An oral history of the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest

From ESPN - February 12, 2018

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 12, 2014.

Late on the night of Feb. 11, 2000, Vince Carter lies awake in his Bay Area hotel. He is restless because his mind wo not stop. The next evening, in Oakland, he is to compete in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend, an event both celebrated and reviled and one Carter does not yet know he has been tabbed by the league to save.

His thoughts turn to the half-dozen or so slams he has planned for the competition, a stacked affair that will feature four All-Stars, either present or future, including Carter's cousin and teammate. Not that Carter's planning will matter much. Just minutes before the contest begins the next night, he will scrap all but one dunk he had prepared, almost totally improvising one of the greatest athletic exhibitions the NBA will ever see.

Carter seemed destined for this stage, ever since his first slam dunk in the sixth grade, a desperate attempt on the outdoor hardtop at Ormond Beach Middle School in Florida. Later, he had become such a feared dunker that at one national high school competition, which featured other future NBA All-Stars, the field simply forfeited midcontest after one particularly explosive Carter slam.

By early 2000, Carter was a newly minted All-Star, a dynamic scorer and one of the NBA's rising names, but he was still a foreign entity playing in Canada for the Toronto Raptors. It would take a generational moment, his performance in Oakland, to reach his grandest level of fame.

Yet before Carter could become "Vinsanity," before he could deliver one of the most talked-about, most celebrated All-Star moments ever, there was no dunk contest at all.

Following the scintillating showdown between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins in the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, the league's ugly secret was that the event was hemorrhaging cachet. Throughout the 1990s, it failed to draw star participants, and those who did compete were often derided for the dunks they managed. The NBA began to tire of it as the main attraction of All-Star Saturday night, and in 1998, for the first time in nearly 15 years, the league would go into its midseason break without a dunk contest. "If it's time to give it a rest," NBA commissioner David Stern said then, "let's give it a rest."

* All titles reflect those that were held on Feb. 12, 2000.

Prologue: 'There's no playground trick that's going to revive this thing'

Russ Granik (deputy commissioner, NBA): We had been struggling for some time with the dunk contest, in large part because a lot of the top players just did not want to do it.

Rod Thorn (executive VP of basketball operations, NBA): There was conversation that all the dunks that could be done had been done and maybe it was getting a little stale.

Mike Wise (NBA columnist, New York Times): The greatest skywalkers were not even competing. It had gone from Dr. J to Michael to Spud Webb to Dee Brown's flying dunk, and at this point it was just played out. It's done.

Jonathan Feigen (NBA writer, Houston Chronicle): I do remember the common things that we still hear: "It's pass." "We have seen everything we will ever see." That was all said then, and it's said now, and it will be said 10 years from now.

David Steele (columnist, San Francisco Chronicle): They were saying, "You know, once upon a time Michael Jordan showed up every year and Dominique showed up every year, and it had real characters and novelties like Spud Webb, etc., etc., etc."

Elton Brand (forward, Chicago Bulls): The slam dunk contest kinda lost a little of its flavor over the years. There were a lot of regular dunks. I think Isaiah Rider had the between-the-legs dunk, and I guess Brent Barry went from the foul line. But it was nothing too outstanding.

Wise: There's no playground trick that's going to revive this thing.

Granik: There was some hesitation and even concern a little bit whether it was the best thing to do or not, but I think we had had two or three [dunk contests] in a row that just were not up to the standards of what we wanted to put on. So we said, "We have to take a breath here and see what we oughta do."

Ahead of the 1998 All-Star Weekend at Madison Square Garden, a committee of NBA personnel including Stern, Granik, Thorn and NBA Entertainment president and chief operating officer Adam Silver concluded the league would not put on its annual slam dunk contest. In its stead would be a new shooting competition named 2-ball, where an NBA player would team with a WNBA player in a two-on-two shooting contest. To a world with no NBA Slam Dunk Contest, response from fans, media and the league itself was mixed.

