THE CLASS OF '88
Three moments -- Bird's Three-Point contest win, the epic Dunk Contest between Domique Wilkins and Michael Jordan and Jordan's MVP performance in the All-Star Game -- make 1988 All-Star Weekend the greatest ever.
-By Rob Peterson, NBA.com
He already had two perfect 50s in the final round and he knew this dunk, his coup de grace, a combination of power and athleticism, would seal it. His nemesis, Michael Jordan, had a total of 95 after this first two final round dunks. Even if Jordan could pull off a 50 with his final dunk, all 'Nique needed was a 48, and a second title was his. The two-handed windmill had netted him a 50 in '85. So he came strong with a dunk he knew would work.
After nailing it, he strutted back to the bench, with his shoulders back and his chin up. 'Nique walked like a champion, like a slam dunk king. He had come to the Windy City and he had just beaten Jordan in Chicago Stadium. This win would be sweeter than any before it.
Then he saw his score.
About 718 miles to the south in Atlanta, a 14-year-old Hawks fan sat at a friend's house watching the telecast on TBS, rooting for his hero. At the time, the MLB's Braves and the NFL's Falcons were horrible, but Lang Whitaker and his friends couldn't get enough of Wilkins and the Hawks. While the Hawks often found themselves in the thick of the Central Division race with Detroit and Milwaukee, they could never get past the Pistons or the Celtics in the playoffs. Whitaker and his friends knew a win for 'Nique in the Dunk Contest could be the high point of the season.
And then they heard 'Nique's score.
About 32 miles northwest of Chicago in Arlington Heights, Ill. a seven-year old Bulls fan sat in his living room with his dad as the son nervously checked to see if the red "record" light on the VCR was on. Even at his tender age, Kelly Dwyer was a precocious hoops geek who sent letters to Bulls GM Jerry Krause to discuss Chicago's assist-to-turnover ratio. With the game being held in Chicago and Jordan defending his '87 Dunk Contest title, All-Star Weekend had turned into a hoops Christmas for Dwyer. Even after 'Nique's two 50s, Dwyer wasn't nervous that Jordan wouldn't repeat. Then Wilkins did his dunk.
TBS analyst Bob Neal probably captured it better than anyone else.
"The judges have awarded Dominique Wilkins a forty-FIVE," Neal said, his voice rising in shock.
"On the final dunk I thought it was a 50 because it was my best dunk out of the previous two and the previous two I got fifties on," Wilkins says now. " I was like 'Wow.'" You think [Jordan got] a little hometown cooking."
Twenty years later, the 1988 All-Star Weekend still represents, for many, the pinnacle of athletic exhibition and high-level competition ever for an All-Star Weekend. You had a three-time NBA MVP trying for his third title in the Three-Point Shootout. The dunk contest featured the last three winners of the competition, Wilkins, his Hawks teammate Spud Webb, who won in '86 and Jordan, the last three winners of the Dunk Contest and the game featured 13 of the NBA's 50 Greatest players and 10 of the 11 of the league's top scorers that season. Google "NBA All-Star Weekend 1988" and you'll find numerous VHS tapes of the weekend for sale.
In 2003, NBA.com users chose 1988 by a wide margin (37.5 percent) over 2000 (25.1 percent) and 1997 (10.7 percent) as the greatest ever All-Star Weekend. With Larry Bird winning his third consecutive Three-Point Shootout to the epic dunk contest between Jordan and 'Nique to Jordan's MVP performance -- not to mention an old-timers game that went to OT -- and it's hard to argue with the fans' choice.
For the fans and players, the weekend left an indelible impression and created some of the NBA's most vivid and iconic moments.
"There was electricity in the air in that dunk contest," Wilkins says. "You had some of the best dunkers in history in the same contest. People got there early to see this contest. It was very intense."
Even the All-Star Legends game, which tipped-off All-Star Saturday, added intrigue to it as it was the only one of 10 Legends contests to go to overtime as the East ended the game with a sudden death shot to give them a 47-45 win.
If the anticipation was high, the tense Legends game set the weekend's competitive tone. Then again, no one needed to set such a tone for Larry Legend. Bird had already won three NBA titles with the Celtics, three consecutive NBA MVP awards from 1984-86 and was going for his third consecutive Three-Point Shootout crown. Before his first, he had walked into the locker room and asked his now famous query of the seven other poor saps in the contest: "Which one of you is finishing second?"
