Hocus Pocus!!! A New Slam Dunk King Is Crowned
Published: March, 1992
It was a weekend of pure Magic. Everywhere you looked, the smiling face of Earvin Johnson looked back as if to say, “This is MY weekend.”
And he certainly didn’t disappoint.
“Did you see that pass!?!” “Can you believe that shot he made at the end of the game!?!,” were the exclamations heard throughout the Orlando Arena after the All Star Weekend had drawn to a close.
“Yeah, but did you see that blindfolded slam by Cedric Ceballos in the dunk contest? Man, that was IT!!!”
He had arrived in Orlando for the 1992 NBA All Star Weekend on a Thursday, and by Saturday night, the whole NBA was talking about the Suns’ second year forward Cedric Ceballos.
Certainly, the weekend was Magic’s – and deservedly so. He showed the NBA and the world that he had some unfinished business on the basketball court.
But Ceballos was able to steal just a little of Magic’s spotlight by virtually stealing an otherwise unspectacular Gatorade Slam Dunk Contest.
Going up against dunkers such as Seattle’s Shawn Kemp – the prohibitive favorite – even Ceballos admits he wasn’t too sure of his chances.
“I expected Kemp, (Orlando’s) Nick Anderson and (Minnesota’s) Doug West to be up there,” Ceballos says. “I didn’t expect to get past the first round.
“I was nervous, especially after the score I got on my first dunk. I knew what I had to do – it was just a point of doing it.”
Luckily, even though Ceballos’ scores were not high, many of the other more heralded slammers missed one of their dunk attempts – opening the door for him to move to the next round.
“I didn’t touch a basketball that weekend until the dunk contest and that’s kind of hard for a player to do,” Ceballos recalls. “That’s probably why this dunk contest was so abnormal. Previous years, they had practices or warm-ups the day before the contest. We didn’t have a long warm-up period. Luckily, I did get warmed up after the jitters were gone.”
In fact, his coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons, thought that Ceballos might not have been getting a fair shake from the judges at the start.
“I felt like the judges, because he was unknown, were overly critical of him early,” Fitzsimmons says. “I thought he did a couple of dunks that he should have gotten really good marks on while they were giving good marks to others who were not doing creative dunks.
“Cedric was focused and Cedric was prepared. The other guys were trying to do it all on their own natural ability.”
Lack of creativity plagued the entire contest as, with the exception of Ceballos, it seemed that the dunkers were trying not to miss, rather than trying to create and entertain – two staples of previous contests.
“Guys really wanted to make their dunks,” Ceballos says. “We really didn’t have any spectacular dunkers in the contest – with the exception of Kemp. We had great athletes – but not necessarily great dunkers.”
With Kemp missing one of his attempts and bowing out in the first round, suddenly Ceballos, Anderson, Charlotte’s Larry Johnson, and the Knicks’ John Starks found themselves in the next round – and in a wide open contest.
After it became clear that Kemp had been eliminated, the Seattle forward was asked who he thought was going to win. “I’m going to pick a dark horse – Cedric Ceballos,” was Kemp’s answer.
“I didn’t know he had said that at the time,” Ceballos recalls. “Shawn’s a good friend of mine and, I guess, he has a lot of confidence in me.
“I’m glad I came through for him,” Ceballos says with a smile.
Johnson dominated the second round of the contest with, basically, raw power. He attacked the hoop as if it had kicked his puppy.
And right there behind him was Ceballos. He was hanging in and moving on – letting his intense preparation for the contest carry him through.
“My preparation motivated me,” Ceballos says. “I said to myself, ‘You’ve worked hard for this, it’s time to show you’re hard work.”
And the hard work of his teammates on the Suns, who had helped him prepare. Especially the one man on the team whose name will never be “Dunkmeister” – Jeff Hornacek.
“Basically, all of my dunks were my idea, but Jeff and the others added extra things,” Ceballos says. “They added those extras little things to each dunk that made them look more spectacular than they would have.
“I had never been to the contest before, so they told me what to expect and what the crowd would want.”
With Johnson and Ceballos now in the finals, the crowd was growing restless. They had come to life somewhat for Johnson’s rim-rattling dunks and, it seemed, all the Charlotte rookie had to do was throw down two more of his power jams and walk off with the trophy.
“Because of the power dunks of Johnson, the judges were ready to sway their votes toward him,” Fitzsimmons asserts.
But Johnson looked a little tentative and, as had been the case the entire evening, looked like he was trying very hard not to miss. Of course, he did.
That left the contest firmly in Ceballos’ back pocket. He had already completed a from-behind-the-backboard-flying-two-handed-slam to secure the win – but he wasn’t done.
With the fans beginning to leave their seats unsatisfied with a contest of misses and conformity, Ceballos knew one thing for sure – a little “Hocus Pocus” was in order.
He had saved the best for last. He had seen Magic Johnson shoot before games with his eyes closed. He had seen Boston’s Dee Brown win the Slam Dunk title with his “Peek-A-Boo” jam. It was up to him to take things one-step further.
“I wasn’t going to do it,” Ceballos admits. “When I was in the locker room before the contest, I thought that, just in case, I would stick the blindfold in my tights and take it out there with me.
“When the moment finally came, it was the perfect timing for it. The contest was already won and I had nothing to lose.”
So Ceballos walked over to Magic’s courtside vantage point and said, “This one’s for you.”
He then proceeded to a spot under the basket and began pacing off the steps to his starting position. He stood as teammate Dan Majerle tied the blindfold – the one that Ceballos had taken with him “just in case” – around his eyes.
The crowd had began to filter back into their seats as the murmur of “You’ve gotta see this” rolled across the arena.
After a moment of contemplation, Ceballos started running towards the hoop and after 10 precise strides, he jumped (off the wrong foot no less), felt the rim against his wrists, and slammed home the ball with authority.
The crowd explodes as Ceballos’ “Hocus Pocus” dunk found its mark. Their craving for originality and showmanship had been satisfied.
And the NBA had a new slam dunk king.
“Cedric just competed,” says Portland’s Clyde Drexler, who witnessed the competition as a member of the Western Conference All Star Team – and knows a thing or two about dunking. “When you compete, good things happen. He just performed extremely well from start to finish. The last dunk was a bit risky, but I’m sure he had some vision.”
How about it Ced? Could you see?
“I couldn’t see a thing,” Ceballos contends.
Actually, to the fans, that point is superfluous. Ceballos had captured their imagination and had turned an otherwise forgettable competition into a night to remember – and that’s what matters to them.
With the slam dunk trophy safe at home, Ceballos has already turned his thoughts towards the future.
“I had a lot of fun in the contest and it was a great honor to win,” Ceballos says. “But dunking in a competition is just me out there. I’d rather do it with nine other people on the floor. Basketball is not about dunking, it’s about playing the game.
“I want to come back to the All Star Weekend and play on Sunday.”
Not that he won’t defend his newly won title next year.
“If they invite me, I’d love to go back.”
But can Ceballos even come close to topping “Hocus Pocus?”
“It’s going to be tough,” he says with a mischievous grin. “But I’ll think of something.”