Thorn: I would say it was unanimous initially [to suspend the dunk contest]. There were always people talking on both sides, but by the time it was talked through, everybody got on board.

Wise: I do not remember anybody missing it. I do not remember anybody saying, "Oh, my god, the dunk contest is gone."

Granik: The dilemma for us was that, despite common criticism and a dissatisfaction on our part in the office with how it was going as a show, [the dunk contest] still always rated well. It was in the best spot at the end of the All-Star Saturday night, but it still clearly was a draw. And so our television partners were not really clamoring to get rid of it.

Frank Isola (NBA writer, New York Daily News): I remember thinking, like, "You are in New York City. How are you not going to have the slam dunk contest?"

Thorn: There were conversations [within the league] from time to time, talking about, you know, "Maybe we could do it a little differently," and, "Now we have got some pretty good dunkers out there who might be willing to do it," and, "Maybe we ought to bring it back."

Granik: As soon as we finished the All-Star [Weekend] without it, we began talking about, "What should we do next year? Should we bring it back or not?"

Despite the underwhelming response to 2-ball and pleas from a large sect of NBA officials and followers to restore the dunk contest, there would be no dunk contest again in 1999. That year, a lockout caused a shortened season and wiped out the entire All-Star Weekend.

"I suspect it would have been brought back during the lockout year if we had not had the lockout," Granik says. "But I do not recall if we ever made that decision finally or not."

After a two-year hiatus, the NBA announced it would hold the slam dunk contest during All-Star Weekend in 2000. The league knew its resurrection had to be done right, so its first order of business was to establish a field of marquee stars NBA fans could get excited for.

Part I: 'They do not understand how great this dunk contest is gonna be.'

In terms of star power, no modern NBA Slam Dunk Contest lineup will match those of the 1980s, a period when eight of the league's best players routinely competed in the event. But the NBA accomplished a coup in setting its field for the 2000 contest. It selected six of the game's brightest young players, big names who would go on to 22 career All-Star appearances among them. They were Toronto's Vince Carter, Toronto's Tracy McGrady, Houston's Steve Francis, Detroit's Jerry Stackhouse, Philadelphia's Larry Hughes and Golden State's Antawn Jamison. (Jamison suffered a knee injury prior to the contest and was replaced by Charlotte's Ricky Davis.)

Steve Francis (guard, Houston Rockets): Our trainer, Keith Jones, who's been the USA national basketball trainer for years, pulled me into his office and said, "Hey, they want you to be in this dunk contest." And for me, I did not think anything of it at first, but he had to explain to me the significance of just being selected into the dunk contest. Once he told me that, all I did was just think about when the dunk contest is. It's in Oakland, I knew I had to play in the rookies versus sophomores game, so I was like, "It's a great idea."

Butch Carter (coach, Toronto Raptors): We always thought that Vince was gonna be in it. The issue was if Tracy was gonna be in it.

"Every now and then after practice I'd do a few just to fool around when everybody's leaving and then leave it alone. It was not, 'I spent 30 minutes a day trying.' You just did not have that time."

Vince Carter

Vince Carter (forward, Toronto Raptors): He wanted no part of it. He was like, "No, man. Nah. What's the sense in me going against you?" I am like, "It could be fun." It took a lot of convincing. It was just every day, 'cause we lived in the same building. I'd go up there, "What about today? No? A'ight, I will ask you tomorrow." So it was just like all day, every day, I am asking him. We played video games. It was like, "Yeah, yeah -- oh by the way, you gonna be in the contest? No? Oh, OK. I am just gonna ask you again and again." It was kinda like back and forth, back and forth. I mean, he just did not wanna do it.

Tracy McGrady (guard/forward, Toronto Raptors): I just felt like I was not a creative dunker like that. I was like, "Why would I want to get into it knowing that [Vince is] gonna win?" I see his dunks every day and how creative he is. [1]

Vince Carter: Until the last minute, I think after [practice one day] we were fooling around -- he was doing some stuff, throwing the ball off the wall, just all kinds of stuff -- and he finally was like, "All right, I am gonna do it." It was tough. Even prior to [All-Star Saturday], maybe Thursday, he was like, "Man, I do not think I wanna do it." He was gonna back out!

