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Saving the dunk contest—and the world—with Jaylen Brown

The once-glorious All-Star Saturday night event is in shambles, but Jaylen Brown has arrived to save it.

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Thinking too much about the slow, painstaking decline of our nation’s once-great institutions is a surefire way to ruin your evening, so instead of doing that, I’m going to laser in on one I’m sure we can fix: the Slam Dunk Contest. And by signing up for the 2024 edition, the Celtics’ very own Jaylen Brown is here to save us.

If an alien landed in the parking lot of your local YMCA and started asking around about this “NBA Slam Dunk Contest,” what would you tell them about it? While maintaining an appropriate level of interplanetary respect, here’s what I’d say:

The “NBA Slam Dunk Contest” is when the league’s highest-flying and most aerially-artistic rim destroyers would throw down in an epic contest to push the limits of mankind’s primal desire to dunk a basketball.

It’s Dr. J from the foul line to Zach Lavine windmill-from-the-foul-line. It’s Vince Carter between-the-legs to Aaron Gordon under-both-legs-over-mascot-spinning-on-a-hover-board. And it’s duels between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins, the Dunk Contest as a proxy war for their real-world rivalry.

The alien would probably nod along and congratulate Earth on creating such a wonderful spectacle. They would then probably ask what the “NBA” was or who all those people I mentioned were, at which point I would leave, citing an important thing I had to go do.

What I would probably leave out is how some of the participating players aren’t even on NBA rosters, and that defending champion Mac McClung—while technically a Philadelphia 76er for the contest itself—played nearly the entirety of last season in the G-League and currently hoops for the Osceola Magic. The alien would be beyond confused now.

2023 NBA All-Star - AT&T Slam Dunk Contest Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Don’t get me wrong: McClung’s winning dunks last year were awesome, blowing his competitors and every single dunk from the previous year—when Obi Toppin won the worst dunk contest I’ve ever seen—completely out of the water. It was nice to see McClung get some national notoriety for his abilities, and he is personally blameless in the downfall of such an institution.

But his very inclusion represents something fundamentally flawed. It’s understandable if my brother, who does not watch or follow the NBA, walks into the room and asks who Anfernee Simons is as he’s winning the Dunk Contest. But if almost no one in NBA media or myself—fanatical follower of random NBA players—had heard of the winner before the NBA announced they’d be participating? Houston, we now officially have a problem.

There have always been dry spells in the history of the contest, like when all three of Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, and Tracy McGrady decided they were sick of it simultaneously. Similarly, star players not participating in the dunk contest isn’t a new phenomenon, with one of the greatest dunkers of all time LeBron James never coming near the event. Nor did prolific slam-whammer-jammer Dwayne Wade for the entirety of his dunk-laden career.

I’m not saying we need a perennially All-NBA caliber Dunk Contest, but man, as far as I can tell, there has never been a stretch of such blatant mediocrity in the quality of participants. Here’s a list of the last five winners:

  • 2019: Hammidou Diallo
  • 2020: Derrick Jones Jr.
  • 2021: Anfernee Simons
  • 2022: Obi Toppin
  • 2023: Mac McClung

Simons is the only one who approaches what I would call an actually good player, though he was still a relative unknown when he participated. Zero actual All-Stars have been in the event since 2017, and we are at an all-time high in “who is that guy?” comments from friends and family while watching. It’s a disaster.

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Enter Jaylen Brown, a specialist at doing the opposite of what it feels like everyone else is doing. Often for better and occasionally for worse, Brown has never been one to conform to the expected role of an NBA superstar. He’s a specialist at playing basketball like it’s a social phenomenon, and has navigated his career as such, this time targeting the Dunk Contest.

No player has fascinated me personally quite like Brown, and I’ve in turn written a lot about him. Despite never being the Celtics’ true number one, it always seems like he finds a way to be the center of the team’s discourse. His super-ultra-mega contract drew some skepticism this summer, prompting Brown to shoot some skeptical looks right back and have the best month of his basketball life in December.

