The rules required five dunks: two compulsory moves—one from underneath the basket, the other from the bottom of the foul circle—and three freestyle—one from the left, one from the right and one from the baseline. A four-man panel graded each dunk as if Dr. J et al. were so many figure skaters. Two extra backboards and rims were ready "in case somebody brings one down," and all the nondunking Nuggets and All-Stars were attentive when the five contestants were introduced. "That is a serious crew," said Kentucky's Maurice Lucas as Gilmore got ready to start the earth trembling.
Flamboyance is not Gilmore's style. "When I dunk, I try to make the ball stick to the floor," he says. With one ball in each hand, Gilmore sent himself up from underneath. Wham! Slam! The crowd went ohhh, as if it had just witnessed a terrible accident. The Nugget PA announcer cautioned the photographers who were lying on their backs underneath the basket: "Please back off. The Denver Nuggets fear for your lives." One of Gilmore's dunks, a ferocious left hook, was slightly off-center, and vibrated rapidly between the sides of the rim. "Yeah!" yelled Lucas. "A rub-in!"
Next came Gervin, called the Iceman. The 6'7" guard—the only one in the contest—looked shaken after Gilmore's performance. He approached the basket with two balls in his hands, looked at the balls and at the hoop and then sheepishly rolled one of the balls away. "I know I can throw one through," he said, "but I ain't gonna try something I know I can't do. Might get hurt." One of Gervin's dunks was the "coiled snake," his whole right arm wrapped around the ball, uncoiling like a snake with the ball rolling down his arm and fingers. Kenon then turned in a "rim shaker" and a flying baseline assault, but like Gervin he missed one dunk and was out of the running.
The Denver fans had seen Thompson work plenty of magic in the half season he had been there, and they wanted more from him now. The dunkers were being judged on artistry, innovativeness, body flow and crowd reaction, and Thompson naturally had 100% in the last department. For his compulsories, he slammed one ball with two hands backward from a standing start under the basket and made a high running windmill from the left baseline. Then he drove from the right and brought the ball from his waist, back behind his head, slamming it down so hard that the force of the shot seemed to propel people from their seats.
Suddenly Dr. J looked worried and started loosening up. Then David zoomed in from the left and tried a bank dunk—he actually attempted to dunk the ball off the glass, but missed. His finale was a spectacular 360-degree midair miracle performed with Baryshnikovian perfection. The players leaped to their feet. "He is a mile high," shouted St. Louis' Marvin Barnes. "No, we're a mile high," said Lucas, remembering what city they were in. "He's two miles high." While everyone was screaming, the low-keyed Gilmore looked at his shoes and muttered, "Oh, no, Doc's in trouble."
Doc was not in trouble. When it was his turn, the rest of the players moved onto the court and sat cross-legged on the floor. The Doc coolly walked up to the basket with two balls and jammed them both backward behind his head. Wham! His compulsories done, he stood at the foul line, staring at the basket, then turned dramatically to pace off 10 long strides to the top of the foul circle at the other end of the court. He held the ball like a marble in his long fingers, took two quick steps and three antelope strides and he was airborne. His arm started a swift and powerful windmill, releasing the ball like a speeding particle from a cyclotron. The All-Stars were moaning. Only primitive, guttural sounds could be heard. "Hey, the Doc is the best ever," yelled Moe, who was happy because Erving had taken off two inches inside the foul line. "He moves like liquid Prell."
Dan Issel, Denver's center and one of the white players not invited to dunk, said, "Hey, this is nothing. Where are all the white guys? At the final buzzer of the game I'm going to be doing a trapeze act."
Erving was the unanimous winner. First runner-up Thompson was a little sorry he hadn't tried the "baby cradle." "Maybe I should have," he said, "but there's a 50-50 chance I might have missed it. And besides, it's dangerous."
The Doctor said his greatest dunking days were behind him ("My knees are only 75% of what they used to be"), but he didn't apologize for not trying the standing-rocking foul-line dunk. "There ain't enough rocking in the world for that," he said, adding that a great dunk shot was a time suspension, "an opportunity in a team sport for an individual to express himself in a memorable way. If you fly or hang in the air so long in a way that only you can do, it's a great rush. Like that commercial, 'There's nobody else exactly like you.' Well, for just a split second I'm just that, and I don't think there's anybody who doesn't know it."
Except, perhaps, Issel, who performed his trapeze act as promised: a soaring dunk of an offensive rebound, the fifth "white dunk" of the game. That gave the Nuggets an eight-point lead with 1:17 left, and they held on for the win. Afterward Issel made an official announcement: "I hope that dunk impressed the slam-dunk selection committee enough so that I might be invited to compete for the designated dunker title next year. I want...the Doctor."