Posted Feb 9 2011 12:02PM
When asked what his favorite dunk contest performance from the past is, Washington Wizards big man JaVale McGee gives a fascinating answer.
"Larry Nance in the first dunk contest," he says. "He did some nice stuff."
McGee, of course, hadn't been born yet when Nance won the first NBA dunk contest in 1984. He came into this world exactly 18 days before Michael Jordan (and some creative judging) beat Dominique Wilkins in the best dunk contest -- 1988. For most players of McGee's generation, the dunk contest began with Vince Carter in 2000.
But in preparation for the 2011 Sprite Slam Dunk competition at All-Star Weekend, McGee has done his homework. And he couldn't find a better inspiration than Nance.
Before Dwight Howard won in 2008, Nance was the only true big man to win the dunk contest. Although creativity has come a long way since that first contest, Nance didn't exactly beat a bunch of chumps in '84. Using a few variations with a lot of force, he outdunked Julius Erving, Darrell Griffith and Dominique Wilkins, three of the greatest dunkers of all time.
Unlike in games, where height is almost always an asset, in dunk contests being big is seen as a liability. It's the more difficult dunks that score the most points with judges and fans. And much like regular folks throwing down on a Nerf hoop, it's near impossible for a 7-footer like McGee to make any dunk look tough.
Nate Robinson, at 5-foot-9, has the advantage of his feet being feet off the ground whenever he dunks. Look at a dunk photo of Spud Webb -- the 5-foot-7 champion in 1986 -- and you wonder if a trampoline has been Photoshopped out.
McGee can't reproduce those kinds of visuals, but he also isn't the only big guy in the field. Serge Ibaka and Blake Griffin are 6-foot-10, the same height as Nance.
Griffin, who boasts a body type much better suited to the visuals we like to see in slow-motion, is seen as the heavy favorite. The rookie has set the stage for a memorable performance with a myriad of highlight-worthy dunks he's amassed in his first 50 games.
McGee has tried to provide such highlights in game as well. Sometimes -- like when he recreated Jordan's cuff dunk at Summer League last year -- he's been successful. Other times -- like when he tried a free-throw line dunk this season with his team was down 25 in Sacramento -- he's failed.
For the dunk contest, McGee believes he has to go beyond those examples.
"I've got to do something no one would even try in a game," he says.
When it comes to pure athleticism, McGee is right there with Griffin, Robinson and Webb and he's also got a ridiculous vertical leap. NBA TV and TNT analyst Chris Webber, who is McGee's coach for the contest, believes McGee can provide the proper visuals.
"I think he can do it by exaggerating the length of his body, not hiding from it," Webber said. "He's more athletic than most guys in the NBA, so he's definitely going to be able to jump from distances and do things other guys can't."
Webber has known McGee since he played for Webber's brother as a freshman at Detroit Country Day School. Webber knew McGee was something special back then, and he feels McGee has something special to offer on All-Star Saturday Night.
"By him being the underdog, I think he's going to have to do it with great dunks and some big surprises."
Surprises may be the key word. This will be the 27th dunk contest the NBA has put on, so coming up with something new is a challenge. But McGee hints that he has some tricks up his sleeve.
"I'm trying to be really creative, and not just have a boring windmill or a boring 360," he says.
Hard-core NBA fans know McGee, now in his third season, pretty well at this point. But many people who tune in next Saturday won't have a clue who he is. The Wizards are never on national TV and have yet to make the playoffs with McGee on the roster.
That means McGee, who doesn't have the natural showmanship of Robinson or Howard, is ready to introduce himself to the world.
"It excites me to be a little more mainstream because of the dunk contest," he says. "So I plan on showing people what I have."
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