1988 Week: An in-depth investigation into how good the ’88 Slam Dunk Contest was

1988 was a game-changing year. 

The NBA was ruled by a flying men, Bad Boys and His Airness. The PBA was ushering in a new era with a bunch of hotshot rookies. The rivalry between Katipunan and Taft was starting anew in the UAAP.

Beyond basketball, 1988 gave us icons like Rain Man, Big and Die Hard. Another Michael was rising up the charts with his own Bad style. DJ Jazzy Jeff, NWA, Biz Markie, Run DMC were all rolling. Even in the world of sneakers something fresh was coming. Mike rocked a pair of J’s that shone brightest, even though surrounded by All-Stars.

Good, bad, hilarious and legendary, 1988 is a year to remember. It’s a classic year, an iconic time, a perfect 50.

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I can’t talk about ’88, without talking about ’96.

My dad took me out to see Space Jam, and four year old me was losing his mind. It was a proverbial moment in my early life—not just because Space Jam is a perfect film—but also because it was the first time I can distinctly remember actual basketball knowledge being passed down from father to son. The first among thousands of life lessons that would shape my understanding of the game.

I learned two things.

One, Michael Jordan cannot actually dunk from half-court. But he did the next best thing. He dunked from the free throw line in 1988.

Two, Lola Bunny wasn’t real and I can’t marry her.

Soul crushing heartbreak aside, I was floored with wonder. The free throw line? That’s unbelievable!

You have to understand what this meant to a kid pre-YouTube. Otherworldly photos of Jordan gliding through the air—cocking the ball back with unshakable confidence that he was gonna make it—were all we had. How many afternoons were spent staring at that magazine spread, imagination racing, simulating the different ways His Airness would have flushed it?

I didn’t even see the actual dunk until years later and it was infinitely better than anything I dreamed up.

30 years ago, MJ and ‘Nique squared off in one of the most legendary displays of athletic showmanship, dunk for dunk, topping one after the other. To commemorate that dunk-off, I decided to watch the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest in its entirety for the first time ever.

But that didn’t feel enough. I wanted to see how the contest measured up over time. Did it still possess the timeless mystique of MJ’s ruthlessly competitive spirit? Or did it age like his fashion sense?

I was gonna regrade the ’88 Dunk Contest.

 (Trust) The Process

To do this, I needed to tweak the rules a bit. We all have our own problems with the contest. Fan voting is a bad idea. Dunk retries suck the momentum out of the entire thing. Props are mostly bad, costumes are even worse, and the Intel Drone is an abomination. But the biggest problem in my book has always been the way it was scored. Never mind the fact that judges never go below 6 anyway—even on a missed dunk!—judges hand out more fifties than James Harden at a club. It’s ridiculous! Not every dunk that moves the needle deserves a 50. Perfection, and nothing less, should merit a perfect score.

So let’s ditch the old fogies and define what makes a perfect dunk. I’ve identified five pillars to replace the five judges:

CREATIVITY: Relates to the novelty and originality of the dunk. Dunk outside of the box and you get a 10. Tons of examples here, but Andre Iguodala’s dunk from behind the backboard unlocked a whole new dimension nobody was even thinking of using. Bonus points for getting the real A.I. to throw the alley oop.

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY: Relates to the complexity of the dunk and the athleticism required to pull it off. How far you stretch the limits of what is humanly possible determines your score. The most recent example of this has to be Zach LaVine’s windmill dunk from the free throw line. I’ve seen it a million times and I still don’t understand what I’m looking at

HOLY CRAP FACTOR: Relates to the overall aesthetic value of the dunk. If you need a clean pair of shorts after the dunk, that probably means it scored a 10. One such dunk was when Steve Francis updated MJ’s patented “Leaner” by throwing an alley-oop then pumping it in mid-air. The way The Franchise pops his legs at the height of his jump is a thing of beauty

THEATRICS: Relates to the level of showmanship present in the dunk. This is the sizzle that takes the steak to another level. Aaron Gordon’s hoverboard is the obvious choice, but give me on-court swagger over props any day. Vinsanity’s third dunk in 2000 is a masterclass in this category. 18 years later and I still get chills.

