It’s Friday! That means Ten Big stories in 10 little bites. Today we hit Husker baseball and Bo Pelini’s wardrobe, RG3 and Nerlens Noel, Chris Christie and Omaha Central. But first, the demise of the dunk.
I fell in love with basketball in 1988, the heart of what many consider the greatest era of hoops, both college and pro. I remember watching the ’88 national championship game with Danny Manning, the ’88 NBA Finals when the Lakers went back-to-back. I remember these wonderful high-scoring games; Chuck Daly’s Pistons and Pat Riley’s Knicks soon changed that.
More than anything, I remember dunks. I was 6. It’s no surprise that dunking was cool. But it wasn’t just me. Everybody was dunk-crazy in those days. This kid from North Carolina with a big tongue and bigger vertical was changing the game. I had heard of Julius Erving and David Thompson. But nobody flew like Air Jordan.
Every kid in America, it seemed, had a pair of Jordans on his feet and a dunk poster pinned above his bed. Before “Michael Jordan’s Playground,” we had an NBA VHS tape we watched over and over — NBA Superstars.
It is — to this day — the coolest 3 minutes in video history. Some people remember the first time they saw Star Trek or read To Kill A Mockingbird. I remember “Take my breath away” on NBA Superstars.
The irony of all this? I couldn’t stand Michael Jordan. My older brother was a Jordan fan. In rebellion, I rooted hard AGAINST him. My guy was Dominique Wilkins, whose NBA Superstars song selection wasn’t nearly as cool. Yanni? Seriously?
Bird vs. Magic was the signature rivalry of the 80s, but the rivalry in our house was Jordan vs. Wilkins. In my world, the highlight of the basketball season wasn’t the NBA Finals. It was the NBA dunk contest, brand new in the 80s.
Dominique beat Jordan in the ’85 contest. Jordan won in ’87 — with ‘Nique on the shelf. It set up a grudge match that belongs in any basketball time capsule. It wasn’t just a trophy at stake in ’88, it was the title of supreme dunker of the NBA — and more important, bragging rights in my house.
That was the beginning of the highlight era — before SportsCenter showed us every great play at the end of the night. We’ve reached the point now where dunking doesn’t really impress us anymore. DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin can literally hit his head on the rim and it barely raises a stir on Twitter. But Jordan or ‘Nique took off on a breakaway and it was like the night before Christmas.
Wilkins and Jordan each get three dunks in the final round.
Dominique went first and got a 50.
Jordan responded with a 50.
Dominique posted another 50.
Jordan followed with a 47.
“These judges are going to need the National Guard to get out of Chicago Stadium,” says the TV announcer.
Heading into the final dunk, ‘Nique had a 3-point lead. What happened next is still the single biggest injustice in sports history — at least it was to a 6-year-old. Wilkins’ two-handed windmill, in which he nearly tore down the rim, earned only a 45.
45?!? Had Phil Knight bought off one of the judges?
That opened the door for Jordan, who stood at halfcourt for a few seconds pondering his next move. When he retreated to the far end of the floor, the crowd went nuts. When he took off just inside the free-throw line, I’m not sure there’s been a more exciting single moment in NBA history. It encapsulated everything that Jordan stood for. His talent. His competitiveness. His flair for the dramatic.
He cocked the ball with his right arm and stuffed it, inspiring the greatest poster of all-time. But the dunk itself — honestly — wasn’t that impressive, even then. Erving had jumped from the free-throw line before. So had Jordan. But this was Michael Jordan’s world, where kids wagged their tongues as they sipped Gatorade. Wilkins was screwed.
“Michael Jordan’s score: 50!”
That day, Feb. 7, 1988, was the peak for the slam dunk in our sports culture. Jordan and Wilkins ended their rivalry. Michael started winning championships, Dominique started his decline — though he did win another dunk contest in ’90.
Soon only scrubs like Dee Brown and Cedric Ceballos and Brent Barry wanted to compete. (The exception was Vince Carter, whose 2000 performance is the greatest dunking exhibition of all-time).
Sunday Michael Jordan turns 50 — read this incredible profile from ESPN’s Wright Thompson. And the NBA will hold another dunk contest. Unless LeBron throws his hat in the ring, nobody will really care. SportsCenter and YouTube have desensitized us to the dunk.
