On January 27, 1976, the American Basketball Association held the first Slam Dunk Contest at halftime, of their All-Star Game in Denver.
The ABA was in its death throes by the mid-point of the 1975-76 season. Having started the year with ten teams, it was down to seven by the time the All-Star Game rolled around. Now in its ninth year of existence, the financially-strapped ABA had announced that it would disband following the season, and placed all of its hopes on a merger with the established NBA.
The brainchild of Jim Bukata and Denver Nuggets GM Carl Scheer, the idea for the contest came about almost by happenstance. “We were sitting around the office one day, discussing things that would draw more people, and it just came to us – let’s have a dunk contest,” recalled Bukata, former director of marketing and public relations for the ABA. “We had to come up with a concept that would get everyone’s attention,” Scheer added. “We knew that it was our last year and we had to make a big impression. We needed something dramatic to show the world, and the NBA.”
An ABA charter member, the Denver Nuggets were one of the league’s cornerstone franchises, and the ’76 All-Star Game was to be played in their sparkling new home, McNichols Arena. The game’s organizers were so worried that the game would not sell out, they hired Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich to perform a two-hour pregame concert.
The inaugural Dunk Contest, which included five players, featured a battle between two of the top high-flyers of all time: David Thompson and Julius Erving. Thompson was an explosive rookie with the Nuggets and the hometown favorite. Erving was an ABA legend and the league’s career scoring leader. George Gervin, Artis Gilmore and Larry Kenon rounded out the field. Sporting huge Afros and short shorts, the fivesome attempted to bring Rucker Park to the Mile High City.
Each player was given two minutes to perform five dunks. Two dunks were mandatory; standing under the basket, and taking off ten feet from the basket. The other three dunks had to be from the right side of the basket, the left side of the hoop and one from either of the baseline corners. The players had to alternate ends of the floor so as not to put too much stress on the rims. The event consisted of only one round; each player simply performed five dunks and was done.
The judges rated the athletes on artistic ability, imagination, body flow and fan response. The dunks weren’t scored individually, and the results were withheld until the end of the competition. The order was chosen by blind draw. Gilmore, Kenon and Gervin went first, followed by Thompson, then Erving. Public address announcer Al Albert promised the 17,798 in attendance that the contest would feature “five of the most talented, colorful players in basketball, all with a flair for that sensational slam dunk.”
As expected, the contest came down to Thompson and Erving. The Nuggets rookie drew the loudest cheers from the home crowd, throwing down a windmill cuff slam, double-pump jackknife reverse, and the first recorded 360 in history. DT’s chances were diminished, however, when he missed one of his dunks.
Erving wasted little time establishing himself as the man to beat. For his first dunk, Julius stood beneath the basket and stuffed two balls at once. It was his second dunk that became part of basketball lore. Eschewing the mandated ten- foot line, The Doctor jogged to the free throw line and then began to walk back toward the other end of the floor, measuring his steps in long, loping strides. The crowd went wild, as did the players watching from the sidelines. “It was unreal,” said St. Louis All-Star Ron Boone. “Everyone was bringing the house down, on the edge of their seats, watching. The anticipation was great.”
In one of the most electrifying moments in basketball history, Erving took off from three-quarters of the way down the floor. He raced toward the hoop and launched himself from the free throw line. “Even before he took off he was really rolling, his afro blowing,” recalled Artis Gilmore, who had by now been reduced to a spectator. “We all became entangled in what he was going to do.” The perfecter of hangtime, “Doctor J” palmed the iconic red, white and blue basketball, holding it aloft while remaining airborne for what seemed an eternity. He glided toward the rim before throwing down a tomahawk dunk for the ages – and the McNichols crowd erupted.
Erving followed with a reverse stuff from the right, then a swooping rim-hanger from the left. He finished with a baseline scissor move that concluded the competition. Doctor J was declared the winner. There were no interviews, confetti or trophy presentation. “Here was my philosophy – dare to be great,” said the greatest player in ABA history of his famous dunk. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I just wanted to make a nice, soaring play to get the fans out of their seats.”
Following the low-key announcement of his victory, the players returned for the second half of the All-Star Game. Not many saw the original dunk-a-thon. Lacking a national television contract, the show was only seen by the sellout crowd in Denver as well as regional audiences in the ABA cities of San Antonio, Indianapolis, Louisville, St. Louis and Denver.
Erving’s duel with Thompson that night in Denver did much to bring about the ABA-NBA merger in the 1976 offseason. The morning news shows and evening sports programs showed highlights from the contest, and the NBA took note. Sports Illustrated called it “the best halftime invention since the rest room.”
Just as the senior league was losing retiring stars Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Willis Reed, it recognized the incoming crop of ABA talent. Julius Erving – the coolest cat ever to lace up a pair of sneakers and the only man to be named MVP of both leagues – came along with the package, and the NBA was saved. The following year, a dozen former ABA players played in the NBA All-Star Game. In 1984, the NBA brought back the Dunk Contest at its birthplace – the All-Star Game in Denver.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Michael Jordan paid Julius Erving a huge compliment in 1988. As the Doctor looked on from the stands at Chicago’s United Center, Jordan was locked in a close duel with Dominique Wilkins. Behind in points with only one dunk remaining, Erving suggested to MJ he try the foul-line leap. Jordan pulled it off, earning a perfect score from the judges to overtake Wilkins and win his second straight Slam Dunk title.