LEGACY: Relates to the dunk’s cultural significance and impact. Years later, will we still be talking about that dunk? Do posters of that dunk still hang on kids’ walls? What did that dunk contribute, not just to the game of basketball, but to the fan’s appreciation for it? MJ’s free throw line dunk obviously fits the bill for this one. The dunk alone puts it up there, but then add the fact that he rocked the Jordan IIIs for the first time, Tinker Hatfield’s first Jordan shoe, and that’s an instant 10.

Without further ado, let’s get to the dunks.

Anuhlytics, Erneh

(EDITOR’S NOTE: All the videos below are from one clip. You can watch the video in one go or jump around in the timestamps for each dunk in the article.)

First Round – Otis Smith

That’s how you know it’s 1988. We have dudes named Otis Smith headlining All-Star Weekend. He goes for a 180 double clutch. Nothing fancy. But hey, not bad for a guy named OTIS SMITH.

CREATIVITY:                                     5

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    6

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      5

THEATRICS:                                      1

LEGACY:                                            1

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              18

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         40

First Round – Jerome Kersey

Kersey actually joined the 1987 Dunk Contest and came in second place to MJ. With my hopes high, Kersey opens with a pretty straightforward double handed reverse. K.

CREATIVITY:                                     6

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    7

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      6

THEATRICS:                                      1

LEGACY:                                            1

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              21

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         41

First Round – Spud Webb

Hey it’s Spud Webb! ’86 Dunk Champ and still the shortest to ever win it. So that’s why the ’88 was an all-timer!

And the bar is set even lower. 5 feet 7 inches to be exact.

CREATIVITY:                                     1

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    8

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      3

THEATRICS:                                      1

LEGACY:                                            1

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              14

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         34

First Round – Greg “Cadillac” Anderson

Starting to see why they lessened the number of contestants to four. Yeesh.

CREATIVITY:                                     4

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    6

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      4

THEATRICS:                                      1

LEGACY:                                            1

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              16

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         42

First Round – Michael Jordan

There’s just really something about the flair with which MJ dunks the ball. If you think about it, that was just a windmill. But whose legs actually hang like that mid-dunk during this era? It was unprecedented. Important note, the judges gave him a 47, which was met with boos. Did I mention the ’88 All Star Weekend was held in Chicago?

CREATIVITY:                                     7

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    7

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      8

THEATRICS:                                      7

LEGACY:                                            5

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              34

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         47

First Round – Clyde Drexler

I feel for Drexler. Bet it wasn’t fun to constantly be compared to MJ. But maybe don’t do a windmill when Michael does a windmill?

CREATIVITY:                                     5

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    6

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      6

THEATRICS:                                      5

LEGACY:                                            3

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              25

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         44

First Round – Dominique Wilkins

We were still five years away from the first NBA Jam, but ‘Nique was the living embodiment of BOOMSHAKALAKA. Right away, Wilkins sets the tone. MJ can glide and dangle his legs all he wants, but he can’t dunk with this much power.

CREATIVITY:                                     6

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    7

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      8

THEATRICS:                                      7

LEGACY:                                            5

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              33

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         49

Second Round – Michael Jordan

And there it is! Right away, MJ brings out the free throw line dunk. The kicks. The tongue. The way he psyches the home crowd by measuring the free throw line is a stroke of genius. A perfect 50—if only he didn’t already do the free throw line dunk in ’85 and ’87. (And yes, Dr. J invented the free throw line dunk, but it was nowhere near the aerial ballet MJ was capable of.)

CREATIVITY:                                     9

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    10

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      10

THEATRICS:                                      10

LEGACY:                                            10

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              49

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         50

Second Round – Otis Smith

Man, Otis can’t catch a break. How is he supposed to follow that? He throws an alley oop off the backboard and flushes it with some authority but the poor guy never stood a chance.

CREATIVITY:                                     5

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    6

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      7

THEATRICS:                                      4

LEGACY:                                            1

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              23

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         45

Second Round – Clyde Drexler

Doing the same dunk as Jordan the first time was forgivable but doing the free throw line dunk too?? In his hometown?? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING CLYDE??

CREATIVITY:                                     1

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    10

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      7

THEATRICS:                                      6

LEGACY:                                            1

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              25

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         45

Second Round – Dominique Wilkins

Looking at ‘Nique dunk and you wonder how he never shattered a backboard. My goodness, windmills don’t get any better than that.

