The All-Star weekend of 2003 featured one of the better slam dunk contests ever. Save for a tame effort by Richard Jefferson — in which he managed the rare feat of doing an elbow dunk that didn’t involve use of an elbow — it was a high caliber affair that culminated in a showdown between 2001 champion Desmond Mason and 2002 champion Jason Richardson, both pushing the other to produce their A-games, crescendoing beautifully with J-Rich’s final clincher:
The All-Star game itself was not half bad, either. The first and thus far only All-Star game to go to double overtime, it saw 300 total points scored, an in-his-prime Allen Iverson doing what an in-his-prime Allen Iverson did at All-Star games, and an in-his-prime Kevin Garnett dominate proceedings on his way to the MVP trophy. Shaq faced off with Brad Miller for the first significant time since Shaq tried to kill him, an amusing in-game report spoke of Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce’s outrages at playing so few minutes, Yao Ming looked woefully out of place on his way to two points and two rebounds, and the close finish saw the game’s very best turn up the intensity and play at something resembling their very hardest. It was good fun to watch, right down to the Zydrunas Ilgauskas experience. Even the 52 turnovers were aesthetically pleasing.
However, this was all secondary. The weekend wasn’t about Iverson, nor Garnett, nor Richardson, nor the surprise appearance by Kool and the Gang. This whole night was about a player who, on talent alone, barely deserved to be there. (And no, that person wasn’t Yao.)
You had to know somebody was going to claim this one. As the resident Raptors fan up in here, I figured it might as well be me.
Canadian sports fans are unlikely to admit it, but I think that many of us have an inferiority complex in terms of how their favorite teams and players are perceived by American sports fans and media. We don’t just want you to notice our stars, we want you to praise them. Nay, we want you to covet them. Long-suffering Raptors fans have mostly been unable to swell our chests with pride over a Toronto player who Americans universally acknowledged as a star — except for the two-year period from 2000 to 2002 when Vince Carter was the most popular player in the NBA.
While there are many ways to define NBA player popularity among fans, I’m sure we can agree that All-Star Game voting is a pretty good metric. For three straight All-Star Games from 2000 to 2002, Vince garnered more votes than any other player. For Canadian fans who, in some cases, suspected that most Americans thought we lived in igloos — I choose to believe that most Americans are better-educated about us now, thanks to the Internet, Avril Lavigne and Justin Bieber — this was a massively important message of validation. We matter, damn it! Nevermind that Vince was from Florida and went to school in North Carolina. He belonged to us!
If any Raptors fans thought that Vince’s popularity was entirely based on his prodigious skill as a basketball player, they were mistaken. Vince Carter was the king of the NBA over that period because he could dunk like a motherfucker, and this fact was confirmed with great conviction in the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
Could there be worst timing for anything? This would be like releasing “Dick Tracy” the weekend after “The Godfather” came out or Lil Wayne following up his biggest record, “Tha Carter III,” with an album full of terrible rock songs. Literally any other dunk would be better than another 360, especially when the past three minutes have seen a hundred replays of Vince’s dunk followed by Cheryl Miller talking to Vince about what it’s like to add to the pantheon of dunk contest dunks.
The best part, however, is Jerry’s strut after throwing down his jam. He grabs the ball and walks towards the scoring table confidently, surely thinking to himself, “I nailed it. Nice one, Jer-Bear.” Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, he’s getting killed by the TNT guys and seeing the honorary title of next best UNC shooting guard be given to Vince Carter. Michael Keaton’s face at the 12-second mark says it all, but Jerry’s face when he gets a 41 — seemingly shocked that a two-handed 360 wouldn’t be an obvious 50 — is a really nice postscript.
I don’t think anyone ever really bought in to the idea that Jerry Stackhouse was the next Michael Jordan, even though he was a bald shooting guard from the University of North Carolina. But even if you did, when he made up his mind to go with this 360, that probably ended. It’s hard to take seriously a guy who is so clueless to what’s going on that he’d do a bad remix of one of the best dunks ever, immediately after said dunk.
Jerry Stackhouse is back at All-Star Weekend this year, somehow sneaking his way in to the festivities as Joe Johnson’s injury replacement for the Shooting Stars competition, which is literally the smallest honor one can receive this weekend. I imagine he’ll sink a three-pointer a second after Steve Smith drains a game-winner from half court, because Jerry’s a pro at doing less impressive things at inopportune times.
