With Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine resurrecting the magnitude of the dunk contest during the NBA All-Star festivities this weekend, the debate has been heating up about the best aerial showmen the game has ever seen. With apologies to Dr. J and Dominique Wilkins, the consensus is that the dream finals matchup, with both players in their primes, would be Michael Jordan and Vince Carter.
If you had to pick among Air Jordan and Air Canada as the best dunker ever, who would it be?
J.R. Gamble's Pick - Michael Jordan
"Michael Jordan remains in a class by himself as a basketball player. Most of it is his fault. Some of it can be attributed to the capitalistic nature of American corporate business, the exploitation of pro athletes and the explosion of sports TV and cable markets.
His kicks are legendary and have been selling off the racks since the '80s. His royal title of “Air” Jordan" basically says it all, as he soared above his competition and captivated the masses in numerous slam dunk contests and in-game feats of mystical aerial omnipotence.
Jordan has few equals as an all-around destroyer. He was a prolific scorer and defender. He could get 50 on a squad at the age of 50 and he’s undefeated in six trips to the NBA Finals. Those aspects of his game, as well as his 6-foot-6 height and his high shot volume, made him a revolutionary player.
The icing on Jordan’s all-encompassing, captivating package was his flair for the dramatic dunk. There were legendary dunkers before him, but many of those guys toiled in the ABA before bringing their unprecedented athleticism to the NBA.
Dr. J preceded Jordan as the supreme dunk master. The innovator of in-game flushes that were as barbaric and graceful, funky and finessed, deftifying and implausible as anything seen on the courts of Rucker Park.
(Photo Credit: andrise.com)
By the time he got to the NBA, Julius Erving’s prime athletic zone was behind him, but he still provided the fans with some unforgettable slams. There was no NBA slam dunk contest when Erving first started banging on suckers. He was already done with 10 years of his 13-campaign career when The Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, a special event held annually at the NBA's All-Star Weekend, was introduced. The event has its roots in the ABA Slam Dunk Contest of 1976.
The event was first held in Jordan’s rookie season of 1984. By 1987, he had already changed the game. His cradle dunks and foul line leaps and his tongue wagging swag combined with the height of his ups solidified him as the perfect basketball player and the standard of imperial excellence for generations of future Hall of Famers.
In 1988, MJ battled fellow dunking pioneer Dominique Wilkins in what most consider to be the greatest dunk contest in history, avenging a loss to “The Human Highlight Film” in the ‘85 contest. It was Dominique’s power and aggression against Jordan’s artistry and fan connection. Jordan prevailed, but many folks to this day think that Dominique won, that Jordan's victory was a byproduct of homecourt advantage with the event taking place in the old Chicago Stadium.
Vince Carter basically did what Jordan did with Dr. J and used his generational advantage and ability to study the previous king to elevate the art form of dunking. In his prime, he had no equals when it came to the emphatic, miraculous mash. Carter’s performance in the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest is legendary and ground-breaking. Carter inspired a generation of dunkers just as Jordan did before him.
The difference is, Jordan was twice the player. Carter was a better dunker than he was a multi-faceted player. He couldn’t lock dudes down like MJ and he didn’t produce offensively like Mike. He may have had a similar skill set, but Carter definitely lacked MJ’s work ethic and eye of the Tiger -- unless he was dunking.
Many folks credit Carter with being the best dunker of all time, but the image of Vince Carter dunking is not embedded in our basketball DNA like the Air Jordan symbol. MJ changed the game and made it possible for other ballers to believe they could truly fly.
MJ’s influence on the way the game is played was evident particularly in the high-flying '90s and into the 2000’s when dunking became a common part of every NBA player’s arsenal.
Those “Like Mike” Gatorade commercials and Jordan’s unquenchable thirst for success afforded him an almost religious connection to NBA fans and he remains one of the most famous and beloved PEOPLE throughout the globe.
