How NBA Lawyers Can Save the NBA’s “No Star” Dunk Contest

For most NBA basketball fans, the highlight of All-Star Weekend used to be the slam dunk contest.  Julius Erving (a.k.a. “Dr. J”) participated in, and won, the first dunk contest in 1976, electrifying the crowd with a dunk from just inside the free throw line.  Nobody had ever seen anything like it.  Other past dunk champions include Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, and Dwight Howard.  These A-list stars flew through the air, captivated our imagination, and became legends.  Who can forget Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins squaring off in the 1985 dunk contest or their amazing rematch in 1988?  We thought it couldn’t get any better…until we watched Vince Carter’s performance in the 2000 dunk contest.

Now, virtually nobody watches the dunk contest.  It has devolved into a snooze-fest featuring players we have never heard of and whom we will quickly forget.  Commenting on the field of nobodies in this year’s slam dunk contest, one sportswriter aptly tweeted, “If the NBA held this event in your driveway, would you open drapes to watch?”

Whereas the dunk contest used to be an NBA star’s fast-track to a richer shoe deal and more posters on their fans’ walls (or just a way to treat NBA fans to something special), today’s NBA elite — with the exception of Blake Griffin in last year’s contest — are now too scared of losing to even compete.  That did not used to be the case.  NBA legend Clyde “the Glide” Drexler competed in 5 slam dunk contests and never won.  Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen competed in the dunk contest knowing the odds were against him.  Heck, even three-point specialist Ray Allen competed in a dunk contest.

Following a thunderous dunk by LeBron James in this year’s All-Star game, NBA commentator and Ferengi look-a-like Reggie Miller said what we have all known for years — guys like LeBron James need to compete in the dunk contest.  (And Miller is not throwing stones from a glass house, either — Miller participated in 4 NBA three-point contests, never winning a single one, but never chickening out.)

In 2009, LeBron James “preliminarily” agreed to compete in the 2010 dunk contest, before, of course, chickening out.  This weekend, LeBron said he would reconsider competing in the dunk contest if there were a $1 million prize.

Screw that!  Instead, I’ve got an idea for how the NBA’s lawyers can save the dunk contest — even if LeBron isn’t going to like it.

First, though, let’s talk about why this $1 million prize idea is bogus.  Even if the NBA agreed to a $1 million prize for the dunk contest winner, LeBron James would probably still find a way to back out of participating — though he would likely first try to force us all to watch a two-hour TV special about his latest bad “decision.”  More importantly, LeBron James and the NBA’s other stars always say that NBA All-Star Weekend is “all about the fans,” and that they want to put on a good show for the millions of NBA fans around the world.  Of course, if they all really felt that way, then the most gifted dunkers would put their egos aside, risk the possibility of losing, and compete in the dunk contest even if there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — just like their predecessors did.

That said, LeBron may have been right about using monetary incentives to get the NBA’s stars back in the dunk contest.  However, instead of talking about what additional money they could make by participating, we should be talking about what they should lose by sitting out.

As you may have heard during the NBA lockout, the NBA and its players have a collective bargaining agreement (the “CBA”).  Most people focus on the CBA provisions relating to how the NBA owners and players divide up the NBA’s wheelbarrows of million dollar bills.

However, the CBA also contains provisions relating to conduct and discipline.  For example, each time a player misses a practice, he is subject to escalating fines.  A player loses a percentage of his salary if he misses an exhibition, regular season or playoff game.  Players can even get fined for missing a promotional appearance — and it’s hard to imagine a bigger promotional appearance than All-Star Weekend.

So here is my idea:  the NBA lawyers should put a provision in the next CBA relating to the dunk contest.  The NBA fans should get to vote on who appears in the dunk contest (and the actual judging of the dunks should once again be done by past dunking legends, such as Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins).  If a player is selected to appear in the dunk contest, then that player must participate or a sizable chunk of his salary will disappear (and go to a worthy charity).  We could use legalese and call the fine something official sounding, like the “scaredy cat” fine.

There can, and should, be an “opt out” for players who are over a certain age or who have already participated in at least three dunk contests.  Such a provision would protect NBA stars who have already been good sports, as well as keeping NBA stars who are past their prime from embarrassing themselves.

