NBA

When Was the First Slam Dunk Contest?

All-star events usually give us an excuse to indulge in our guilty sports pleasures. The Home Run Derby, for example, gives us plenty of dingers without the pretenses of fielding or baserunning. Similarly, the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest provides plenty of showmanship, along with some rim-rocking jams.

While the Slam Dunk Contest is simply part of the All-Star Saturday lineup, things began in much more humble circumstances.

When was the first Slam Dunk Contest?

The Slam Dunk Contest first took place in 1976. It wasn’t the NBA’s idea, however. The concept came from the struggling ABA, who wanted to make a splash at their annual All-Star Game.

“We had to come up with a concept that would get everyone’s attention,” Denver Nuggets general manager Carl Scheer said. “We were in serious trouble. We knew that it was our last year and we had to make a big impression. We felt the All-Star game was our big showcase—our swan song, so to speak. We needed to have something dramatic to show the world, and the NBA, that our product was worthwhile for their league. We had to show that we had great players, great ideas, and great contests.”

The event featured a pregame concert and, at halftime, a slam dunk contest.

What was the first Slam Dunk contest like?

On that fateful night in 1976, five players stayed on the court at halftime. They would set a precedent for the Slam Dunk Contest we all know and love.

Those five men were Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, Larry Kenon, and David Thompson. Their task, however, was a bit different than the contest’s current iteration. Each player had two minutes to throw down five dunks, with each coming from a specified area of the floor. Competitors were judged on their “artistic ability, imagination, body flow as well as fan response.”

One of the five dunks was supposed to begin near the free-throw line, but Dr. J decided to push the envelope even further. He famously took off from the foul line; that dunk would help him win the contest and set the stage for our modern spectacles.

When did the NBA add their own contest?

While Dr. J might have stolen the show in Denver, the Slam Dunk Contest seemed to die with the ABA. While the NBA tried out a season-long competition during the 1976-77 campaign, it simply didn’t stick.

That all changed in 1984, however. At the time, the NBA’s all-star festivities consisted of a banquet and the game itself; that season, the schedule changed. Commissioner-elect David Stern wanted to promote basketball’s rich history, so a Saturday old timer’s game was added to the schedule. During halftime, there would also be a Slam Dunk Contest.

Dr. J returned to defend his title, taking the court alongside Larry Nance, Michael Cooper, Clyde Drexler, Darrell Griffith, Edgar Jones, Ralph Sampson, Dominique Wilkins, and Orlando Woolridge. Nance ended up pulling off the upset and making history as the winner of the first-ever NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

Plenty has changed since the late 1970s and early 1980s, but one thing remains true: the Slam Dunk Contest is always a spectacle in the best possible way.