On This Date in Sports January 28, 1984: Dunking into History

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A new tradition is born on the day before the NBA All-Star Game in Denver, as the first Slam Dunk contest is held. In this case, it is actually a rebirth as a Slam Dunk contest was held eight years earlier in the same arena before the final ABA All-Star Game. Larry Nance of the Phoenix Suns performs the winning dunk.

In the final season of the ABA, the league that brought out the red, white, and blue basketball, a novel concept was hatched with a dunk-off feature the league’s best dunkers at halftime during the 1976 All-Star Game was played at McNichols Arena in Denver. The idea for the dunk contest came from Carl Scheer, president and General Manager of the Nuggets. To nobody’s surprise, the contest was won by the biggest star in the ABA, Julius Erving of the New York Nets, who jumped from the free-throw line. After that season, the Nets would be among four teams to join the NBA, with the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs. The Nets, though, lost their star was they were forced to sell Dr. J to the Philadelphia 76ers to alleviate entrance fees into the NBA.

When the NBA All-Star Game came to Denver for the first time, a suggestion to recreate the dunk contest was made, bringing to like a new event that one day would overshadow the All-Star Game itself. The first dunk contest featured nine competitors, including Julius Erving, who was one of the NBA’s biggest stars even in the twilight of his career. The rest of the field featured Michael Cooper of the Los Angeles Lakers, Clyde Drexler of the Portland Trailblazers, Darrell Griffith of the Utah Jazz, Edgar Jones of the San Antonio Spurs, Larry Nance of the Phoenix Suns, Ralph Sampson of the Houston Rockets, Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Woolridge of the Chicago Bulls.

While Julius Erving was the sentimental favorite, the dunk contest would always belong to the younger players who had more spring in their step. A month away from his 34th birth that spring that enabled Dr. J to beat out Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, Larry Keon, and David Thompson in 1976 was fading. However, Erving was the most creative dunker and managed to earn his way to the finals, where he faced off against Phoenix Suns star Larry Nance, who was the best leaper in the NBA. Dominique Wilkins, whose dunking ability with the Atlanta Hawks, earned him the nickname “Human Highlight Reel’. Nance’s cradle dunk would become the signature dunk of the event, along with his two-ball dunk leading to his narrow win over Erving.