There could also be a provision to protect (legitimately) injured players from being fined.  Now, you might be asking yourself, “Wouldn’t the LeBrons — err, I mean, players of questionable honor — of the world just fake injuries and get away with chickening out?”  For a few reasons, I think not (even if we don’t require them to bring a doctor’s note).

First, the average NBA star has a huge ego (which is the real reason bigger stadiums have been built — their egos grew too big to fit in the old arenas) and some level of obsession with their own legacy (and, on a good day, they will probably admit as much).  (Does anybody doubt that Kobe Bryant knew that he needed 19 points this past Sunday to pass Michael Jordan as the all-time leading scorer in All-Star game history?  Of course not.)  So, if a player — for example, just to throw a name out there, let’s say LeBron James — were to fake an injury to avoid the dunk contest, then the dunk contest clause in the CBA should prevent him from competing in any All-Star Weekend event, including the All-Star game itself (and, worse yet, ban him from any NBA parties that weekend unless he is accompanied by his wife).  That last part alone should provide adequate incentive for most players not to claim they have fake injuries.

Second, the law inserts into every contract an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.  This implied covenant means that parties to a contract must deal with each other honestly, fairly, and in good faith, so as to not destroy the right of the other parties to receive the benefits of the contract.  A collective bargaining agreement is no different.  Accordingly, if a player were to fake an injury in a misguided effort to avoid both the dunk contest and the associated “scaredy cat” fine, then that player would be in breach of the CBA and subject to much harsher penalties.  (I’m personally voting for forcing the injury-faker to donate 50% of his salary to charity and making him sit outside the arena hosting All-Star Weekend, in a “dunk tank” open to fan participation.)  I have no doubt that this idea will quickly gain fan support.

Of course, the NBA’s high-flying stars — many of whom will undoubtedly hate the idea of being fined for skipping the dunk contest — have between now and 2017 (when the current CBA’s opt-out clause will inevitably be triggered) to take Kevin Durant’s advice and enter the dunk contest voluntarily.  If they do not, then the NBA can remedy this injustice by inserting my proposed dunk contest clause into the next CBA.  In the meantime, now that Congress has shown a willingness to regulate professional sports (e.g., baseball’s doping scandal), maybe we should start lobbying to finally see some useful legislation from Capitol Hill.  Who’s up for the NBA Dunk Contest Reform Act of 2012?  (And an equally importantly road trip to D.C.)

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4 Responses to “How NBA Lawyers Can Save the NBA’s “No Star” Dunk Contest”

  1. Frank says:

    I am heartened by any ringing defense of the fans’ interest- but you gloss quickly over the owner’s role. Just as much as the players, the owners do not want the established, Bryant- or James- style star, in the dunk contest.

    The golden era of these all-star games and events was Eisenhower America thru the ubiquitous television sports situation of today. In the later ‘80s, ESPN and CNN SportsNight (with Hannah Storm!), along with regional cable (PRISM), ended the anonymity of pro athletes. In the 1960s, stars in the major sports leagues were hardly ever seen; they were rare visitors- unless they played in your town or division. All-star games gave a national audience an exposure to players and teams from the other League or coast.

    Thanks to incessant television, the NBA and MLB no longer need that mid-summer classic, slam dunk contest style exposure for top stars.

    So, I think you have it backward- the fans left these events in droves, the star players followed. You mention Vince Carter’s triumph in 2000- but the two years before that there was no slam dunk contest at all due to “lack of interest”. In 1997, the contest was headlined by Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen- not to mention multiple all-star Michael Finley. Darvin Ham was in… he had won the NCAA slam dunk contest the year before- and had that famous SI cover awesomely dunking against UNC in the tournament:

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_Fngei9VY1LM/TGICEW1G4HI/AAAAAAAADgE/vB5Uh5Lsgm8/s1600/0325_large.jpg

    Great, creative field (and none of those four guys won)! No one cared. The fans quit first. They saw Ham on tv on top plays already- they didn’t need a one-off showcase.

    Owners recognized this. Consequently, the owners have little desire to expose their best players to this increasingly ignored contest. Frankly, the owners have zero interest in running a sporting competition to determine the “best dunker”. That is an insane, risky use of their most marketable talent.

