Back in 1944, spectators looked on in confusion as Oklahoma A&M player Bob Kurland accidentally dunked the basketball. Onlookers stared at the seven-foot center, who, according to a 2012 interview, “…stuffed it in.”
Though Kurland’s team ultimately lost the game, the move slowly gained steam and began to evolve. And forty years later, the NBA hosted their first slam dunk contest as part of the NBA All-Star Game weekend.
But the move isn’t just an opportunity to showboat. Annual contest aside, slam dunks are a standard move for top players and a consistent hit with spectators looking for a bit of style on the court. In fact, NBA odds and bets for regular-season games often include prop bets on whether players like Joel Embiid will score via slam dunk during a game.
Over time, the move has become more popular. The 2018-19 season saw a staggering 11,393 dunks in total, a 28% increase since the 2010-11 season. When it isn’t a mainstay for towering centers looking for sure points, the slam dunk remains one of basketball’s most awe-inspiring artforms.
Though Michael Jordan may be celebrated for presenting the most iconic slam dunk in history, it’s Vince Carter’s reverse 360 windmill that reigns supreme in the NBA’s Dunk Contest history. First, it was Carter’s first contest appearance. Second, he made it look like it was his hundredth. Third, it helped reinvigorate interest in the NBA’s lagging ratings for the annual contest.
Though others have since emulated Carter’s 360 windmill, none have been able to match his style and swag on delivery.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic 2016
Many dunk rating lists label Jason Richardson and Michael Jordan as champions of dunk technique, but a truly unforgettable dunk doesn’t just involve perfecting existing moves—true masters invent them. Enter Aaron Gordon at the 2016 NBA Dunk Contest, who relied on a teammate for help: Stuff the Magic Dragon.
In a matter of seconds, Gordon takes the ball from Stuff the Magic Dragon as he leaps over the mascot, moves the ball under his legs while soaring mid-air, and dunks the ball.
Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic 2008
Though he didn’t incorporate Stuff the Magic Dragon or reinvent a new style of dunking, Howard’s 2008 tap off the glass is one of the most difficult techniques used in Dunk Contest history. The star center threw the ball against the backboard, collected it with his hand, then dunked the ball—all while airborne.
Though it may not look as flashy as other major dunks, no one has been able to emulate Howard’s style since the 2008 contest.
Michael Finley, Dallas Mavericks 1997
Strictly speaking, Tony Dumas shamed the basketball world after missing multiple dunks at the 1995 NBA Dunk Contest. But few failures have been as wildly entertainment as Michael Finley’s laughable attempts at a cartwheel, followed by a failed dunk.
First, the cartwheel at the three-point line confused spectators. Without a full extension of his arms or legs, Finley’s cartwheel was an outright disaster. Undeterred, he took a few steps towards the basket, gave a hop, and slammed the ball straight into the rim. The best part? The crowd loved it.
Baron Davis, Charlotte Hornets 2001
The 2001 NBA Dunk Contest was a bit of a flub, lacking in both creativity and technical skill. This meant Baron Davis only needed a score of 46 or higher to take home a title. When Davis stepped onto the court with a blindfold on, spectators prepared themselves for a treat.
What they got instead was a few wild runs toward the basket, which were so off-target that an assistant had to lead Davis back to center court. As the pair inch toward the free-throw line, Davis charged forward and came up about a foot short from the dunk.
Worst of all, his attempt was a repeat of Cedric Ceballos’ successful 1992 blindfold dunk.