flush. Now, the onus is on the judges. That dunk needs a near-perfect score for MJ to win this contest over fellow finalist Dominique Wilkins. Before the judges make their ruling, we need to understand
what has already happened, in this contest, in prior contests, and in this sparkling
head-to-head rivalry. We gotta rewind. (glistening music cue) So, Jordan needs a high
score on this last dunk, at least a 49, to win this contest against Dominique Wilkins. Whatever the outcome, it’ll
be one more data point in a friendly, admiring rivalry that’s got a decent amount of history already. Dominique went to high
school in North Carolina, but broke hearts by committing to the University of Georgia in 1979. A couple years later, a
fellow Carolina high schooler stayed local, accepting
a scholarship at UNC. The age difference here is narrow enough that these two met once in
college, in February of 1982. The big story was the
battle between Wilkins and his senior Tar Heel
counterpart James Worthy, but the freshman UNC guard
made his presence felt. Here he is getting ‘Nique in the air with a pretty sweet pump fake. That spring, Jordan helped
UNC win the NCAA tournament. Wilkins was drafted by the Utah Jazz, but became an Atlanta
Hawk soon thereafter, and spent a couple years
improving as a scorer for a team that still couldn’t make much noise in the playoffs. In 1984, Michael joined
Dominique in the pros and found himself in a
comparable situation. Jordan was an instant
star, but it took some time for the rest of his team to catch up, especially when eastern
stalwarts like the Pistons and Celtics were at their playoff best. While their supporting cast developed, these two built a fantastic
head-to-head rivalry that reached a new level last season. In December of ’86,
Wilkins dropped 57 points in a blow-out victory over MJ’s Bulls. His final field goal of the night would’ve gotten a decent
score in tonight’s contest. Jordan had 41 points of his own, and (beep) crammed on Tree Rollins. The two gushed over one
another after the game, and in fact, during the game,
exchanging the occasional “Great move,” or, “Great
steal,” or “Nice dunk.” In a rematch toward
the end of that season, Jordan returned the favor with
a night of multiple feats. This bucket capped off a league record run of 23 straight points by himself, and but Jordan over 3,000
points on the season, a feat previously unique
to Wilt Chamberlain. Wilkins, though, hit
this last-second jumper to put Atlanta up three. Jordan had 61 points, but just missed a long-range buzzer
beater to tie the game. This highlights the distinction
we talked about before. Jordan is the superior of
these two marvelous players, but his Bulls posted a losing record, and got swept in the first
round of the ’87 playoffs. In Jordan’s three full seasons, the Bulls have won a playoff game. One game. Wilkins isn’t quite Michael, but his Hawks finished last season with 57 wins, and made it to the second round again. Atlanta’s had more time
to build around their star with younger complimentary players, like Big Man Kevin Willis,
and point guard Doc Rivers, who his play in his first
all-star game tomorrow, joining Wilkins and Hawks
head coach Mike Fratello. Jordan has lacked true costars,
cycled through head coaches, and never enjoyed real team success. But that might be changing. Chicago’s not far behind Atlanta in the standings this season. The Bulls are two and
two against the Hawks, a development Michael predicted. “Dominique always had more help.” Now Michael’s got help. Jordan’s got Doug Collins, his first head coach of
more than one season. Charles Oakley is really
coming into his own as a force at power forward. And two first year players, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, look ready
to take on bigger roles soon. And Jordan himself remains
the league’s top scorer, with Wilkins a distant second. This might finally be a winning squad. Michael’s team might
soon surpass Dominique’s. But that’s basketball. We’re not here to play basketball, we’re here to play dunks. Good news, this is just
as much a dunking rivalry as it is a basketball rivalry. Wilkins participated in
the first NBA Dunk Contest in 1984, alongside former
ABA slamming legends like Larry Nance, and
contest winner Julius Erving. At the 1985 contest in Indianapolis, a rookie MJ entered the chat. He and Dominique ended
up in the final together. Jordan’s best dunk in that round was this cradling reverse, which got a 49. Wilkins bounced the ball off the floor and the backboard to
reverse home a 50-pointer. Then he ended the thing with his signature two-hand windmill. Although comparing this degree of force to something as passive a
windmill feels insufficient. That thrilling ’85 final
demanded a rematch, but that was easier said than done. Jordan’s broken foot kept
him out of the contest in ’86, but Wilkins had
his hands full anyway because of his own teammate. 5’7″ Spud Webb, who pulled off the upset with a pair of 50s in the final round. In ’87, Dominique missed the contest because of general soreness, bummer. His brother, Gerald Wilkins, wasn’t bringing quite the same heat. Portland’s Jerome Kersey gave
Jordan a decent challenge, but MJ took it home by
closing the semi-final and final rounds with
