For the younger fans out there, the Slam Dunk Contest and Portland Trail Blazers do not go hand in hand. It has been 17 years since James Robinson – and his gold tooth – last took flight on All-Star Saturday night in Minneapolis, Minnesota
, representing the Rose City. But for the seasoned veteran Blazermaniacs, a different recollection is brought to mind when the two are thought of together. See, from the dunk contest’s inception in 1984 until 1989, Portland was the only NBA franchise to have a representative each of the first six years. Clyde Drexler carried the Trail Blazer banner five times (1984, 85, 87-89), Jerome Kersey four times (1986-89).
Up until the 1987 event, it felt as if the participants in the black and red were only there for show, never coming close to advancing out of the first round. But on February 7, at the Kingdome in Seattle, Washington, the stars aligned for Rip City. Not only would this become the first Slam Dunk Contest to be televised live (aired by TBS), but it would be the first time a pair of Trail Blazers teammates competed against one another in the NBA’s annual showcase of creativity, athleticism, and showmanship (Drexler and Kersey would face off twice more in 88 and 89).
Challenging Drexler and Kersey for the slam dunk crown was Michael “Air” Jordan, Cleveland’s Ron Harper, Dominique’s brother Gerald Wilkins, Johnny Dawkins of the Spurs, and two fan favorites – Sonics forwards Tom Chambers and dunk contest veteran Terrence Stansbury. But with ‘Nique unable to participate due to a sore back and defending champion Spud Webb taking the year off, the field was wide open for a Trail Blazer to finally make some noise.
While the local Stansbury stole the show in Round 1 with a near perfect score of 99, Clyde and Jerome followed closely with identical 92s – saving their best for the final rounds. Rounding out the first round was none other than “His Airness”, Michael Jordan, who posted a pedestrian 88. Even though Kersey was a late entry to the competition as he was replacing the injured Dominique Wilkins, his reputation didn’t go unnoticed. Rick Barry, broadcasting the event, even went as far to proclaim Jerome as his dark horse to win the contest all while complimenting his style and technique by saying, “I like Kersey. He’s strong, got great jumping ability. He has some good creativity.”
Good creativity may have been an understatement. To start off the semis, Jerome lived up to his "Mercy Mercy" moniker handed down to him by legendary broadcaster Bill Schonely
. Swooping in from the right side, Kersey threw the basketball off the glass, reversed his body position to the hoop, extended his arms over the left side of the rim to catch it, and then proceeded to slam it home with authority. The dunk had the crowd buzzing – a tough feat to accomplish on this night if you weren’t rocking the Emerald City green or had your own signature shoe. And the judges took notice, awarding Kersey a perfect score of 50 – his first and only 50 during his four dunk contest appearances. Perfect scores may not seem too difficult or rare but only 21 of 98 participants have ever been granted a 50
Before the semifinals, defending slam dunk champion Spud Webb was interviewed – and he was not impressed. When asked what he thought so far [regarding the first round], Spud replied, “I guess everyone is saving [for the following rounds], because the dunks they have done look pretty weak.” And later saying, “They have got to show something else better than that, because I’m a fan and I want to see something, now!”
Showing that he was up to Spud’s challenge, Jerome followed up his 50 with scores of 48 and 49 for a total of 147, good enough to put one of Rip City’s own in the Finals. But it wasn’t only Kersey who responded. Looking for his first dunk title, MJ quickly put any doubts that his first round performance would be indicative of his entire night.
For his first dunk, Jordan got a rise out of the crowd, judges and announcers as he slowly walked down the opposite end of the court intensifying the moment with each step taken. At this point in dunk contests, only “The Doctor”, Julius Erving was known to fly from the free throw line, but Jordan was up to the task
and gracefully soared 15 feet from the charity stripe to the rim, cleanly jamming it home to earn a near-perfect 49. His second dunk, unworthy of words
, garnered him another 49. Needing at least a 46 to force a dunk-off with Terrence Stansbury, Jordan, as he so often did, went for the kill. As if he was floating on air, Mike somehow contorted his body sideways and nearly kissed the rim
before sending it home. The score? 50. The Finals? Kersey v. Jordan.
While Jerome and Michael were similar in style, both wearing gold chains, high-top sneakers and short shorts, their rim-rocking techniques differed greatly. Kersey, whom announcer Bob Neal declared “about as strong a dunker as you’d like to see,” was pure power. On the other hand, Jordan was a little more versatile. Able to take off from far away distances and hang in the air for seemingly minutes on end yet still having enough grace to make even the simplest dunks look like an art form was Michael’s M.O. And that was the difference between first and second place.
Jerome started off the finals with a one-handed windmil
l from straight on, earning him a respectable 46. But on that night, against that opponent, 46’s just weren’t going to cut it. Knowing there was a window of opportunity; Mike took it as he floated to the rim for a 180 degree, reverse slam
. Again making the most pedestrian of dunks look spectacular and earning a 48. Maybe it was running out of ideas which did Jerome in, in the end. For his second dunk, he pulled off a beautiful one-handed reverse slam
as he came from the right side of the hoop and finished on the left. But there was one problem: he had already completed a similar dunk earlier on in the competition. And with creativity at a premium, Kersey’s score and chances at claiming the 1987 Slam Dunk crown faltered as his dunk was only worth 45 points. To put the contest away, MJ had yet another dunk which words couldn't do justice to
which gave him a score of 48 and put him ahead by five points with only one dunk remaining.
Although the chances of winning were slim, Jerome, just like his on-court persona, never accepted defeat and went out with a bang with his best dunk of the night
. Kersey approached the rim from the right and looked like he was going up with a one-handed hammer dunk but switched the ball back to his left hand before going back again quickly to his right before ultimately sending it home forcefully through the net, netting a score of 49. Needing only a 45 to win, MJ played it safe by nailing down the same “kiss the rim” dunk which garnered him a 50 the previous round and was awarded another 50, beating Jerome Kersey 146-140 to claim the first of his back-to-back slam dunk titles.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Even though Jerome fell short, the rest of the league was introduced to Portland’s hidden gem. The third year forward out of tiny Longwood College in Virginia would use the momentum gained from the spotlight of the dunk contest to go on to average double figures for the first time in his career that season and continued his hot streak by averaging a career- high 19.2 points and 8.3 rebounds during his 1988 campaign.