But his real superpower is having his finger on the pulse of Celtics Nation, something he’s chosen to extend to the national stage for all our sakes. Brown seems to be the only player in the league who actually understands what the Dunk Contest should be, but don’t just take my word for it, take his.

He turned down two prior invitations in 2017 and 2021, both times before he had made the All-Star team itself. While Brown never explicitly said he would refuse invitations until becoming a true All-Star, it stands to reason that he wouldn’t want to be typecast as a pure dunker so early in his career, something former Celtic dunk-aficionado Gerald Green mentioned way back when.

“You get in the Dunk Contest and they kind of label you as ‘just this’ or ‘just that’,” Green said of the contest to Telegram back in 2017. “I think for [Brown] it’s something that if he wants to do it, he should do it. If it’s kind of up in the air, I don’t think he should do it.”

But all of that has been put to rest. Another special quality of Brown’s has been his relentless improvement. Coming out of Cal, many saw him as an unrefined ball of ridiculous athleticism. But Brown laughs at prescribed limitations, and has honed his natural gifts into a truly elite player.

And now those gifts and polish will be loosed on fixing the Dunk Contest, which has morphed into a perverse coagulation of obscure rookies and one really impressive G-Leaguer. As a younger player, Brown clearly didn’t see the Dunk Contest as a platform to improve his brand or publicity, and the $300 million man doesn’t need much promotion anyhow. I’d stop short of saying 2017 Brown actually didn’t feel like he had earned it yet, but I wouldn’t put that past him either.

Ultimately, Brown’s motivations for refusing or accepting Dunk Contest invitations are—as they are with most things—unknowable. He could truly have been worried about injury earlier in his career—a frequently cited excuse by superstars—but with the Celtics closer than ever to their ultimate goal, there’s no reason that concern should have suddenly subsided.

Also, just for posterity, players claiming they don’t want to get injured in the contest is baseless malarkey and a totally illegitimate excuse. As far as I can tell, no player has ever been injured in a Dunk Contest, nor has anyone been injured practicing for it. While researching for this piece, the lone reference on the entire internet to a player being “injured” was on the “Slam Dunk Contest” Wikipedia page, with uncited references to injuries to Tracy McGrady in 2000 and Tony Dumas in 1995.

However, Wikipedia did not provide a source, and I could not find any reference to these injuries anywhere else, so either they…

  1. …did happen but were so minor that no one bothered to record them, or
  2. …did not happen and my 6th Grade English teacher was right about Wikipedia

Yes, if Brown breaks his wrist throwing down a 720 whirling-tomahawk and has to have season ending surgery, I will be extremely upset. But there is no historical reason to think that will happen, so I’m content to just knock on wood and move on.

Even with Brown stepping in, we’re certainly not at a place where the contest is saved. Brown is clearly manifesting a more prestigious dunk contest by himself, as his fellow competitors include the aforementioned McClung, New York/Westchester Knicks player Jacob Toppin and actually-pretty-impressive rookie Jaime Jacquez Jr.

That’s not exactly the ‘96 Bulls, but Brown’s inclusion is a meteoric step up from the embarrassments of prior years. And while he seems to be doing this from his aforementioned cultural understanding and the goodness of his heart, how might we get more Jaylen Browns for next year?

Well, we could start by making the prize money a sum that would actually entice superstars. $100,000 is not a whole lot for supermax guys like Brown, so why don’t we jack that up to like $5 million? I had this same quarrel with the In-Season Tournament prize money, wondering why must the number be so low compared to what these dudes actually make? You’re telling me these billionaire owners couldn’t find $5 million in their couch cushions?!

Last year was the first time the NBA world truly thought that the three-point contest was cooler than the Slam Dunk Contest, which is a travesty and must be reversed immediately. Shooting threes is a repetitive motion, something a robot could in theory perfect without any human ingenuity.

But dunking is the closest basketball ever gets to art. It’s necessarily human, changing with each players’ body type, leaping ability and bravery to go for the craziest thing possible. These guys are painting the Mona Lisa while walking on air, and I refuse to allow that to be supplanted by a contest built on repetition and efficiency. The only way back is to get the stars of the league on board and put this thing back on the map, one Jaylen Brown at a time.

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