basically the same dunk. He got a 50 both times. That brings us to tonight. Finally, both Wilkins and
Jordan are in the contest, and they’ve got a tough act to follow. Earlier today, Larry Bird
won his third straight three-point shootout,
canning the final shot while proclaiming himself number one. Awesome. Well, more good news. MJ and ‘Nique have stood
out from the bunch tonight. Some of that is relative. The field is only seven dunkers, because Cleveland’s Ron Harper was a
last-minute injury scratch. And, the only other champ here, Spud Webb, doesn’t have quite the same bounce just a year or so removed
from major knee surgery. Still dunking, though. There have been some cool finishes from the rest of the field, like Otis Smith’s high-up 360 tomahawk, which
got a 47 from the judges, and Clyde Drexler’s backhanded
360, which got a 46. But Jordan and Wilkins have headlined each of the three rounds. Jordan’s very first dunk looked
like an uncoiling spring. It was gorgeous, and
it immediately revealed the tough job the judges
have here in Chicago. Our panel of Gale Sayers, Johnny Green, Gail Goodrich, Tom Hawkins,
and Randy Smith, gave MJ a 47. Seems fine, but the crowd let ’em hear it. – [Announcer] Laying it
down, and the crowd responds. (crowd booing loudly) And only a 47, the crowd
not real happy with that. – [Seth] They only got grouchier when Dominique’s first dunk, this
powerful reverse, got a 49. – [Announcer] And really throws it down, that’s a good pop for Wilkins. And a 49 for Dominique Wilkins
to put him in first place. – [Seth] Jordan finished his first round with a slightly windmill-ier version of the same dunk and got a 47, more unrest from the rabble. – [Announcer] The crowd has booed the 47. – [Seth] And the booing
continued after Wilkin’s best entry of the second round, this massive one-handed
windmill, got a 49. This third and final round has been Dominique’s highest scoring. He got a 50 for absolutely launching to send one home off the glass. He got another 50 for this
huge baseline windmill. Jordan hasn’t quite kept up in the finals. He got a 50 for another soaring reverse, but his second dunk,
which was fairly similar to one of his first round dunks, got a 47, just like it did the first time. Thus, with one dunk left a piece, the home town favorite
trailed by three points. In ‘Nique earned better than a 47 on this final two-handed
windmill, he’d be uncatchable. He didn’t. – [Announcers] And the judges have awarded Dominique Wilkins a 45. That’s incredible. Could we call it a make good? – [Seth] Yeah, the announcers were a little suspicious of crowd influence. – [Announcer] You don’t think the crowd had some influence on the
judges on that last stutter. – [Seth] They certainly
recall how the Chicagoans handled prior perceived
slights to their local hero. – [Announcer] These
judges are going to need the National Guard to get
out of Chicago Stadium. – So, you wonder how the crowd factors in on the panel’s judgment of
MJ’s final dunk right now. And, how should they
judge this, objectively? Dunking from far out is not new. At the very first NBA contest in ’84, Dr. J put one down from just
inside the free throw line. That was kind of his thing. 7’4″ Ralph Sampson did the same, and so did Edgar Jones
with a long running start. There have been many similar dunks since, though Jordan is clearly the vanguard. His foot was right on the line
in ’85, and it got him a 50. He added a little pump
and leg flair in ’87 and got another 50. In fact, he did that again tonight, and these judges also gave it a 50. Which brings us to this last one. As he backed all the way
up, measuring his steps, the announcers wondered
how he’d evolve the dunk to get the 49 he needs to beat Wilkins, or if he even needed to. – [Announcers] If he can
somehow do some sort of spin on the way to the hoop, Rick, I think that would
almost insure it for him, coming this far away. All he needs to do is make
it from the free throw line like he did before, and he’ll win. – [Seth] But Jordan missed. Thankfully, the rules allow
him one replacement dunk, and he used it to do, well, precisely what we’ve seen from him before, maybe even a bit closer in. So what’s it gonna be, judges? This dunk contest is sort of a sideshow to the on-court rivalry
these men enjoy as players, in which MJ’s team might
finally be catching up to his individual superiority. But there’s mini rivalry
in this forum too. Wilkins holds an edge
because of his show-stealing performance in ’85, but also
because of Michael’s absence for the Spud Webb show
in ’86, and Dominique’s decision to drop out last season. The last Wilkins dunk maybe
got a little shortchanged. The Jordan dunk currently up for judgment has been done before, by
him, and perhaps better, but the judges know full well the reaction that awaits if they deliver a 48 or less. So let’s see what they say. Welcome to a moment in history. – [Announcers] Michael
Jordan’s score… 50! They gave it a 50, they gave Jordan a 50, he defends his championship. – 50, I wonder what the
announcers think about that. – [Announcer] Dominique
Wilkins got the short end of a very impressive dunk. Consistent judging all day until the last two dunks prior to this. This is Chicago. (laughter)