Over the years, fans have witnessed some truly incredible NBA Slam Dunk Contests. The 2016 showdown between Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine featured some awesome performances. Then there was Vince Carter’s absolute dominance at the 2000 contest. Blake Griffin turned in one of the all-time great dunks when he threw it down over a car in the 2011 contest.
Yet for the perfect combination of skill, showmanship, and competition, the 1988 dunk contest remains unrivaled. That contest saw Michael Jordan pitted against Dominique Wilkins — a showdown that featured some of the most iconic dunks of all time. Here we take a look back at the 1988 dunk contest, its controversial finish, and Wilkins’ recent comments about the showdown.
Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, and the 1988 dunk contest
Even before the final round between Jordan and Wilkins, the 1988 dunk contest was already poised to be one of the best ever. The star presence was through the roof. Not only was Jordan competing to defend his crown, but Wilkins and Spud Webb were both former champs as well. Then you had Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, and Otis Smith at the height of their powers.
Jordan and Wilkins had already gone toe to toe in the contentious 1985 dunk contest, with Wilkins coming away the winner. The early rounds in the 1988 contest were full of breathtaking dunks.
But it was the final round where things really elevated to the next level, with Wilkins and Jordan attempting to outduel each other in a series of almost unthinkable performances.
Wilkins started things off by ricocheting the ball high off the glass, catching it outside of the paint, and throwing down a monster one-hand slam. Jordan fired back with an almost balletic double-pump reverse dunk. Wilkins then executed a tomahawk windmill slam that almost broke the rim.
Jordan’s next move was another two-handed dunk, this one accompanied by a double-clutch and a scissor kick of his legs. Wilkins’ final dunk was a two-handed windmill jam. And finally came Jordan’s elegant, gravity-defying dunk from the free-throw line. That dunk sealed the deal, giving Jordan a narrow victory over Wilkins.
Dunk contest controversy
Almost from the instant the contest ended, controversy began to swirl around the outcome. A lot of that controversy stemmed from the final round of the contest. After receiving scores of 50 on his two previous dunks, Wilkins’s two-handed windmill dunk only earned him a score of 45. Fans were incredulous that the judges would mark him down so far for what was arguably a flawless dunk.
Even Jordan himself expressed disbelief about Wilkins’s score, saying, “I was shocked. I would have given him a 49 or a 50.” If Wilkins had secured at least a 48 on that dunk, he would have locked up a victory, no matter what Jordan scored in the last round. Conspiracy-minded fans often suggest that, because the dunk contest took place in Chicago, Jordan received an unsportsmanlike advantage.
Dominique Wilkins reflects on the contest
In the 32 years since that contest, the controversy has taken on almost mythological proportions — at least for fans. But what about for the man who came away with the loss? Wilkins, as you can imagine, has been asked about the contest countless times in the intervening years.
In a 2014 interview with sports and pop-culture website Grantland, Wilkins admitted that he was robbed. Fast forward six years, and Wilkins still feels the same way — albeit with a bit more philosophical distance. In a 2020 interview with NBC Sports Chicago, Wilkins said:
“Do I think I won? Yeah. But it didn’t matter at that point because we entertained for the fans. The fact we’re talking about it 30 years later lets you know how important that dunk contest was.”
As for the relationship between him and Jordan, Wilkins said that the two men have never discussed the 1988 dunk contest since then. Wilkins called it an “unspoken thing” that they will never need to talk about. Nonetheless, the sports world will certainly continue to say plenty about it in years to come.