McGrady stayed in the field, though like his cousin Carter, he did little preparation for the dunk contest. It was a common theme for the participants.

Francis: That was my first dunk contest. [I'd been in ones] in the 'hoods and in the streets, yeah, but nothing professional. Every dunk that I did in the dunk contest in Oakland -- I practiced zero dunks. Zero. You can ask the coach, the GM, anybody. I did not even practice any of them.

Dave Haggith (manager of media relations, Toronto Raptors): That was the thing that amazed me the most. On the night of the dunk contest, I had not seen any of those dunks from either [Vince or Tracy] before.

Butch Carter: There was a $500 fine if my young guys dunked in a practice. There was no dunking allowed. I told them, "They are my rims. Stay off my rims."

Dee Brown (guard, Toronto Raptors): That was just going to embarrass the older guys. If it was not a $500 fine, it was, "You had to deal with Oak [Charles Oakley]." You pick or choose which one you want. You'd probably be better off to get the $500 fine than deal with Oak, Kevin Willis or Antonio Davis.

Paul Jones (analyst, TSN): Because the older guys had pride. And a guy like Oakley -- when it came down to it, he might hurt one of his own teammates for trying to dunk on him in practice, right?

Vince Carter: The only time I remember practicing was in San Antonio. We were on the road in San Antonio at their facility. We were fooling around, just whatever. It was probably a week or two [before the dunk contest]. I mean, it was close, for sure. So I was just toying around with some stuff and just seeing if I could do it, how I felt about it and how they reacted to it. That was kind of my practice time. Every now and then after practice I'd do a few just to fool around when everybody's leaving and then leave it alone. It was not, "I spent 30 minutes a day trying." You just did not have that time.

Though there was a field of six participants set to dunk in Oakland, three especially caught the eye of those around the NBA. Their reputations seemed to precede them.

Jerome Williams (forward, Detroit Pistons): I grew up in the same area as Steve Francis, so I knew him very well and I had played with him for summers leading up to him being drafted. I knew that he had a very good chance of winning just because I had seen all his dunks. He was very creative and very talented. Tracy, we had seen him do some spectacular things, but I had actually voted a dunk contest in Detroit when he was in high school a year before he came to the league. I saw a lot of his creativity from a dunk contest standpoint. So I was like, "They do not understand how great this dunk contest is gonna be."

Grant Hill (forward, Detroit Pistons): I played in Detroit, and in '95 they had a Magic Johnson All-Star Game at the Palace [of Auburn Hills]. I was a judge, and [Kevin] Garnett and Stephon Marbury and Vince Carter and all those guys were there -- it was their class. And Vince Carter went out and did one dunk and then everybody quit. So he won the slam dunk contest in '95 just off of default.

Vince Carter: KG and those guys were like, "All right, that's enough."'

"If you watch it on the second dribble I smacked the ball real hard and that's when I felt like I powered up, you know, like Mario Bros."

Vince Carter

Hill: I think he just did a windmill, but it was how high he was and how powerful it was. I was sort of in my prime and jumping and dunking and considered a good athlete, and it was like I could not have gone out there and competed with that. And he was in high school.

Francis: Even coming into the [2000] dunk contest they said [Vince] was going to win. So everybody was up against him.

Cynthia Cooper (judge, 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest): We knew he could dunk. We knew he was athletic. We just did not know what to expect from him in the dunk contest.

Wise: Just based on the top three guys, T-Mac, Steve Francis and Vince, all of a sudden you had some legitimate guys levitating above the rim. It was a sense that the slam dunk winner that year was not going to be a novelty player or a cult hero. He was a bona fide NBA All-Star.

Steele: A lot was riding on this for not only the league but the people who love the league and really care about it. So they wanted to see these youngsters really go out and prove that the NBA had not just completely died because Michael Jordan was gone.

