Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins reflect on legendary 1988 dunk contest battle

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CHICAGO — Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins have never talked to one another about the 1988 dunk contest.

They might be the only ones.

It is still the dunk contest by which all other dunk contests are measured: Two stars, at the peak of their powers, the players who finished first and second in that season’s scoring standings, going head-to-head to decide a winner. Jordan left the old Chicago Stadium that night with the trophy. To this day, many believe Wilkins was the rightful winner. Either way, it was a never-to-be-forgotten show – and now, for the first time since that night 32 years ago, the dunk contest is returning to Chicago on Saturday night.

“I did have a homecourt advantage, yes,” Jordan said this week in an interview with The Associated Press.

“The fans got their money’s worth,” Wilkins said in a separate interview with AP.

This season’s dunk contest entrants – Orlando’s Aaron Gordon, Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr., the Los Angeles Lakers’ Dwight Howard and Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton – will have quite a show to follow if what they do on Saturday is going to stand the test of time that the Jordan-Wilkins contest has.

To this day, Wilkins believes he should have won.

And to this day, he still tips his cap to what Jordan did that night.

“We were foes and we had some great battles, but he understood the moment,” Wilkins said. “He understood what we did, you know? So, for us, there’s no hard feelings. There’s no animosity. We love the fact that they still talk about it because we knew what we brought.”

None of this year’s four dunk contest participants are All-Stars. It was different 32 years ago, when the dunk contest was being held for only the fifth time. Jordan was the MVP in 1988, Wilkins was sixth in that season’s MVP voting, and they were the only players that season who averaged more than 30 points per game.

“It’s a little bit different today. And it’s probably much harder today because how many times can you do the same dunks over and over again?” Jordan said. “So, they are trying to create things that people haven’t seen and that means jumping over people and cars and stuff like that. We didn’t have to do that because we didn’t have anything preceding us.”

The 1988 field was stacked. Wilkins had won in 1985. Spud Webb won in 1986. Jordan won in 1987. They were all in the field, along with Greg Anderson, Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey and Otis Smith.

“My memories more so than anything was that I was representing Chicago,” Jordan said. “I just wanted to represent them well. I wanted to win, don’t get me wrong. But I also knew Dominique was an unbelievable dunker and very athletic and a human highlight film. So, I had to come up with certain things that are very special and unique.”

Of course, it came down to Wilkins vs. Jordan. Three dunks each to decide the title. Both got a perfect score – 50 – on their first dunk in the final round. Wilkins got another 50 in the second round, with Jordan getting only a 47. That meant Wilkins, who was first to dunk in each round of the finals, needed only a 48 to clinch the win over Jordan.

Wilkins went with a two-handed windmill for his final dunk. The judges’ score: 45. Drexler looked on in disbelief.

“I was surprised at his score,” Jordan said.

The door was open for Jordan. He tried a dunk from the foul line and missed, but the rules allowed two chances per attempt. The second effort is the one replayed about a billion times since: He took off from just inside the foul line, pulled the ball back a bit before finishing off the slam, and got the perfect score of 50.

Final score: Jordan 147, Wilkins 145.

“The dunk contest, Nique got robbed,” said Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers coach who that year was an All-Star representing Atlanta – Wilkins’ team as well – in his hometown of Chicago. “But other than that, it was a perfect weekend.”

The dunk contest has had its ups and downs since.

It went away for a couple of years. Fred Jones, a journeyman who played for five teams in seven seasons, was the 2004 champion. Jeremy Evans – he averaged 3.5 points per game in his career – won in 2012. The NBA tried a team concept with three guys representing each conference in 2014; it wasn’t well received. Only the most ardent fan probably remembers that last year’s winner was Hamidou Diallo.

There have been some stars: Kobe Bryant won in 1997 and Vince Carter prevailed in 2000, a win that still draws raves from Jordan.

The highest compliment, in fact.

“The most amazing dunk I have ever seen is probably Vince Carter when he hung his elbow in the rim,” Jordan said. “To me that was, without question, just unbelievable.”

But most of the biggest names – and many considered among the best dunkers of their generation – have taken a pass on the dunk contest. LeBron James has never entered one, nor has Russell Westbrook, and Dwyane Wade didn’t either.

“I’d have loved to have seen LeBron,” Wilkins said.

Jordan agreed, saying he knows fans are clamoring to have seen James try it at least once.

“What we did in the game and excitement that we created when we did dunk,” Jordan said. “People wanted to see that. Is it the same today? Maybe not.”

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.

 

Cavaliers’ Dean Wade to miss 3-4 weeks due to shoulder injury

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In Cleveland’s search for a fifth starter to play the three next to Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, Dean Wade might be the best of the group. Not that the numbers are great for him or anyone (Cedi Osman is the best statistically) but the eye test makes one think Wade could be the answer.

We’ll have to wait a while to find out as Wade will be out 3-4 weeks with an AC joint sprain in his left shoulder, the Cavaliers announced. Friday night against the Magic he suffered an aggravation to a previous injury.

Wade has been a quality floor-spacer for the Cavaliers this season, shooting 41.1% from three, and is averaging 6.4 points and 4.1 rebounds a game, playing a little more than 24 minutes a night.

When he returns, hopefully coach J.B. Bickerstaff will give him a little more run with the rest of the Cavaliers core (when they are healthy).