Dr. J, the ABA, and the First Slam-Dunk Contest
The Doctor delivers as an exciting new event comes alive
Excerpted from The Big Time: How the 1970s Transformed Sports in America by Michael MacCambridge. Copyright © 2023 by Michael MacCambridge. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
By the 1975-76 season, the American Basketball Association was like a battle-weary platoon that had absorbed heavy casualties. “In the ABA, there was always conjecture that the next game might be the last,” said Rod Thorn, who became the Spirits of St. Louis head coach in 1975. “There were teams on the precipice constantly. You would be set to go to Utah, and somebody would say, ‘Oh, Utah’s not gonna make it.’ Go to San Diego and, ‘Oh, this game may not be played, they’re not gonna make it.’”
Shortly after the Baltimore Claws were terminated by the ABA league office, the San Diego Sails ran aground, and then one of the league’s flagship teams, the Utah Stars, went under, many of their players migrating to the Spirits of St. Louis, which even then was flirting with a move to Cincinnati.
The league somehow survived through that chaotic 1975-76 season. Because the ABA was down to just seven teams at the time, the ABA All-Star Game no longer matched stars from the East and West Divisions, but instead was a contest between the league-leading Denver Nuggets, at their home court, McNichols Arena, against the All-Stars from the other six teams in the league.
The idea of staging a slam-dunk contest at halftime of the game was the brainchild of the ABA’s director of public relations, Jim Bukata, who suggested it in a meeting with Nuggets GM Carl Scheer and the ABA finance director Jim Keeler. “Everybody said, ‘Great,’” recalled Bukata. “Then we all said, ‘Okay, how do you have a slam-dunk contest?’ There had never been a dunking contest before, or at least none of us knew of one. We had no idea about rules or anything like that. So we simply made it up as we went along.” In a decade of cheesy made-for-TV events, the one that may stand as the apotheosis of the form was never shown on national television.
When asked to participate, Julius Erving was initially dubious. The timing of the contest meant that the players participating wouldn’t get a chance to rest during halftime. But he finally agreed to participate. Denver hedged its bets, adding Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich for a pregame concert.
As halftime of the game arrived and the competition began, Kentucky’s Artis Gilmore went first, waiting for the labored explanation of the rules and regulations by the public address announcer at McNichols Arena — “there will be two mandatory dunks, one from a standing position under the basket and the other one taking off from a spot ten feet from the basket, in the foul lane,” and three “optional” dunks, one from the left side of the lane, one from the right, and a third from either side of the baseline. The dunks would be judged on the somewhat pliable criteria of “artistic ability, imagination, body flow, and fan response.”
Gilmore wowed the crowd by dunking with each hand. Later, San Antonio’s George “Iceman” Gervin missed a couple of dunks. Hometown hero David Thompson, already a star in his rookie season, went through his dunks more rhythmically, generating a mounting cascade of applause.
Then came Erving. By now, the players on both squads had pulled chairs out onto the court for a closer look at the proceedings. “Everybody was pumped up about the contest,” recalled Denver’s Dan Issel. “They told us that we didn’t have to stay around during halftime, that we could go into the dressing room, but everyone stayed on the court, and we sat on the floor, sort of in a semicircle around the basket.”
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An excited murmur rose in the crowd. Erving opened with the dunk under the rim, facing away from the basket with a ball in each hand, before executing a double-dunk. Then came the running dunk. Erving walked to the free throw line, fifteen feet from the rim, then elaborately ran off several paces away from the basket, as though he were a long jumper counting his steps, going all the way back to the opposite free throw circle (“There is no real reason I do this,” he explained later, “but it makes for a better show”). The crowd bubbled in anticipation. Then Erving began his run, quickly gaining speed, then launching himself from the foul line and tomahawking the ball through the net, prompting an explosion of applause and whoops from the crowd.
If one had to identify a single moment when sports moved definitively into the realm of entertainment, this was it. The result of the game — the Nuggets beat the All-Stars, 144-138 — was soon forgotten, but the legend of the dunk contest grew. Besides the people at the arena, and TV audiences in a few ABA markets, no one else in the country saw it. But the word of mouth surged like any urban myth, exaggerated with each retelling — Dr. J took off from the top of the key, twenty feet from the rim, or Dr. J took off from the edge of the three-point line, twenty-three feet away from the rim. (In fact, Erving’s final step was perhaps six inches inside the free throw line.) It was still a thrilling, historic moment, when one of the sport’s most exciting plays was self-consciously elevated to the level of an artistic statement.
At the NBA offices, where Commissioner Larry O’Brien was presiding, the message was clear. The NBA didn’t need the markets of the ABA, and they didn’t particularly need to squelch the competition. But for ratings and prestige and attendance, they sure needed the Doctor.