    BUT… Post the 1999 strike, a new rational appeared for the contest. The owners made a post-strike strategic goal clear- the League was never again going to be the providence of a few stars: Wilt and Russell, Bird and Magic, Jordan. The slam dunk contest, despite not many fans missing it, was resurrected as part of a wider plan to create new buzz worthy individuals- not reinforce the existing greatness of the current star players.

    Far from using negotiating capital to compel appearance via collecting bargaining, the owners heartily endorse their already marketable talent sitting out. In fact, the whole all-star experience- the expanding rosters, the lack of defense, the endless secondary events etc.- is designed to minimize the actual need to expose the established stars to the risks of unimportant competition. It is particularly evident in baseball. Pitchers who can’t pitch and injured star players are routinely selected, just so they can be replaced, to create more and more all-stars for local buzz. The Yankees could care less if A-Rod plays or not- but Toronto is thrilled to supply a burgeoning star to replace him.

    Owners see the dunk contest as a marketing exercise for the upcoming generation of stars. The victories of Blake Griffith and Dwight Howard are perfect examples. They win, growing a legend. But there is no participation past a year or two. Keep them retired undefeated- and generate buzz around a new, next young winner. Owners don’t want Kobe Bryant to win the contest; they want Brandon Jennings to win.

  2. Rob McMillin says:

    While I don’t claim any knowledge of NBA’s All-Star Game history, I can point out one thing in baseball contracts that I expect exists also in the NBA, and that is, contractual salary bonuses tied to All-Star Game appearances for particular players. While I can’t imagine this makes a significant difference to overall compensation in most cases (and if you look at the numbers, you’ll see that I’m mostly right there), the fact remains that this is an issue that basically means the MLB ASG won’t be going away any time soon. I expect the same is true of the NBA, as well.

  3. Aaron Bloom says:

    Frank,

    Thank you for your comments and insight.

    You are correct that I glossed over how the owners may feel about the subject. Then again, I don’t care too much about NBA owners (unless they are clients of our law firm, in which case their eyes will magically never see this comment) because I have never heard of anyone going to an NBA game to watch the owners. That said, anything that helps elevate the league and fan interest will ultimately benefit the owners financially.

    I disagree with your comment that the fans abandoned the slam dunk contest and that the star players merely followed. I think a year-by-year analysis of the list of participants will demonstrate that it was the other way around, but we may just have to disagree about that point.

    There are a few things from your comment that I want to correct, though. You listed four of the participants from the 1997 contest (Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Michael Finley and Darvin Ham) and then you said that “none of those four guys won.” That is incorrect. Kobe Bryant won the dunk contest that year (1997).

    You also state that there was no dunk contest in 1998 or 1999 due to lack of fan interest. That is also incorrect. There was no dunk contest in 1999 because there was no All-Star game (due to the NBA lock-out). With respect to 1998, there is a debate as to whether there was no dunk contest due to a lack of fan interest or a lack of interest among potential participants (the exact debate we are having here). Of course, I like to blame the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which started just before All-Star Weekend.

    You are correct, though, that the Lakers’ owners would not want to see Kobe Bryant participate in a dunk contest today. However, Kobe did compete in the dunk contest his rookie year (1997) and he won. Michael Jordan first competed in the dunk contest his rookie year (1985). And Dr. J competed in the dunk contest at the age of 35 (in 1984), just a few years before his retirement. The point is that the dunk contest was a way for young players to become stars or veteran dunkers to show their stuff. As a fan, it is very disappointing to have gifted leapers like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook never compete and guys like Blake Griffin only compete once.

    While you are correct that things like ESPN’s SportsCenter give us our fill our action-packed sports awesomeness on a regular basis (and that may, to some degree, dilute one’s appetite for a slam dunk contest), people still talk about Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins competing against each other in the dunk contest. I have never heard anyone reminisce about SportsCenter’s Top 10 from __________ (insert date).

  4. Aaron Bloom says:

    Rob,

    Thank you for the comment. There is one important distinction between the MLB All-Star Game and other All-Star Games — with the MLB All-Star Game, the outcome of the Game matters! As you know, if the National League All-Star team beats the American League All-Star team, then the National League team that makes it to the World Series has home field advantage (and vice-versa). I think that is awesome, and I think other sports (e.g., the NBA) should adopt that policy. Who knows? We may even see some defense during the first 46 minutes of an NBA All-Star Game!

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