He made it protocol to embarrass the opposition, talk hella junk and yam on anybody who thinks they can take the baseline from you. Vinsanity is truly special in his own right, but you can’t beat “The Brand.” When it comes to the art of the dunk, no player in NBA history did it more spectacularly or made it mean as much as MJ."
Ricardo Hazell's Pick - Vince Carter
"They say evolution is the result of a lifeform becoming something better than its predecessors. In nature, this occurs out of a need to survive changes in a given environment. In the NBA these changes happen for other, more superficial reasons. The need to be the very best is the driving factor in that instance. When Michael Jordan first arrived in the National Basketball Association, he was seen as the natural descendant of Julius “Dr. J” Erving, David Thompson and Connie Hawkins.
Indeed, he combined the hang-time of the Good Doctor with the creativity of The Hawk and with the power of David Thompson. He was the future of the funk when it came to the slam dunk. Jordan reigned supreme as the preeminent dunker in the NBA for a decade after his fabled dunking duel against Dominique Wilkins in the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. It’s not like people didn’t try to match him.
There were some pretty good dunkers to come to the league in that span. You had Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner coming with his version of Jordan’s kiss the rim dunk, you had J.R. Rider bringing his own brand of powerful rim rockers back when he was in Minnesota, and Jerry Stackhouse’s angry forays to the rack were a sight to behold as well.
And there were a multitude of other would-be usurpers to the throne. As talented as they all were, as Jordan-nesque as some believed they were, none was as good as the original. Kobe Bryant is the closest anyone ever came to replicating the complete game of Michael Jeffrey Jordan, but even his considerable dunking acumen fell short.
Everything changed when Vince Carter suited up for the University of North Carolina.
Like Jordan himself, Carter was placed on a bit of a leash by the late, great coach Dean Smith. For the most part, Vince kept it basic while catching lobs from pass-happy wunderkind point guard Ed Cota, but there were oftentimes in-game moments where you had to put down your popcorn and pick up a holy book because God only knew what you just saw.
After three years in Chapel Hill, Vince was drafted by the Toronto Raptors with the fifth pick overall in the 1998 NBA Draft and Air Canada was born. Right out the gate, Carter showed that he was at least the physical equal of Michael Jordan when it came to dunking. It wasn’t long before Half Man, Half Amazing was glazing the rim with his signature brand of dunk funk.
While Michael’s ability to glide and hang were Picasso-like in their artistic merit, Vince Carter’s leaping ability would rocket him so far into the air that it did not seem like he was hanging, but rather falling into the rim. When he reached his apex most defenders were on their way down.
(GIF Credit: USA Today)
His leaps were so explosive that many didn’t even have the opportunity to jump and were left flailing away at Carter’s knee caps as he just kept going up, and up, and up! While Jordan was a beautiful dunker off one foot, Carter’s versatility afforded him the ability to turn in spectacular offerings off either foot or both feet.
Yes, Jordan dunked on all sorts of All-Star centers as he helped put the era of dominant big men to rest, but Carter was so spectacular with it that even defenders had to give it up. Nobody wanted to be a poster. Where Michael would basically put the ball in your face and dare you to try to block it on many occasions, Vince would cock it back behind his head and try to break the rim.
In-game windmill dunks in traffic were something of a specialty of his. Injuries aside, Alonzo Mourning was of the most fearsome rim protectors of his era and averaged nearly three blocks per game for his career. But Carter son'd him on a regular basis, the most spectacular of which occurred when Vince was a New Jersey Net and Zo was still roaming the paint for the Heat.
The dunk over 7’3’’ Frederick Weis of the French National team was so insane that Weis, who had just been drafted by the New York Knicks, decided to retire before playing a single NBA contest. His countrymen call it the Dunk of Death!
Like, really, who does that? Vince does that.
Look Michael Jordan is as legendary as it gets, but when it comes to in-game dunking, Vince Carter is without peer. His elbow in the rim dunk in the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest gets a lot of props but he was at his best while dunking over a defender.