You probably couldn't get Lloyd's of London to write a whole lot of long-term insurance on the American Basketball Association these days, but if the affair in Denver last week called the Ninth Annual ABA All-Star Game was a dying man's last gasp, it came through as some very loud whoops and hollers. Contributing to the unfunereal gaiety were Charlie (Silver Fox) Rich and the Rhinestone Cowboy himself, Glen Campbell, imported by the host Nuggets to hype the gate with a two-hour pregame concert. Also, the game itself was a cut or two above normal All-Star fare. Acknowledging that the shrunken seven-team league could not be divided into two equal parts, the format pitted the front-running Nuggets against the best of the rest, and it turned out to be a very good game, won by the Nuggets 144-138. But beyond all that, those red, white and blue ball crazies came up with the greatest halftime invention since the rest room: the First Annual Slam-Dunk Contest.
One edge the ABA holds over the rival NBA is the planet's richest stable of slam-dunk artists, and for the occasion of this first ever slam-dunk competition, the league wheeled out five of its best. The first three contestants were Artis Gil-more, the Kentucky giant, and wispy George Gervin and long Larry Kenon, both of San Antonio. Those three could dunk, all right, but everybody knew that the contest would probably wind up as a shattering show-down between New York's Julius Erving, M.D. (Mr. Dunk) and Denver's amazing flying boy David Thompson, Ph.D., who has recently been rewriting the law of gravity.
Dunk-shot artists can fly. They defy physics. In a game shortly before the All-Star break, Thompson was standing at the bottom of the dotted half of the foul circle—seven feet from the basket—with two defenders boxing him away from the offensive boards. When a missed shot came off the front of the rim, Thompson rose his normal nine feet off the floor and in one smooth motion speared the ball with his right hand, sent it screaming down through the rim and returned to earth at the same spot from which he took off. Isaac Newton, had he been at court-side, would have said what the 15,021 fans and sportswriters said: impossible. Yet the Rocky Mountain News documented the historic event with an indisputable sequence of photographs.
The slam dunk has a strange effect on basketball people. They yell and they scream. They wail. They shake their heads and slap palms. They tear at each other's clothes. Among the true believers the prospect of seeing five super dunkers practice their sublime art was at least as enthralling as the game itself.
"David's had butterflies all week," reported Thompson's roommate, Monte Towe. "We've been trying to help him, tell him which of his dunks are the best."
"I'll just be David," said the rookie levitationist.
Erving had spent 15 minutes in the locker room before the game, pantomiming his act, moving an imaginary ball around from behind his back and over his head in various hooks and pumps.
Rumors in McNichols Sports Arena were that Thompson would attempt his fabled "cradle the baby" dunk, in which he cradles the ball in the crook of his left elbow, goes high over the rim and punches the ball smartly through with his right fist. Erving, it was whispered, was going to try to dunk from a standing start at the foul line—a distance of 15 feet—by rocking his body back and forth until he achieved take-off momentum. That really is impossible, but Erving had made a $1,500 bet with Denver Assistant Coach Doug Moe that with a running start he could dunk from the foul line, a mean enough feat.
Diplomatically, Erving had asked the New York Nets' Kevin Loughery, who coached the All-Stars, if maybe they shouldn't get a white player into the competition. "Well," said Loughery, "what white players know how to dunk?"
"Um," said Erving.