TBT: Larry Nance, The First NBA Slam Dunk Champion

A battle of aerial supremacy.

That was what the NBA implemented with the dunk contest exactly 31 years ago, today. The ABA, which had since merged with the current league, experienced great success with its lone trial of the event in 1976. Former New York Nets star Julius Erving had created an almost mythical legend of himself and basketball in general with his creative combination of air, ball and rim. The NBA was eager to use those qualities on its own stage.

To do so, the league called upon the most renowned aerial artists in the league. Julius Erving. Dominique Wilkins. Clyde Drexler. Ralph Sampson. Michael Cooper. Darrell Griffith. Edgar Jones. Orlando Woolridge.

And Larry Nance.

The latter was no push-over in 1984, but he was not considered the favorite at the time. Erving was still playing All-Star-caliber basketball, while Drexler and Wilkins had injected new athleticism and life into the league more recently.

Nance showed right away why he had been included in the field. Like Erving, the Suns forward possessed hands big enough to palm the ball in almost any circumstance. He used that skill right away, bringing the ball down and then snapping it back up behind him for the reverse jam while still facing the direction his momentum had carried him.

Other feats followed. Gliding verticals. Full extensions. Off the backboard. Two balls at the same time. Double-pumps. Always, his mammoth grip of the basketball coming into play.

Nance and Erving left the rest of the field in the dust. In the final round, it was established legend who faltered. His missed dunk left the young Suns forward the opportunity to clinch the official honor of the best dunker. Recognizing what was about to happen, the crowd rose as one.

Nance didn't disappoint the moment. Symbolically, he rose and met it. Phoenix's star forward took off on one foot with as much power as he could. As his body launced upwards, Nance kept his body sideways to the basket, the ball cradled between his right wrist and the fingertips of the adjoining hand. From his waste, he cocked the ball slightly back, then whirled it around in front of him with blinding speed.  The motion continued, carrying the ball above his chest, his head, and finally the rim. Only then did he reverse the momentum and bring it crashing down through the cylinder.

Erving's clapping mingled with that of the crowd, which roared its approval of the league's first-ever Slam Dunk Champion.