What defines a great slam dunk? It has to be special in a way that is hard to describe. It has to be unique, creative, and completely in the moment.
The best slam dunks are not necessarily the most challenging (although sometimes they still make the list) but rather something that captures the crowd at the given moment. Rakim, one of the greatest hip-hop emcees in the history of rap once said, “I want to move the crowd” and that is exactly what a basketball player transforms into when he throws it down.
Whether it’s for sheer entertainment purposes (i.e. a slam dunk competition) or in the crucial moments of the fourth quarter, different dunks mean different things and move the crowd in different ways depending on the situation.
How can an avid fan even begin to dissect the best slam dunks of a basketball generation? Where do we even begin? I mean we’re talking about so many options, so many terrific players, and so many brilliant athletes moving the crowd in different ways.
Best Slam Dunks: NBA Dunk Contests
If you want to make a pure, honest list of the best slam dunks you have to start with the dunk contest. The dunk contest originated from the old ABA and made its way on to the NBA scene a few years later. The dunk contest often brings out the best dunks in the history of the game because although a lot of pressure is still pushed on the athlete to perform, it’s much different from a game situation in which the win matters more than the show.
Brent Barry, 1996. Although most fans today recognize Brent Barry as a heady outside shooter who also happens to be the son of legendary Rick Barry, however in 1996 Barry had some ridiculous hops. Barry’s classic slam dunk from the free-throw ranks up with the best and brought a whole new meaning to white men can jump.
Vince Carter, 2000. Call me biased toward a dunk contest I actually remember (I was born in ’86 after all), but Vince Carter’s show in 2000 was by far the greatest individual performance in an NBA Dunk Contest I have ever witnessed. Carter went between his legs, stuck his elbow through the rim, and threw it down with two hands from the free throw line. Simply put, there was nothing he didn’t do in that contest.
Julius Erving, 1976. Carter and Barry may have dunked it from the free throw line but that was all made possible by the original innovator (I call it the OI), Julius Erving. Erving easily dunk in from the line, doing something no one had ever seen before in the first ever dunk contest.
Michael Jordan, 1988. What made Jordan’s slam dunk from the free throw line any different from the names above? The classic sticking out of the tongue as he flew through the air. Jordan was the greatest player ever to suit up and his dunk contest performance was great, even if Dominique Wilkins had the greatest reel that night.
Spud Webb, 1986. I don’t care who you are, anyone who can dunk, nonetheless pull off more than one type of dunk at 5’7 is more than worthy of my praise. No, this is not a cartoon, Spud Webb was a real person and so was his height at 5’7. Webb’s 1986 performance shocked the world and easily crowned him the shortest player ever to win an NBA Dunk Contest.
Best Slam Dunks: “In Game” Dunks
Although Dunk Contests whew the crowd with highly specialized and unique dunks, it’s hard to beat the sheer adrenaline and power of the best “in game” slam dunks. Here’s a few of the many classic “in game” dunks.
John Starks, New York Knicks. Who can forget Starks classic drive to the baseline and then dunking one handed over half of the Bulls roster?
Shawn Kemp, Seattle SuperSonics. A classic “in game” dunk specialist. Kemp has a terrific highlight reel none better than the power slam over the helpless Golden State Warriors player.
Darryl Dawkins, Philadelphia 76ers. Dawkins exploded off two feet and threw down a two handed POWER jam. Why the emphasis on POWER? He completely shattered the glass backboard with the dunk which is easily one of the best slam dunks in the history of the game.