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Don't dunk on the NBA Slam Dunk Contest

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Basketball player Mac McClung won the NBA slam dunk contest this Saturday.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

He started by leapfrogging over two people, one guy sitting on another guy's shoulders...

SHAPIRO: Tapping the ball on the backboard.

KELLY: Before finally dunking it into the hoop.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBA ON ESPN")

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: I'm worried about the guy holding the other guy. At some point, he gonna (ph) go down.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Oh, ooo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: That's a fifty. That's a fifty.

KELLY: And McClung ended the contest with a 540-degree spin before yamming (ph) it home.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBA ON ESPN")

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Oh, it is over, ladies and gentlemen.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Oh, that's a wrap. That's a wrap.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: It is over, ladies and gentlemen.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: That is a wrap.

SHAPIRO: A couple things made the contest feel special. First, at 6-foot-2, McClung is pretty short for a pro baller.

KELLY: McClung is also in the G League - that's the feeder league for the pros.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAC MCCLUNG: My situation, it's - you know, I'm not really worried what other people think. Good or bad, I'm just staying the course. You know, my goal is to, you know, make a impact in the NBA, and I'm just going to keep working until that happens.

KELLY: Well, NBA stars were impressed. Shaquille O'Neal went so far as to say McClung, quote, "saved the dunk contest."

SHAPIRO: It's a competition some NBA fans say has needed a savior because its biggest stars refuse to participate. Fans remember moments like in 2000 when NBA superstar Vince Carter jumped so high, he seemed to float as his upper arm balanced from the rim.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBA ON ESPN")

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Can I take a timeout? Can we take a timeout?

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #4: Have you ever seen that before?

KELLY: But NBA writer Katie Heindl sees it differently.

KATIE HEINDL: It hasn't really been this arena for superstars. It's been an arena for NBA kind of up-and-comers.

KELLY: And she says the act of dunking itself is worth celebrating.

HEINDL: There's a kind of intense alchemy of not just skill and timing but, like, luck, and dunks themselves are inherently the best product of basketball.

SHAPIRO: Heindl admits she's a bit of a dunk contest apologist. She has a tattoo on her arm that reads, dunk contest. But she has a point that some of the most fun dunks in NBA history came from players outside the spotlight.

KELLY: Like in 1992 - that is when Cedric Ceballos dunked blindfolded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #5: I'm not believing this. Blind, here comes Ceballos.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #5: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Or in 1986, when 5-foot-6 Spud Webb won the NBA contest over the human highlight reel, Dominique Wilkins.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #6: Whoo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #7: And Spud Webb comes through in the clutch to put the pressure on Dominique.

SHAPIRO: Spud Webb is now the president of basketball operations for the NBA G League team, the Texas Legends, and he says he's excited for the exposure this contest has brought to the G League and to a potential up-and-coming NBA player in McClung.

SPUD WEBB: You know, I work in the G League, so it sheds light on us, too. But I was telling people, I mean, the guy can play - his energy level, I mean, I think there's a place for him.

KELLY: You hear that, superstars? Keep warming that bench. It is the G League that owns the future. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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