CREATIVITY:                                     7

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    8

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      9

THEATRICS:                                      6

LEGACY:                                            7

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              37

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         49

Third Round – Michael Jordan

My personal favorite among Jordan’s dunks. The windmill leaner is as graceful as it comes. If only he didn’t perform the exact same dunk a year before…

CREATIVITY:                                     7

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    9

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      9

THEATRICS:                                      7

LEGACY:                                            9

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              41

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         48

Third Round – Clyde Drexler

Drexler knew he couldn’t lay in the air like MJ so he copied Otis Smith instead. Not-so-fun fact: Drexler is the player with the most Slam Dunk Contest participations (5) without any wins. He gives it one last go in ’89.

CREATIVITY:                                     5

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    6

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      6

THEATRICS:                                      4

LEGACY:                                            1

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              22

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         42

Third Round – Dominique Wilkins

Among Nique’s dunks, this 360 is probably the one that’s aged the worst.

CREATIVITY:                                     6

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    6

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      7

THEATRICS:                                      5

LEGACY:                                            3

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              27

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         47

Fourth Round – Michael Jordan

They cut it in the clip, but if you listen to the announcers they’ll point out that MJ missed the first attempt, which really detracts from an otherwise breathtaking dunk.

CREATIVITY:                                     8

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    7

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      8

THEATRICS:                                      7

LEGACY:                                            8

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              38

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         47

Fourth Round – Dominique Wilkins

Wilkins probably mailed that in because he knew Drexler wasn’t beating him out of the Finals, but I’m hoping he has something in store for the final round because this showdown has been a letdown.

CREATIVITY:                                     6

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    6

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      7

THEATRICS:                                      6

LEGACY:                                            5

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              30

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         47

Fifth Round – Dominique Wilkins

It seems like everyone threw themselves an alley-oop off the backboard but nobody threw it down like that. And look how far he catches it! We got ourselves a contest.

CREATIVITY:                                     7

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    8

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      9

THEATRICS:                                      7

LEGACY:                                            9

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              40

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         50

Fifth Round – Michael Jordan

Poetry in motion. I’d donate my ACL to watch prime MJ dunk at 240 frames per second. Having said that, 50 seems relatively high for that one, even by 1988’s standards.

CREATIVITY:                                     7

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    7

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      9

THEATRICS:                                      6

LEGACY:                                            6

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              35

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         50

Sixth Round – Dominque Wilkins

Wanna bet he finishes with another windmill? Just a wild guess. Giving that a 50 was a stretch. This is where things get a little weird.

CREATIVITY:                                     6

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    7

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      8

THEATRICS:                                      6

LEGACY:                                            6

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              33

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         50

Sixth Round – Michael Jordan

Jordan answers back with a dunk with unbelievable finesse and grace. Hands down, miles better than this contest’s 300th windmill stuff. And yet, the judges give it a 47! The crowd starts raining boos…

CREATIVITY:                                     8

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    8

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      9

THEATRICS:                                      6

LEGACY:                                            7

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              38

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         47

Seventh Round – Dominique Wilkins

What’d I tell you? Another windmill, but this time two-handed with twice the power. That was great! But suddenly, with the Chicago crowd sharpening their pitchforks, the judges inexplicably give this dunk a 45. Turns out the Fan Vote was already a thing in 1988.

CREATIVITY:                                     8

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    7

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      8

THEATRICS:                                      6

LEGACY:                                            7

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              36

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         45

Seventh Round – Michael Jordan

With an angry mob of Chicago natives behind him, MJ dunks from the free throw line again—the second time in the contest and the fourth time overall. It didn’t matter that he did his most iconic dunk to death. He knew the judges were gonna give him the 50. Their lives depended on it.

CREATIVITY:                                     8

LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:                    10

HOLY CRAP FACTOR:                      10

THEATRICS:                                      10

LEGACY:                                            9

ADJUSTED DUNK SCORE:              47

1988 DUNK SCORE:                         50

It’s Over

So it turns out the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest wasn’t everything I hoped it would be—it wasn’t the birth of the free throw line dunk that captivated me as a kid. Nor was it the back and forth slobber-knocker I hoped would top that of 2000 and 2016’s contests.

Those two can keep the titles of the craziest, most over the top dunk contests of all time.

The ’88 Dunk Contest though, was still the first dunk contest that made me believe men could fly.

1988 Week Articles

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