The NBA Dunk Contest is here, and with high-fliers Dennis Smith Jr., Victor Oladipo, Larry Nance Jr. and Donovan Mitchell taking the floor, there’s a strong chance the young stars will put on a show for All-Star Saturday night. There’s also a strong chance one of the four participants break out a 360 to wow the judges into coughing up a perfect 50 score.
By now the 360 dunk has become a staple in playgrounds, rec centers, high school gyms, and college stadiums around the world, but it wasn’t always that way. Instead the torso-contorting slam was a phenomenon that caught fire in the mid-to-late 1970s before falling prey to human creativity.
The year is 1976
It’s the very first ABA Slam Dunk Contest, and it’s being held during halftime of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game. The competition featured NBA legends: Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving, George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, and David Thompson.
Gervin’s full body mid-air rotation was the first the world had ever seen during a dunk contest. Unfortunately, he missed the finish:
Thompson succeeded where Gervin couldn’t. He took one dribble along baseline, vaulted into the air off two feet then twirled his body midair before finishing with two hands. The crowd went wild. The dunk contest announcer called it “a twist-around, patented slam dunk.”
1984 NBA Slam Dunk Contest
From there, “twist-around” slam dunks took off, but with a new name: The 360. The Dunk Contest had been postponed from 1976 until 1984. When it returned, several of its contestants 360’d their way to high scores.
Even big men, like Ralph Sampson
Terence Stansbury may have very well been the first player to pull off the 360 dunk off one foot in 1985, also known as The Statue of Liberty dunk.
In 1986, ‘Nique brought the 360 back, but this time with just one hand while keeping the same brute force he threw his windmills down with. The result was a perfect 50.
So did Spud Webb, the 5’7” (on paper) ball player known most for his serious rise. No one his height should be able to do the things Webb did. He made everyone feel like they, too, could jump into the sky.
Then came Vince Carter
They don’t call Carter Half Man, Half Amazing for no reason. There’s a list of explanations for the nickname, one being his absolutely sensational performance during the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
Carter revitalized an All-Star event many felt was dying until he picked it back up, yelled “Clear!” and resuscitated it back to life. The dunk that put the world on notice was his very first of the night: a reverse 360 windmill.
Carter spawned a new era of creativity. There was more than just a windmill, just a tomahawk, just a 360-degree twirl in midair. No, now you could combine two of those sequences midair to form never-before-seen dunks on the biggest regular season stage of the year.
Jason Richardson took that creativity and supercharged it
In 2002, rookie Jason Richardson went up against Gerald Wallace, Steve Francis, and then-reigning champion Desmond Mason. Richardson didn’t only win that dunk contest, but he repeated in 2003. He became known as the king of 360 dunks shortly after, becoming one of few players bold enough to pull off the twisting tomahawks mid-game.
If anything, Richardson may still be known for the two 360 dunks he didn’t get to fall: the 360 between the legs, and the 360 elbow dunk.
As a consolation dunk, he did this instead:
Richardson was dethroned the following year by Fred Jones, whose lob-to-self 360 won him the title in 2004, but J-Rich’s mark had been made on dunk history. Carter and Richardson were the pioneers for the new era of basketball players who pull off 360 dunks in-game and in slam dunk contests.
Paul George may have never thought to do a reverse 360 between-the-legs dunk in 2014 had it not been for Richardson’s failed attempt or Carter’s reverse 360.
Since Gervin and Thompson, and Carter and Richardson, NBA players have taken the torch originally lit by their predecessors and doused it in lighter fluid. With new technology has come new ingenuity. Aaron Gordon may have had the best 360 dunk ever after he had the Orlando Magic mascot hold a basketball elevated then rotate counterclockwise before timing the rotation, running to the mascot, palming the ball with one hand, then rotating his body 360 degrees before windmilling it.
It was a shame he lost that slam dunk contest to Zach LaVine, but it made for the best one-on-one dunk showdown arguably in NBA history.
With Dennis Smith Jr., Victor Oladipo, Larry Nance Jr. and Donovan Mitchell representing the league as slam dunk participants this season, there’s a good chance at least one of those players takes Gervin’s, and Thompson’s, and Carter’s and Richardson’s legacy to another level. That’s what the game is all about.
The 360 dunk is no different.