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Maybe the best thing to do, said Phoenix Suns forward Larry Nance moments after winning the NBA's Slam-Dunk Championship last Saturday at Denver's McNichols Sports Arena, would be to take the trophy and $10,000 first prize and retire from such competitions. "This sort of thing is just too worrisome to have to go through every year," he said. Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers, the runner-up on Saturday but undoubtedly the alltime crowd favorite, sympathized with Nance. "He's got the reputation now," said the Doctor.
Indeed, the dunk has assumed an importance that far exceeds its role in the game. Defense and team play are nice, but did you see that punk-funk-get-outta-the-way-cuz'-it's-turnin'-all-others-to-junk dunk? A slam is a manifestation of a player's soul, one that his peers appreciate as much as the fans. On Saturday there was no more striking sight than that of Magic Johnson, Mark Aguirre and Isiah Thomas, each an NBA All-Star, but mere spectators on this occasion, reduced to giggling schoolboys throughout the competition.
The heights to which the game has evolved can be measured by the power, creativity and athleticism exhibited by today's dunk artists. "The movements, the defiance of gravity—these guys have taken anything I did and have stretched it far beyond anything I can relate to," says 41-year-old Connie Hawkins, one of the dunk's earliest and most notable practitioners. In the only other dunk competition of real significance, at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game in Denver, Erving prevailed over four other players. Three of them—Artis Gilmore and George Gervin of San Antonio and David Thompson of Seattle—are still playing. But they couldn't challenge the best of today's dunkateers, and they weren't entered in this year's event.
Before his arrival in Denver, where he would also be a starting forward for the Eastern Conference's victorious squad in Sunday's All-Star Game, Erving, who is finally approaching some semblance of mortality at age 33, wondered aloud about how he came to be chosen for this year's competition—in fact, the players were selected by a 14-member panel of experts—and decried his lack of motivation. However, $10,000 can get a guy stirred up, even one as well-heeled as Doc. And the public-address announcer may well have gotten Erving aroused by saying that many of Dr. J's eight rivals were still in high school when he won in '76. Incentives aside, while Erving was the sentimental choice of nearly everyone on hand, most observers conceded that the winner would be one of the young bucks. Nance and Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins were heavy early favorites.
Both coveted the title, but neither would admit it. Said Wilkins Friday night, "Other players keep trying to put the championship off on me already. They say, 'Yeah, Dominique, you're going to win.' I just pass it right back to them: 'Nope, you're the man; you're going to win.' " Nance's unofficial coach, the Suns' All-Star guard, Walter Davis, told everyone that Nance had been perfecting his favorite slam during Phoenix practices for the past month. Sometimes he even worked on his stuff during pre-game warmups. Nance, however, denied it. "I started to do it one day in practice," he said, "but after about 15 minutes Coach [John] MacLeod told me to stop. I think he was afraid I'd get hurt."
Once the competition began, though, it was clear that Erving stood as good a chance of winning as anyone. Perhaps in deference to his stature as the defending champ, the Doctor was the final dunker in the opening round, which gave him the opportunity to judge the efforts of others for himself. Going last also allowed him to gauge another important factor: the reaction of the sellout crowd of 17,251 to each dunk. The fans' response probably did influence the voting of the five judges, three of whom—New York Mets catcher and local boy John Stearns; Adrianna Early, the wife of Denver district attorney Norm Early; and U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder—seemed to be out of their element and more likely to vote on noise level than merit. The two other judges were Hawkins and another former basketball star, Pete Maravich.
The rules were simple: The nine contestants would take turns until all of them had completed three dunks. The judges would score each stuff on a scale from one to 10. The top four point-getters would advance to the semifinals and three more dunks. Then the two leading scorers would go on to the finals. Those two again would slam thrice.
On his first jam, the 6'10" Nance, a Clemson alumnus who's averaging 17.7 points a game in his third pro season and who leaps as well as anyone in the NBA, showed why he deserved his high ranking on the handicappers' charts. Cruising in along the baseline from the right, Nance began his leap on the near side of the rim, floated under the basket and then slammed the ball through backhanded. Hawkins was dumbfounded. "I'd never seen anything like that before," he said. "Faked on one side, dunked on the other.... I looked at Pete and shook my head. He looked at me and shook his head. We knew we'd be seeing some things that were new to us."
Actually, save for a through-the-legs, up-and-over dunk by Chicago's Orlando Woolridge, which was easily the most creative effort of the day, there was little outrageousness in the dunkers' repertoire. But the competition did have its share of high drama—like who would join the Doc, Nance and Wilkins in the semifinals. The answer turned out to be Utah's Darrell Griffith. He edged Woolridge, San Antonio's Edgar Jones and Houston's Ralph Sampson, who, despite being 7'4", was in over his head.
Whatever Erving might have lost through age, he more than made up for with flair and showmanship. A player had 24 seconds to take each shot, and the clock almost beat the Doctor on his first effort. Later, on a reverse dunk, he struck the backboard with the back of his head. Erving merely looked benignly at the offending object, patted his head to keep his Afro in place and strode boldly away.