Arguably the most underrated of All-Star Weekend Saturday night competitions, the 3-point contest demands from its participants both the skill of a marksman and the steady, rhythmic effort of a lumberjack. A metronomic elegance emerges as you watch every other ball clank off the rim and into the sea of pre-pubescent rebounders crowding the paint. The cadence of the clanking has lulled me into a peaceful slumber on more than one occasion.
But in 2003, when Pat Garrity, Peja Strojakovic, Brent Barry, Wesley Person, David Wesley’s ears and Antoine Walker took part in the economically titled 17th Annual NBA All-Star Weekend Foot Locker 3-point Shootout, there was not a drowsy eye in the house. The cameras, the lights, the sound equipment — it was all electric. The scene was so festive, so invigorating that one joyous man was moved to dance.
The contest was moving along steadily. After Pat Garrity and David Wesley’s ears posted middling scores of 13 and 12, respectively, Peja Stojakovic, the eventual champion, posted a score of 19, setting a furious new pace for the competition. Next up was Brent Barry, a 40 percent 3-point shooter best known for dunking from the free throw line that one time and being white. Barry would go on to star in numerous commercials for H.E.B., a beloved Central Texas grocery chain, and win a couple of NBA titles.
Barry’s round began like any other: a few makes, a few misses, a few more makes. But as he made his way around the racks, the anticipation built. He was closing in on Peja’s lead. As he headed for the final rack, he already had 14 points — enough to surpass Garrity and Wesley’s ears. But in order to equal Peja’s lead he needed to have his best rack of the round.
When asked to think of my definitive All-Star Weekend moment, I immediately thought of an incident that served as a formative aspect in my development as an obsessive basketball fan. It’s not what made me love basketball in the first place, but it is an exact time when I can pinpoint realizing that I loved basketball to a ridiculous degree — Cedric Ceballos’s blindfolded dunk in the 1992 Dunk Contest.
Don’t get me wrong, I can think of at least a dozen dunks more impressive than Cedric’s right off the top of my head. Anything by Michael, Spud, Dominique, Nate or Dwight comes to mind. But the Ceballos blindfolded dunk is branded on to my personality as a basketball fan unlike any other for one simple reason.
I listened to that shit on the radio.
I don’t remember why I was unable to get to a television to watch that year’s dunk contest, but I do remember stopping everything I was doing to make sure that I at least had the ability to listen to dunks. I was 12 and this shit was important. I look back now and realize that the whole point of the dunk contest is that dunks are visually impressive. It didn’t matter to me. I had to know who won that year’s dunk contest, even if it meant listening to someone verbally describe impressive visual feats. It was my first moment of being a ridiculously obsessive NBA fan.
One of the most frustrating parts to me of All-Star Weekends, at least in recent years, has been the general lack of flair shown by the young guys. Humility has been pounded into these dudes as being such a virtue of the game — and a lot of them are probably a little shy in their inexperience to begin with — that you don’t get to see any of the arrogance of youth that you’d otherwise expect from young athletes at the highest level of their craft.
All-Star Weekend is a time where the game’s best and brightest should be showing off not only their games but their personalities. As arguably the most character-driven of the Big Four American sports, it makes sense that the sport should use its high-visibility weekend to introduce its marquee players, and what those players are all about, to national audiences. Yet, if you were to draw a conclusion from watching the silent, grim-faced participants of the Rookie-Sophomore game, you’d think the future of the league rested in the hands of a bunch of swaggerless automatons.
When we saw Derrick Rose, reigning No. 1 pick for the Chicago Bulls, at the 2009 Skills Challenge, we still didn’t know all that much about him as a pro. We knew he was going to be good, though we wouldn’t know quite how good until the Bulls’ first-round series against the Celtics in that year’s postseason. Moreover, he had shown the PR reticence typical of rookies in high-pressure situations, saying little and giving nothing of import away, especially visually, where his face remained a perpetually blank canvas. The only off-court headline he made his entire rookie year was for a precarious injury he suffered while eating an apple in bed. Even though we all suspected that the story was bogus — how could it not be? — Rose had given us no real evidence to prove that he wasn’t capable of being that absurd or boring.