NEW YORK – As the legendary story goes, Larry Bird walked into the locker room before the 1988 three-point shootout and confidently asked his competitors, “Which one of you guys is going to come in second?” Bird backed up his smack talk by walking off the court, index finger upward before his last shot dropped through the net, so assured of a victory that he didn’t bother looking.
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine didn’t need to say anything to opponents Victor Oladipo, Mason Plumlee or GIannis Antetokounmpo before or during Saturday’s slam dunk contest, but they were alerted after his first dunk that the competition for second place had begun in earnest.
LaVine, a 19-year-old rookie on the worst team in the Western Conference, was perhaps least known among a pool of relative unknowns to the viewing audience before the night began. But he had generated an underground following after videos of his jaw-dropping dunking ability – most notably a show-stopping performance at a pro-am in his native Seattle – made the rounds on YouTube.
The only question for LaVine when he arrived at Barclays Center was if he would be able to duplicate, or surpass, those slams under pressure and the glare of the maligned but still signature event in all-star Saturday night. After Stephen Curry’s incredible shooting display in the three-point shootout, the dunk contest had the potential for a letdown but LaVine saved the night with a display that had awestruck admirers – fans, fellow NBA players – wanting more.
LaVine become the second-youngest player to ever win the contest (his favorite player, Kobe Bryant, was 18 when he won in 1997) and offered some encouragement for the future competitions when he stated afterward that he has plenty more dunks in reserve.
“I didn’t bring them all out,” LaVine said.
The four dunks the UCLA alum completed were spectacular and creative enough.
For his first dunk, LaVine came out with the 1990s rap group, Quad City DJs, performing the theme song from the 1996 movie, “Space Jam.” LaVine was born a year before Michael Jordan teamed up with Bugs Bunny to defeat the Monstars but it served as an inspiration from the first time he watched. So as the music blared and the crowd cheered, LaVine peeled off his black Timberwolves jersey to reveal a No. 23 Tune Squad jersey with Jordan’s name on the back, then executed a thrilling dunk in which he caught the ball off a bounce, went between the legs left to right, then avoided hitting his head on the rim before throwing down a reverse on the other side of the rim. He scored a 50.
“I just wanted to do something different. You can’t go wrong with Jordan, I guess,” LaVine said. ”The greatest player ever and one of the best movies. That was one of my childhood idols, childhood favorite movies. I thought it would be something creative.”
LaVine scored a 50 on his second dunk, when he lined up at the left arc, lobbed the ball high in the air, grabbed it off the bounced and whirled it behind the back before throwing down an effortless right jam.
“We’re entertainers. We’re in New York,” LaVine said. “I wanted to get everybody off their feet and have a good time. I was having a ball out there. I tried to get a 50 on every dunk. It didn’t happen, but I was close on all of them. I wanted to show everybody what I got.”
LaVine’s teammate Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick last June, is an impressive dunker in his own right, but must’ve seen enough in practice to know that he shouldn’t enter this competition. Wiggins was a participant, but he simply held the ball so that LaVine could grab in mid-air, go between the legs and throw down a lefty reveres. Another teammate, Shabazz Muhammad tossed the ball of the side of the backboard and LaVine trailed from behind, went between the legs again.
The performance was so impressive that it had some wondering if LaVine had already exceeded another legendary dunker who rescued the dunk contest 15 years ago in Oakland, Calif., with his incredible hops and smooth finishes. LaVine wasn’t ready for any comparisons to the artist formerly known as Vinsanity.
“Vince Carter is above me,” LaVine said. “I don’t want to get into that area right now. I’m still a rookie. Vince Carter, you know, is a future Hall of Famer.”
LaVine is still struggling to find out what he is going to be in the league, since he has established himself as a tremendous athlete without a set position. He still believes that he can be a special player one day and possesses something that could eventually propel him to stardom.
“My confidence,” LaVine said. “I just look at all the greats: Michael Jordan was confident. Kobe Bryant is confident. LeBron James is confident. I got it instilled in me from a young age from my dad. He played professional football. If you’re not confident — have arrogance, cockiness. That’s what all the greats have. You have to have confidence in your game. I know I have to work on my game a lot. If you do the hard work in the gym, you know what you can do, so I guess that’s where it comes from.”
Antetokounmpo, a native of Greece, was ushered to the floor with his national flag and “goddesses” dressed in togas but failed to complete his dunk. Oladipo entered singing an off-key version of “New York, New York” that drew amusing smirks from pop stars Rihanna and Nicki Minaj then he threw down an impressive 360-degree reverse dunk that blew away the crowd. The stage was set for a showman. LaVine came in and shut it down.
“I’m still on cloud nine,” LaVine said. “I feel like I’m dreaming. Seeing all the Dunk Contests and people hoisting the trophy. I just saw myself do it and lived it.”