For Carter and McGrady, before the dunk contest, there was the small matter of arriving in Oakland for All-Star Weekend. They were VIPs in northern California, but their schedules were packed tight. Few moments from that weekend could match the luxury in which they reached the Bay Area.

Haggith: Vince and Tracy were both very young, and this was one of their first real experiences like that, being flown out to All-Star on their owner's private jet.

Glen Grunwald (general manager, Toronto Raptors): We were sitting on the plane, and Vince and Tracy showed up. And [Raptors owner] Larry Tanenbaum had -- I think it was a G5 -- one of those ultraluxurious corporate jets. And Judy, his wife, had catered a beautiful flight. She had shrimp and filet mignon and you name it. I was looking to gain about 10 pounds on the trip.

Haggith: It was shrimp cocktail, hors d'oeuvres -- you know, fancy food befitting a private jet flight.

Grunwald: And Vince and Tracy get on the plane, and they were hungry already and they sort of saw what was there and they said, "Oh, man. We gotta get some real food." So they sent their driver back to McDonald's to bring a boatload of McDonald's to the plane.

Haggith, the Raptors' top PR man, was assigned to stay on his players' hips the entire All-Star Weekend. While the official basketball festivities were held at Oakland Arena (now Oracle Arena), most other NBA events happened across the Bay Bridge where the players' hotels were, in San Francisco.

Haggith: For both Vince and Tracy, but Vince especially, it was like traveling with the Beatles. We would literally be in a car in the parking lot after an appearance and fans would be rocking the car. His schedule for that weekend was jam-packed. We were back and forth over the bridge between Oakland and San Francisco between NBA appearances and events and his practice, and by the time we got to Saturday night, he was already pretty exhausted. And he just needed an hour of time to himself to grab a quick nap or get freshened up. So he just asked to be able to come out to the arena for All-Star Saturday night a little bit later because he was not on 'til later. The NBA was very accommodating. They arranged a car for us.

Vince Carter: The traffic was so bad our car did not show. It was nowhere to be found. Nobody could find our driver, so we had to fit five of us in one car.

Haggith: Vince and Tracy, you know, their knees were up by their ears squeezed into this car. We were stuck on this bridge, and I was worried we were not going to get there in time.

Vince Carter: That long drive sitting in between these guys ... it was brutal. And I was like, "I am gonna cramp up and I am not gonna make it. It's gonna be the worst contest."

Haggith: We pulled up to the arena about a half hour before they were supposed to be on.

Part II: 'I am going to have people shaking their heads'

Inside the Oakland Arena, a frenzy unlike many others was building for the first NBA Slam Dunk Contest in nearly 36 months. The stars had been aligned. Now it was time for the show.

Cheryl Miller (sideline reporter, TNT): Everybody was a little bit nervous but optimistic that this would be the slam dunk [contest] that would bring back the prestige.

Steele: It rained cats and dogs the whole weekend, and there was unbelievable traffic getting in there. But it was jam-packed. All the stars were there. All the celebrities were there. All the players were lined up around the court. They were so glad to see this back and to see the electricity that they really could not wait.

Francis: I was just looking at all the celebrities there. Denzel. Spike Lee. I think Halle Berry was there. There was a lot of Hollywood people.

In the tunnel before the event, Paul Jones interviewed Vince Carter for Canadian television as he was about to take the court. His tenor did not suggest a man about to put on the show of a lifetime.

Jones: The camera went off, and I said, "Good luck, man. This is you. Get out there and do it." And he shook his head and said, "Aw, thanks. Thanks. I do not know, man." And he walked away. And I thought, "Oh, OK." I have got a master's degree in sports psychology; it just goes to show what confidence does. And a guy like Vince -- he may have appeared to be not very confident, but at the same time, he got out there and when the lights went on he rose to the occasion.