For two years, Bird was second to none. In his first win in 1986, he ran off 11 straight makes in the final round to kick Craig Hodges to the curb. In his repeat win in 1987, Bird had to dumped Dale Ellis and Hodges to advance past the first round. He eventually trumped Detlef Schrempf, who missed a contest-tying money ball for his last shot, for win No. 2. In win No. 3, this time over Ellis in the finals, Bird followed a path to victory not much different than the first two.
Bird never had the highest score after the first round, but he won every second round and, of course, every finals round. In 1988, he faced his toughest final round test yet as Ellis won the toss and opted to go first. Ellis, a sharpshooter from Seattle, had finished third in '86 and fifth in '87, seemed primed to bump Bird from his perch. Ellis had a short, smooth, efficient built for the contest. Ellis started out hot, hitting 10 of his first 15 shots, but went cold, making only three of the final 10 to finish with 15 points.
That chill carried over to Bird's start. After notching a scorching 23 points in the second round, Bird couldn't find his rhythm in the final round. He hit four of his first 10 shots, but he nailed both money balls. Bird was arctic on the middle rack, hitting only one of five, leaving him with seven points, eight behind Ellis with only two racks to go.
Bird always had a flair for the dramatic. He nailed all five shots on the next-to-last rack to give him 13 points. Yet, just when he seemed to be on a roll, Bird missed his first two shots of the final rack, leaving him just three balls to get two points to tie or three points to win. Bird nailed his first to give him 14, then the next to give him 15. Then, as he launched the red-white-and-blue money ball toward the rim, Bird, ever confident, created one of All-Star Weekend's defining images. With the ball still in mid-air, he strutted away from the rack with his finger raised. The ball fell through, Bird had 17 and another Three-Point Shooutout crown. He never participated in a Three-Point Shootout again.
Yet, Bird's come-from-behind win was a mere appetizer for the main dish to be served by Jordan and Wilkins.
Whitaker, now executive editor of SLAM magazine, was brimming with confidence. The young Hawks fan just knew his hero was a lock.
"Dominique was our favorite player," Whitaker says. "Back then there was no Internet. There was barely cable TV so we didnít know as much about other players at the time as kids do now.
"So we were certain Dominique was the best dunker in the world, in the history of basketball if not the best basketball player in the history of the NBA. "
Dwyer, now blogging for Yahoo!, meanwhile was a little apprehensive his Airness would be felled by illness.
"One thing I remember," Dwyer said, "which I donít think they talked much about on TBS, was that Jordan had the flu going into it. You could tell he had the flu days because he was all stuffed up."
Wilkins himself was looking forward to taking the court and competing with the other six dunkers in the competition, especially Jordan.
"Once you pick that ball up you are focusing on what you need to do," Wilkins says. "Both of us were that way when we competed against one another, very focused.
"Even me and Mike were friends, when we laced it up on the floor it was time to compete."
Wilkins and Jordan proceeded to put on the finest competition in Dunk Contest history.
Wilkins finished with a high of 96 in the first round, while Jordan tallied a 94. Portland's Clyde Drexler and Golden State's Otis Smith, now GM of the Orlando Magic, also advanced. Jordan and Wilkins flipped spots in the second round, this time MJ trumping Wilkins by two, 145-143. Drexler and Smith, who had earned a 22 on his second dunk of the second round, would eventually fall by the wayside, clearing the stage for the mano-a-mano contest everyone wanted to see. The first two rounds' scores didn't matter. Both men had a clean slate, but the weight of history and past performances loomed large in the final round. The tension had been more than a year in the making. Because of an injury, Wilkins didn't compete in '87, denying dunk aficianados a matchup between Wilkins and Jordan. When he returned in '88, Wilkins was ready. So was the defending champ.
It was a classic contrast of styles, 'Nique's hard-charging, two-footed attacks versus the silky silhouette of Jordan's gliding style.
"I think my advantage was power," Wilkins says. "I didnít see a lot of power dunking along with creativity, so I kind of put the two together."
The differences weren't lost on Dwyer, either.
"One thing you notice about Jordan -- something that not even Dominique did -- is that he took his time," Dwyer says. "He was comfortable with the ball. He dribbled it. He spun it in his hands and bounced it back to himself, went through his legs. He took his time to do it right.
"The other guys, including Dominique, would just grab it and go right up with it. He didnít take his time."
Yet, as much as it looked like Dominique would rather run through a wall while Jordan would jump over it, both athletes had a charm that endeared them to their fan bases.
"It is funny how people now complain about the Dunk Contest not being creative. Nowadays if you watch those old contests, Dominique wasnít really creative," Whitaker says. "He just did windmills from different angles using one hand, two hands, two-handed double-pump dunks -- just basic dunks -- but he did them all so powerfully that when he dunked and you would hear the arena just explode. It sounded like the rim was going to get ripped off on his dunks. So, him against Jordan was really the power against the creative."
