Saturday Night Live
Posted: Jan. 22, 2009
While Suns All-Star Game memories featuring players like Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire may still be fresh in Phoenicians' minds, it wasn’t all that long ago that guard Jason Richardson was also wowing fans during All-Star Weekend. J-Rich, however, made his impact on All-Star Saturday Night, when back in 2002 and '03 he became just the second player ever to win the Slam Dunk Contest in consecutive years. The other to accomplish the feat - a fairly popular Chicago Bulls guard by the name of Michael Jordan.
The Michigan native remembers Jordan’s accolades from All-Star Weekend well. But while most his age were wearing their No. 23 jerseys proudly in hopes they could someday be “like Mike," Richardson pledged his allegiance to another of the NBA’s high-flying superstars.
“Growing up, I was a huge Dominique Wilkens fan,” Richardson told Suns.com. “I think even though he lost, my favorite All-Star memory growing up might have been the year he and Jordan competed in the Slam Dunk Contest. It was 1988 in Chicago and while I was real young, I remember feeling Dominique got robbed a bit in that contest.”
While Jordan may have been the beneficiary of a little home cooking during the competition, Richardson said the decision to crown him that season’s slam dunk champ in no way diminished his enjoyment of All-Star Weekend.
“Growing up, it was one of the best times to be a basketball fan because you got to watch all of those great players,” Richardson remembered. “Seeing those guys come together and the game turning more into a streetball-like contest, it was fun. That’s what made All-Star Weekend so great.”
After coming out of Michigan State in 2001, Richardson didn’t wait long before creating some All-Star memories himself. During his first-ever midseason classic in Philadelphia, the then-Warrior helped the rookie squad to a 103-97 victory over the sophomores in the 2002 All-Star Rookie Challenge. The high-flyer contributed 26 points in the contest and also displayed his shooting touch from beyond the arc, nailing 3-of-6 shots from downtown.
“It was fun, everything I expected,” Richardson said of playing in what he calls the "Junior All-Star Game." “Just getting the opportunity to get out there, have some fun with some dunks, I was having a great time.”
The solid effort helped J-Rich earn MVP honors in the Saturday-night affair, while his leaping ability helped him become a crowd favorite in the City of Brotherly Love. With the fans in his corner, the young Richardson rode the momentum of his Rookie Challenge performance into the Slam Dunk Contest and won with what he described at the time as a “windmill into a backward dunk.” Richardson beat out another California player, Sacramento’s Gerald Wallace, to take home what would be the first of his two slam dunk honors.
“My favorite part was just seeing how the fans got behind me that night,” Richardson said. “Heading into that dunk contest was great because I had the crowd on my side and right from the start felt good. I think having showed a little bit what I was capable of in the game beforehand and creating some excitement in the crowd definitely helped me heading into that night’s Slam Dunk Contest.”
But while Richardson’s decisive dunk in 2002 was impressive, his slam to take home the 2003 title is among the most memorable in the competition’s history. Needing to beat Desmond Mason’s score of 93 points, Richardson threw down a dunk which TNT broadcaster and former Slam Dunk Contest participant Kenny Smith ecstatically described as a “Desmond-Mason-Vince-Carter-and-Dominique-(Wilkens)-all-rolled-into-one dunk.”
Bouncing himself an alley-oop from the corner, Richardson caught the ball, and with his back to the basket, somehow managed to dunk the ball between his legs.
“A lot of people ask me where I got an idea for such a crazy dunk,” Richardson laughed. “I was teammates with Gilbert Arenas at the time and anybody that knows Gilbert knows how crazy he is. He would always come up with these different ideas for dunks, dunks he couldn’t necessarily do himself, but wanted to see others try. We were in the gym and I remember telling him, ‘I think I used up all my ideas for dunks last year. I’ve got nothing.’ That’s when he gave me the idea for that slam.”
Perhaps even stranger than the creative slam itself, however, is the story of how and when Richardson finally learned he was capable of delivering something so complicated.
“I actually didn’t make the dunk when trying it out in practice,” Richardson said. “I came close, but the first time I actually made it was in the Slam Dunk Contest itself.”
For the second-straight year, Richardson had enjoyed a triumphant All-Star Weekend, first scoring 31 points as a member of the sophomore squad in another Rookie Challenge victory, and then earning another slam dunk crown against a talented pool of competitors which included Mason, Richard Jefferson and J-Rich’s current teammate, Amar’e Stoudemire. Richardson told Suns.com the hefty handful of All-Star hardware is kept safely at his mother’s house, and while he may one day create a special place for them in his own home, he's not in any rush.
Now, six years after earning those All-Star keepsakes, Richardson may be returning to the NBA’s midseason extravaganza, this time in his new home of Phoenix, AZ. But instead of living life above the rim, in this go-around, J-Rich could be loving life from just outside the three-point arc. Among the league leaders in three-point accuracy, many expect the guard to earn an invite to the weekend’s Three-Point Shootout. A victory in the competition would make Richardson the first-ever champion of both the Slam Dunk Contest, as well as the Three-Point Shootout.
“It would be fun and would definitely show how far my game has come since the beginning of my career when I was labeled as ‘just a dunker,'” Richardson said.
When asked if Richardson would ever consider displaying his playmaking abilities in the NBA All-Star Weekend Skills Challenge and complete the All-Star trifecta, Richardson enjoyed a laugh before explaining his "one-thing-at-a-time approach."
“To do that, I would definitely have to get my point guard skills to a level better than where they are now, but that would be fun. Right now I’ll just focus on the Three-Point Shootout.”
Whether or not Richardson makes NBA All-Star history remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure. With the weekend being held in his new home of Phoenix, much like he did in 2002, Richardson will most definitely have the crowd in his corner.