The contest began with Hughes missing his first dunk. Then McGrady, tossing the ball up to himself, flushed home a killer reverse leapfrog slam that got the crowd to its feet. Next was Francis' turn. With no real dunk planned, he scanned the court, drew inspiration and improvised. He lobbed the ball to himself but could not catch it cleanly. Instead, soaring to the hoop as the ball rolled off his right hand, he threw it in off the bounce almost with his wrist. The arena roared.

Francis: When I walked out the locker room -- they have footage of it -- I said something slightly to my brother. I said, "I am about to throw it up from half court." And that was it. I see Shaquille O'Neal, I see Tim Duncan, I see Isiah Thomas, I see Cynthia Cooper -- a lot of people I idolized growing up. And I see them right there, and that alone gave me enough adrenaline to do what I did.

Next up was Vince Carter.

James Posey (forward, Denver Nuggets): Going in, you hear so much about Vince Carter, and you see so many of his highlights on ESPN it was like, now that he's in the slam dunk competition, what could he come up with that we had not seen? I just remember sitting courtside there with Shaq, KG. Everybody had their camcorders out ready just to take in everything.

Miller: I asked [Stackhouse] who he's got in this, and he said, "I am going with Vince. He's got the liveliest legs out here, and I have seen him and T-Mac huddled up so they are planning something." Everyone that was involved kind of knew that something spectacular was going to happen with Vince.

Dirk Nowitzki (forward, Dallas Mavericks): It was my first dunk contest, so I wanted to soak up as much as I could. I was fired up to be there.

"So I said to Tracy: 'Just stand here and bounce it and get the hell out the way.'"

Vince Carter

Marv Albert (broadcaster, TNT): I normally did not do [the dunk contest] then 'cause I found afterward that, because I always do the All-Star Game, it kills your voice for the next day. You feel it because it's all about the excitement of the call; it's a little tough on the throat. But that one was worth it.

Brand: I am kind of in a race [for rookie of the year] with Steve Francis, but we worked out together at Maryland, so that's who I am rooting for to win the slam dunk contest. [After] his first dunk, I am thinking, "OK, we have a chance." But then Vince Carter comes out with the most amazing dunks I have ever seen.

Miller: Vince and I, before we even [went on] air, I was giving him a hard time. Like, "Come on, Vince. How serious are ya?" He was like, "Cheryl, trust me. I am going to have people shaking their heads." I was like, "Really? So I am thinking, 'shaking their heads'? So what type of ..." And he says, "Cheryl, I kind of have an idea what I wanna do, but that can change."

Vince Carter: I changed my routine in the layup line of the dunk contest.

Carter took to the court for his first dunk that night with no true plan. The slam he had prepared to open with he instead decided to use second in his routine. For his debut, he thought back to a dunk he had done only two or three times before in his life. It was a risk. He had barely completed the slam when he practiced it.

Vince Carter: I just remember they called my name. I was a little nervous, and as I got the ball, I am thinking, "Final decision: yea or nay?" And I look around, and I could just feel the energy in the building off of just the anticipation, and I was just like, "Yeah, let's go for it."

As his NBA peers ringed the court, Carter approached the hoop from the left, took a few power dribbles and rose from the floor. He launched into a 360-degree turn, only he was spinning the wrong way, rotating the unnatural direction for a right-handed dunker. No matter, for he completed his revolution while simultaneously windmilling the ball before stuffing it through the hoop with a ferocity nearly unseen before. It was the first perfect score -- a 50 -- of the night.

Miller: It was like a huge tsunami in the arena. All the big wigs, from Shaq, from KG, you had Jason Kidd -- everybody was like, "Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh!"

Steele: It was just this huge explosion of noise when he did that.

Williams: To come out of the gate with that -- everybody was like, "Whoa, wait a minute! Wait a minute!" Something we'd never seen before, never been done before, as your first one?

Haggith: Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett, their eyes were just miles wide. Their jaws were on the floor. They just could not believe what they were seeing.

Part III: 'And then I rubbed my arm 'cause I am like, "This is gonna hurt."'

Dirk Nowitzki

Cheryl Miller

More Vinsanity: The hoops legacy Carter left in Canada


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