Jordan won the coin toss before the final round and had Wilkins go first, putting the pressure on Dominique to set the standard. Wilkins showed his power in his first final round dunk. Setting up just behind the three-point line, 'Nique threw the ball off the board, caught it and tomahawked it through the hoop.
The judges' verdict? A 50.
Then came Jordan, flying in from the left wing, taking off just outside the lane, bringing the ball down between legs with two hands, kissing the rim and slamming it through.
'Nique then set Chicago Stadium on its ear. Coming from the right baseline, Wilkins windmilled home one of the loudest dunks in contest history. 'Nique stumbled on his landing, but the dunk itself resonated.
Now the pressure was on Jordan to keep pace with Wilkins. For his second dunk, Jordan flew in from the right wing, rocked the two hander, swung it around, kicked out his legs and slammed it home.
Boos rained down on the court. Heading into the last of three dunks, Wilkins now had a five-point lead on Jordan. All Wilkins needed was a 48. Through seven dunks in the 1988 contest, he had averaged 48.4 points per dunk. Wilkins just needed to be his usual spectacular self and he would have taken the title from the hometown favorite.
Fans of the movie The Untouchables, which came out in 1987, the year before Wilkins-Jordan showdown, may remember how things are done in Chicago, as explained by Sean Connery's Jim Malone to Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness:
"You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way! And that's how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I'm offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?"
For his final dunk it turned out Wilkins brought a knife.
His ferocious two-handed windmill was as powerful as it was graceful. The rim snapped back against the board like a bear trap and it echoed across the Stadium.
"On the final dunk I thought it was a 50 because it was my best dunk out of the previous two," Wilkins says.
"When he got the 45 we thought, 'Well you know it was a good dunk. He is still going to win this thing. There is no way he is going to lose this,'" Whitaker remembers. "Even when Jordan made the dunk we were like, "'Alright, great. Dominique won. It's over.'"
And then they saw the score. A 45.
"It was nice," Dwyer said. "That was a legitimate 47 and he got a 45 for it. The one before that had been a legitimate 45 and he got a 50 for it."
The door was open. With Wilkins now sitting, slump-shouldered, at 145 points, Jordan needed a 48 to tie and a 49 to win. Wilkins anticipated what was coming next.
"You knew when he went to the floor that he was going to go from the free throw line," Wilkins says.
Jordan cemented his image as the NBA's most awe-inspiring athlete when he nailed the free-throw line dunk to win the 1987 title in Seattle. He had made another free-throw line dunk in round two. Now the buzz in the building was at a fever pitch. It became louder as Jordan went the length of the floor to pace off his dunk.
But a strange thing happened next. Jordan missed his first attempt from the free throw line. The crowd moaned in despair, but Neal reminded the viewers at home that Jordan had his replacement dunk. He paced off that one, and tried again. This time, Jordan slammed it home. The crowd exploded. The judges flashed their scores.
A 50. Jordan had defended his title on his turf, much to the delight of the Chicago Stadium faithful. Whitaker was not so delighted.
"The quote I'll always remember -- I think it came during the post-game interview with Dominique -- Spud Webb telling him to check his wallet when he left," Whitaker says.
Despite losing, Wilkins, who would go on to win the 1990 Dunk Contest over Kenny Smith and defending champ Kenny Walker, looks back fondly on the '88 classic.
"After I saw my score and Jordan did his dunk I was like, 'Well I am going to fall short a few points on this one,'" Wilkins says. "But it was fun. I didnít have hard feelings about it. Michael and I talked, we were friends. It wasnít that big of a deal."
For many fans it was a big deal. That Saturday in 1988 solidified All-Star Weekend as a pop culture touchstone and must-see TV.
"It was a huge deal," Dwyer says. "Larry Bird was putting the finger up while the ball was still in the air. That dunk contest was one of the best ever. It is up there with the 2000 (contest). The game itself was great, one of the best ever. Jordan was great. There were a lot of interesting players I had never seen before."
Jordan went for 40 points, the second highest total behind Wilt Chamberlain's record 42 in 1962, leading the East to an impressive 138-133 win over the West, which had eight players score in double figures. For his superhuman effort, Jordan, who was one of four East All-Stars to score in double figures, put the cherry on his Sunday and his All-Star Weekend sundae by winning the MVP.
The other East All-Star to break 20 points?
Dominique Wilkins. He had 29.
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