The slam dunk is one of the most exciting things to watch for sports fans. Nothing animates a lethargic crowd or a group of belligerent armchair jocks like a rim-rattling slam dunk. Some dunks look effortless, as if the dunker has a pair of invisible wings propelling him to the basket. Other dunks are ferocious and unsettling, imbuing viewers with equal parts fear and respect. Given the excitement that a dunk brings to a game, it can often overshadow other key points in games and become the subject of passionate water-cooler conversation the following day. As such, the dunk has become the most iconic basketball move.
Gaining notoriety in the 70s, as the NCAA banned dunking from games, the dunk has slowly morphed over the years. Lew Alcindor’s (Kareem Abdul-Jabaar) ability to rise over his defenders and easily dunk the ball was what prompted the NCAA to institute its dunking ban in the first place. The dunk, according to the NCAA, gave players like Alcindor an unfair advantage. Just a few years later, professional basketball players began to innovate the dunk, changing it from an unfair shot that tall players would exploit into an electrifying phenomenon.
Due to his undeniable style, Julius Erving, affectionately nicknamed Dr. J, has been credited with transforming the dunk into a spectacle. Unlike Alcindor, Erving was a wing player whose speed and power enabled him to perform dunks that the NCAA did not envision when it banned the move. Since Dr. J, a talented group of professional basketball players have embraced the slam dunk, continuing to alter and personalize it. From Michael Jordan to Vince Carter to Blake Griffin, players have made a name for themselves on the basis of their dunks. Today, a good slam dunk will energize an arena full of people, and it may be one of the closest things to magic that sports fans will ever see.
Capitalizing off of the slam dunk’s ascension and popularity, the NBA hosts an annual Slam-Dunk Contest to celebrate the league’s best dunkers. Over the years, dunkers have used this competition to showcase their awesome athletic ability and creativity. Vince Carter once dunked and hung on the rim by his elbow, Michael Jordan dunked from the free-throw line, and Brent Barry dunked two balls at once. The Slam-Dunk Contest, as such, has made the NBA’s version of All-Star festivities the most watched amongst American professional sports.
However, as a showcase of talented dunkers, the Slam-Dunk Contest is inherently flawed. What makes the slam dunk electrifying and breathtaking is its unexpectedness. That is to say, a dunk performed during the course of a game is far more exciting than watching an unguarded player dunk a ball through a hoop. Blake Griffin’s best dunks did not happen in a contest, but in a game wherein players fecklessly tried to stop him from scoring. Defenders are the key ingredient here. A dunk performed in traffic or over the top of a defender amplifies the crowd’s appreciation and excitement.
This list, then, looks at ten classic in-game dunks. These dunks stick out for various reasons, whether they happened in key playoff games or became instant classics by virtue of their degree of difficulty. There is no rhyme or reason to these rankings, and, if you think we missed a great dunk, let us know in the comments section. Without further ado…
10 Vince Carter’s Dunk Over Alonzo Mourning
Back when he was a member of the New Jersey Nets (now Brooklyn), Vince Carter made Alonzo Mourning think twice about helping on defense. After New Jersey’s play broke down, Carter wound up with the ball in his hands with a clear path to the basket. As he began to drive to the basket, unimpeded and full of vigor, Mourning began to get in position for a block. In that transient moment before Carter took off, destiny had not yet chosen its path; it could have gone either way. However, Carter dribbling full speed at the basket has never been a good sign for potential shot blockers. Mourning gave a valiant effort and that is all there is to say about Mourning’s part. Carter, for his part, took off, met Mourning’s body in the air, cradled the ball backwards, hung teasingly in the air, and finished with an ego-deflating dunk in Mourning’s face. Poor Alonzo…
9 Michael Jordan’s Baseline Spin and Dunk Over Patrick Ewing
For whatever reason, Michael Jordan always saved his best highlights for Patrick Ewing-led teams. In college, Jordan hit his famous baseline jumper to beat Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas, and in the NBA, MJ vanquished the Knicks on numerous occasions. This memorable dunk came in the 1991 playoffs during another heated playoff series between the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks. Initially dribbling baseline with the ball, Michael Jordan was met by two defenders. He stopped, turned around, and faked as if he was going to saunter back to the three-point line. Instead, Jordan flipped the script on the two Knick defenders, went back down the baseline, took off, and finished with an awe-inspiring dunk over Ewing.
8 Blake Griffin’s Spin and Slam Over Danilo Gallinari
If basketball fans hadn’t heard of Blake Griffin before his dunk over Danilo Gallinari, then that dunk surely made him a household name. After the Knicks’ offense broke down and the Clippers stole the ball, Griffin found himself with the ball in his hands on a break. As Gallinari attempted to cut off Griffin’s path to the basket, the former Oklahoma Sooner surprised everyone with a graceful spin move before finishing with a monstrous and anything-but-graceful dunk. The speed which enabled Griffin to leap so high and the power with which he dunked the ball makes this dunk extra special. Indeed, when dunking, Griffin has a remarkable ability of combining brute force with ballerina-like precision, an ability that cannot be overstated.