Time passes. Nostalgia remains. Next weekend, a friend of mine is holding a youth basketball tournament in Omaha. There are games all over the city. But Saturday at 8 p.m. at Bryan High, he has scheduled a dunk contest. He asked me to be a judge. I can’t wait.
One tip for the competitors: If it comes down to one dunk and you’re debating between the free-throw line and a two-handed windmill, be like ‘Nique.
>> There’s a popular viewpoint in basketball that drives me nuts. It goes like this: A great player with four rings is better than a great player with three rings. A great player with three rings is better than a great player with two rings. And so on.
In an NBA TV interview, Michael Jordan cited this reasoning in choosing Kobe Bryant over LeBron James. “If you had to pick between the two, that would be a tough choice. But five beats one.”
I don’t have a problem with the opinion; longevity is important and James must prove he can endure as Kobe has. But it shouldn’t be all about rings.
Shaq said this last night on TNT: “The great Michael Jordan was correct. Kobe has five championships. LeBron has one. Charles (Barkley) said if LeBron can get to six, then you can compare him to Michael. Until he gets to six, we can’t compare him to the great Mike. Yes, he is dominating the sport. Yes, he is averaging 30. But until he gets three, four, five and six, I think it’s very unfair to put him past Kobe or to compare him to Mike yet. Athletic-wise, speed-wise, the way he plays, yes, but we’re all judged by how many championships we win.”
This is where basketball is different than football and baseball. There’s only five players on the court, so star basketball players are supposed to have greater control of their destinies. I get that. But determining greatness by your number of championships is absurd, especially when comparing stars of different eras.
Is Dirk Nowitzki better than Karl Malone simply because he won more championships? Heck no. Is Isaiah Thomas better than Jerry West and Oscar Robertson? Is Scottie Pippen better than Larry Bird? Bill Russell better than Jordan? No. No. No.
Kobe, as great as he was, wasn’t even the No. 1 option on his team for most of his championships. You don’t think LeBron James would have a few more titles playing alongside a 29-year-old Shaq in the post?
We’re fast approaching a point at which LeBron deserves to be compared to Kobe and Jordan, not because of his rings, but because of his performance. Suggesting we must wait for his career to end so we can compare rings is a lazy way out of the debate.
>> Husker baseball begins today the toughest non-conference schedule in the program’s history. I love Darin Erstad’s philosophy, especially when you’re not competing in a big-time league. You want to raise the Husker baseball profile back to where it was 10 years ago? Challenge opponents anytime, anywhere.
>> A few guys in the office the other day engaged in a little debate. What college teams could Omaha Central beat? My opinion is that Central would beat D-3s like Nebraska Wesleyan and Midland. It would be very close to D-2s like UNK and Wayne State. It would lose to small D-1s.
I watched Central-South at the Metro tournament in January and was blown away by the athleticism on the floor. Then, a few nights later, I went to a UNO game. It wasn’t even close — the Mavs would blow ‘em out.
How is that possible, you say? The Eagles have five legitimate D-1 prospects, all of whom will play at a level equal to or better than the Summit League. That’s true. But even basketball players change a lot between 17 and 20.
>> The Nerlens Noel injury shines another light on the fairness of making high school kids wait a year before entering the NBA Draft. I would like to see a very serious debate about the MLB option: Go immediately or wait three years. Either that, or kids can turn pro but only be eligible for the D-League.
>> Speaking of ACL injuries, I perked up when I saw the report that RG3 may be back for the season opener. Then I thought, if you’re the Redskins, what’s the upside of publicizing that?
There’s already tremendous expectation to get Griffin back for September. By planting that seed in February, you’re only increasing the likelihood of a premature return. Better to slow play it and, if he exceeds public expectations, that’s great. But then again, this is why they’re the Redskins.
>> Woody Hayes would’ve turned 100 this week. Yahoo looks back on his incredible legacy.
>> The future of American sports gambling may change in a New Jersey courtroom. Dan Wetzel examines.
>> Bo Pelini wore a blue shirt at the Duke-Carolina game? Who cares! Should Bo work harder to boost Nebraska’s image nationally? Yes. Does he need to do that by wearing red on national TV? No. It’s February. It’s Durham, N.C. As long as Pelini isn’t painting a Blue Devil on his chest, he can wear whatever he likes.
>> Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.