The first stipulation: The NBA Slam Dunk Contest does not, cannot and should not matter -- it's not important, it says nothing much about anything in particular and is finally and quite satisfyingly just a bunch of tall dudes throwing a basketball through a hoop as creatively and forcefully as they can. The second stipulation is that the Slam Dunk Contest's meaninglessness doesn't matter, either -- there's no reason the Slam Dunk Contest should matter even a little bit more than it does, and no way in which that meaninglessness diminishes it.
The third stipulation, which I assume doesn't really need much stipulating, is that I don't know how to run a professional sports league. I write about sports for a living, yes, but it is honestly all I can do to put on pants during less-significant weekdays, and I'm not going to ask you to believe that I consider Wednesdays to be all that significant. There are times -- often, for whatever reason, at moments when I have to write a large check to someone -- when it seems like it might be fun to run the NBA, or at least more fun than cobbling together a living by parsing the semiotic fine points of Kobe Bryant's Twitter feed. And you have to assume the commissioner has really good health insurance and probably vacation days.
But that's about as far as I can go, even in my idle bloggery daydreams -- I don't want late-night troll texts from Mark Cuban; I don't want to convene a blue-ribbon panel to draw up a new Comprehensive Player Tattoo Policy because DeShawn Stevenson got "FART$" inked on his forehead; and I don't want to have to wear pants, as I presume I would be required to do, on some stupid weekday. But one thing that I'd think would be easy about running the NBA would be managing the Slam Dunk Contest. You just acknowledge that it's goofy and that its goofiness is central to its greatness, and embrace the goofiness, and let the people who can dunk basketballs better than any other living humans do the thing where they dunk the basketballs. There is not a problem to solve, and so it would seem easy enough to leave alone. It would seem that way.
Maybe you or I or everyone else who can be bothered to give this non-issue any thought would be wrong to think that the Slam Dunk is best left more or less alone, and maybe the NBA is doing the right thing by instituting a hilariously Byzantine new series of rules for the contest, and the rest of All-Star Weekend. The way it will go, this year, is that for all of All-Star Weekend's skills competitions -- the [Sponsor Name Redacted] Slam Dunk Contest and [Sponsor Name Redacted] Three-Point Contest and the Taco Bell Skills Contest (sponsor name un-redacted due to hilarious juxtaposition of sponsor and event) and That Shooting Stars Thing -- will be East against West.
Dunkers will dunk (or shoot, or, um, skill) for themselves, but also for their conference; points will be assigned individually and collectively. There will be an East against West final in the dunk contest, and there are a whole series of faintly depressing dunk-off related contingencies laid out for the Sponsor Redacted Slam Dunk Contest itself, all of which Yahoo's Dan Devine lays out with appropriate weariness and admirable thoroughness. It's like baseball's universally un-loved "This Time It Counts" innovation with the All-Star game, but if 1) the final score were calculated through the NFL's Calvinball-ish quarterback rating formula, and 2) it also didn't really count. No one, it seems safe to say, is quite asking for any of this.
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The problem being addressed here seems to be that All-Star games don't get watched or discussed or cared about as much as they once were, or at least as much as the people putting them on would like for them to be watched and discussed and cared about. In baseball, that led to the decision to Get Really Serious with it, and so to make an arbitrary, sweetly half-assed game between hungover superstars become the determining factor in World Series home-field advantage. In football, an inability to come up with anything -- anything at all -- that could make the Pro Bowl interesting or meaningful has led the league to consider canceling it altogether. The NBA is lucky enough to have the best All-Star game of any major sport -- it helps a lot that watching the world's best basketball players in playground mode is still pretty enjoyable -- but last year's broadcast barely beat the Daytona 500 in the ratings, and was down 13 percent from the previous year. The ratings have, in general, been uninspiring for going on a decade.
It seems clear enough why there would be a drop in interest for an All-Star game and its related festivities. All lack even the basic partisan appeal and marginal significance of a games that count in the standings; the players play like they know as much, which of course they do. The entire emotional transaction is different and more informal. This doesn't necessarily seem like anything to worry about, but then I am the writer person who either is or is not wearing pants and David Stern is David Stern, and we each have our jobs to do. His job, as he perceives it, is to add more administrative complexity and some dubious stakes to the Slam Dunk Contest. My job, in response, is to point out that the Slam Dunk Contest needs neither of those things -- that it needs nothing, at all, except the best basketball-dunking humans possible, and a few working cameras, and if possible a high-fiving, freaking-out-with-glee Dikembe Mutombo in the crowd.
This isn't to say that the Slam Dunk Contest is perfect, or even always good. It isn't, because nothing is perfect and almost nothing is even consistently good. The Slam Dunk Contest is one-note by nature, and it is almost always too long and too loud. The influx of props and stunts in recent Dunk Contests has been a drag -- Skittle-addled Little Nemo enthusiast Dwight Howard cheesing to beat the band in a Superman costume is a low moment for both the Slam Dunk Contest and everyone who wincingly remembers it -- and the queasily obvious branding of Blake Griffin dunking over a car he endorses on television did something to mitigate the objectively awe-inspiring sight of a human dunking a basketball over a car. That crass, cynical intrusion of something so drearily of this world in what's otherwise a celebration of otherworldly grace and experimental geometries and airborne creativity -- that is about the only thing that could screw up a spectacle that great.
The only thing that can mess up the Slam Dunk Contest, really, is to try to improve it -- to turn it too cravenly towards some brand advantage, to legislate or forbid or command or assign some baroque scoring system and broader framework of meaning. The good news, which is very good news, is that the actual basketball experience underneath all this manic lily-gilding is fine, and getting better. (Also: its television ratings keep going up.)
While it would seem unlikely, humans are somehow not running out of ways to dunk basketballs. The opposite, in fact: The state of the art in the Slam Dunk Contest has surged and surged and surged forward during the decades in which the contest has been held. It may seem heretical, but pretty much every dunk that Vince Carter did in winning the 2000 contest was better than any dunk Michael Jordan ever did in his wins; Nate Robinson's dunks were better and cooler and more creative than Spud Webb's. As long as there are new, weird, wonderful types of player in the NBA -- and Kenneth Faried, who is like a friendly and much more energetic version of the Predator and will be in this year's contest, certainly qualifies here -- there will be new, weird and wonderful things in the Slam Dunk Contest.
I understand the temptation to tinker. That urge is something sports commissioners and sports fans and sportswriter types have in common. But the only way to ruin the Slam Dunk Contest is to try to fix it, or force it into some new and more orderly direction. The Slam Dunk Contest works, when it works, because it is simple: an approach, a rising and some happy harmless violence done to a hoop, and then descent amid noise and awe. What reason could there be to do anything but watch and marvel and cheer at all that? What other response could even, or ever, make as much sense?
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's "Daily Fix" blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.