7 DeAndre Jordan’s Dunk Over Brandon Knight
Last season, DeAndre Jordan performed one of the most punishing dunks over a defender in NBA history. As Chris Paul dribbled into the Clippers’ half-court offense, it looked as if Lamar Odom and DeAndre Jordan were going to set high screens. However, the Pistons were a little too credulous in assuming that high screens were coming, and when Jordan cut to the basket, his defender was sleeping. As it turned out, Brandon Knight was the only Piston not sleeping, and he made a desperate effort to stop Jordan’s unguarded cut to the basket. As Paul threw the ball up, Knight looked to be in good position for the stop, but Jordan launched into the air, taking the ball away from Knight’s futile hands, and finished with a hostile slam over the precocious young guard.
6 Julius Erving’s Dunk Over Bill Walton
In the 1977 finals, Julius Erving, the original king of razzle-dazzle in the NBA, performed a stunning dunk over Bill Walton, one the era’s most celebrated defenders. As Erving speedily dribbled the ball down the lane, Walton began to sag off his man, putting himself in position to stop Erving. Erving’s pace, however, quickened, and he dribbled into the key with a good deal of speed. Unfortunately for Walton, when he rose for the block, Erving was moving too fast and too strong. The dunk was over in a fleeting moment, but it probably left Walton licking his wounds for a period of time afterwards. Walton had the last laugh, though, as his team won the series.
5 Tracy McGrady's Dunk Over Shawn Bradley
One of the perks to being 7’6 is that you are almost guaranteed to make it to the NBA, if you so desire. Shawn Bradley, however, will tell you that his height made him the target of all the athletically gifted dunkers during his tenure in the NBA, a kind of cannon fodder whose presence only increased the luminosity of the dunks he was involved with. One such example is the time that Tracy McGrady dunked over him. With the ball in his hands, McGrady drove baseline with the sole intention of dunking the ball, as was his wont during his prime. Poor Shawn Bradley made a futile and ultimately disastrous (for him) attempt at blocking McGrady’s shot. With Bradley flat footed, McGrady rose up and dunked, giving basketball fans everywhere—except, of course, fans of the Dallas Mavericks—something to celebrate.
4 Shaquille O’Neal’s Alley-Oop From Kobe Bryant
In the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Portland Trailblazers gave the Los Angeles Lakers a run for their money, which, in turn, made Shaquille O’Neal’s dunk more special. In Game 7, in fact, Portland squandered a ten point lead in the fourth quarter, giving way to the Lakers and their eventual three-peat. In that game, the emotional nail in Portland’s coffin came when Kobe Bryant drove the lane, stopped, and lobbed the ball to Shaq, who caught it with one hand before finishing the alley-oop. Shaq jumped unreasonably high for a man his size, which, again, amplified the dunk’s luminosity. Shaq’s celebration of this dunk is also one of the most memorable parts of that game.
3 Shawn Kemp's Dunk and Point at Alton Lister
In the 1992 playoffs, Shawn Kemp, playing for the Seattle Supersonics, viciously dunked the ball over Golden State’s Alton Lister. Kemp caught a pass at the top of the key, saw that no one was in front of him, drove the lane, cradling the ball in his right hand, and took off just as Lister moved into position to stop him. The result was not propitious for Lister, who became the subject of Kemp’s most famous dunk. The dunk alone was not enough for Kemp, who derisively pointed at Lister who had fallen down from the impact of Kemp’s airborne body.
2 Allen Iverson’s Put-Back Dunk Over Marcus Camby
Two things make this dunk one of the greatest in NBA history. First, Marcus Camby, throughout his prime, was one of the league’s most feared shot blockers. During these years, he had a penchant for stuffing the stat sheet with rebounds and blocks. Camby, indeed, was an old-school player in an era that moved away from the old-school style of play. Second, Allen Iverson is tiny. His height has been well-documented, but, when considering his in-game feats, it cannot be overlooked. As Eric Snow’s shot went up, Allen Iverson hurried towards the basket. The ball bounced hard off the backboard, caught the front end of the rim, but looked as it was going to end up in the hands of Marcus Camby. Out of nowhere, however, Iverson launched into the air, possessed the ball in mid-air before finishing with an electrifying dunk over Camby.
1 Lebron James’s Dunk Over Kevin Garnett
Back in 2008, when the “Big 3” was still a combination of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce, and when Lebron James still played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cavs and the Celtics met for a memorable playoff series. With Boston leading 2-1, Cleveland needed to win Game 4 to stay in the series. With his team up, Lebron drove the lane and beat his initial defender. Seeing that Lebron had separated from his man, Kevin Garnett reacted and moved his body into position for the stop. Lebron, though, had too much speed, and when he took off, KG had no momentum. Lebron finished the play by dunking the ball over KG with hostility.