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Nate the Great takes flight over Superman to win title

By Dave McMenamin,
Posted Feb 16 2009 10:47AM

PHOENIX -- Forget David vs. Goliath or Kryptonite vs. Superman. The only dunk reference you can make to describe Nate Robinson's clinching jam in the final round of the 2009 Sprite Slam Dunk is Vince Carter vs. the posterized Olympian, Frederick Weis.

If last year's spectacle with Superman capes and cupcake candles meant that the Slam Dunk Contest was back, this year's competition -- coupled with the news that LeBron James is on board for next year's show in Dallas -- means that the contest is better than ever.

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Watch Nate Robinson's thrilling run to the Sprite Slam Dunk title, including his monster dunk on Dwight Howard.
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The dunk contest is all about marrying physical activity with creativity. Robinson managed both with his final dunk on Saturday, sending the U.S. Airways Center into a tizzy. He soared over Dwight Howard to check off the physical requirement and donned the Knicks' alternative St. Patrick's Day uniform and some emerald-green Nikes -- a color scheme Robinson's agent called "Kryptonite Green" -- to offer a creative contrast to Howard's red superhero cape.

Robinson said that the contest has evolved rapidly from an anticipated event into over-the-top pageant, in part due to the popularity of video games. Robinson, an avid gamer himself, recently left tickets to a game of his in Golden State for a fellow player of Call of Duty that he met playing the game online.

The props and costumes employed used to be pretty low-key. Dominique Wilkins used two balls. Michael Jordan kept his gold chains and wind pants on. Spud Webb jumped over somebody sitting on a chair.

On Saturday, the four contestants took it a little bit further.

Denver's J.R. Smith, a last-minute replacement for Memphis' Rudy Gay (who pulled out with an injured hip flexor), had rookie teammate Sonny Weems go about eight rows up the stairs in Section 124 and throw an alley-oop that Smith caught off the bounce and threw down for a strong two-handed slam.

Portland's Rudy Fernandez, the first international player and the first fan-voted participant, stayed a trail blazer by using a buddy from the Spanish National Team, Lakers' All-Star Pau Gasol, to assist him on his second dunk instead of going the traditional route of using a teammate from his NBA team.

Howard saw Fernandez's choice of helper and raised the stakes. He had a forklift driver cart out a second hoop and lift it to 12 feet. Howard, ever the showman, went to a prop phone booth to change into his Superman cape before dunking on the 12-foot goal.

The anticipation for Howard's 12-foot dunk was so great that his actual dunk, which he converted easily, was a bit of a letdown. It didn't elicit an eruption from the crowd even though the judges gave it a 50.

Ultimately, Howard's most impressive dunk was one that didn't require any tricks. He tossed an alley-oop to himself off the side of the backboard, catching it with one hand and elevating to the point where his eyes were level with the rim before throwing it down.

Robinson's final dunk was much the same. Even though he was still wearing his green Kryptonite gear (the 5-foot-9 Robinson looked like a leaping leprechaun), his last slam -- a reverse alley-oop off the bounce that he brought down to his knees before stuffing it through -- stood on its own athletic merit, costume or no costume.

Robinson's signature dunk over Howard never would have happened if the defending slam dunk champ had not agreed to act as a 6-foot-11, 265-pound pommel horse.

"Dwight was a great sport for letting me dunk over him. I would love to share the championship with him, cut the trophy right down in half," said Robinson who joined Jordan, Wilkins, Harold Miner and Jason Richardson as the only two-time winners of the event.

Robinson won his first contest in 2006 by jumping over the 5-foot-7 Spud Webb. Afterward, Robinson said, "this is it for me," and balked at joining the dunk contest next year for the fourth time in his career. It's probably a smart move.

James, the man fans have been clamoring to enter the contest ever since he was a rookie in 2003, is in the wings to take the little guy's place. And, according to Robinson, we still haven't seen the best from Howard. Robinson says that he's seen Howard try "some crazy dunks" that he hasn't used in the competition yet. Howard confirmed that he's "still got more" ideas in store for the future.

Fire? Trapeze tight ropes? Jet propulsion packs?

Nothing would be surprising at this point..

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