CHICAGO — Ask any athlete about what they want from the neutral arbiters overseeing his or her sport, and the refrains are bound to be the same. Whether it’s Olympic figure skating judges, home plate umpires, soccer referees or basketball officials.
The Slam Dunk Contest duel between Derrick Jones Jr. and Aaron Gordon was an instant classic filled with unprecedented dunks and so many perfect scores that it required two overtime periods to determine a winner. Unfortunately, this year’s contest will not be remembered as a classic, but as perhaps the worst judging performance in the 30-plus year history of the event.
The United Center crowd booed the five judges — Dwyane Wade, Common, Candace Parker, Chadwick Boseman and Scottie Pippen — early and often, and the displeasure rained down when Jones was finally crowned the winner in a stunning ending. This wasn’t a case of a little controversy making the Dunk Contest better. This was a case of illogical and inconsistent judging decisions ruining the entire show.
Gordon, who finished as the runner-up despite registering five consecutive perfect 50s and leaping over 7-foot-5 Boston Celtics center Tacko Fall on his final attempt, was left so incensed that he pledged never to compete again. His final dunk score of 47 fell one point short of Jones’s 48. His pain in defeat was doubled, of course, because he suffered a similarly narrow loss four years ago in Toronto, when he finished second to Zach LaVine in one of the best contests ever. As in 2016, when he pulled off his famous “butt dunk,” Gordon had the best single dunk of the contest with a whirling one-handed slam set up by an alley-oop from Markelle Fultz off the side of the backboard.
“It’s a wrap, bro,” Gordon, an Orlando Magic forward, said of his Dunk Contest career. “I feel like I should have two trophies. It’s over for that.”
It’s certainly a red flag when one of the most mesmerizing competitors in the event’s history spent much of his post-contest engagement expressing dismay and disbelief while directly questioning the judges and the event’s management.
“What are we doing, man?” Gordon kept asking as he began his news conference. “Jumping over somebody 7-foot-5 and dunking it is no easy feat. What did I get, 47? Come on, man. What are we doing? I don’t even know who gave me the 9s. I’m going to find them.
“We’re here to do four dunks. It should be the best out of four dunks. I did four straight 50s — five straight 50s. It’s over. It’s a wrap. Let’s go home. Four 50s in a row in an NBA Dunk Contest? It’s over. I don’t know. Who’s running the show?”
If that wasn’t bad enough, Jones, the champion, openly questioned the judges’ ruling on his own final dunk, a floating windmill slam from just inside the free throw line. Then the Miami Heat forward agreed that Gordon had been shortchanged for his effort leaping over Fall.
“I’ve been doing that dunk since high school and I know that’s 50 worthy,” Jones said. “There’s no way I should have gotten a 48. [Gordon] clipped Tacko’s head in that dunk. They couldn’t give him a 50 for that one but I would have respected if they had given him another 48 so we could go again.”
Slam Dunk Contest champion Derrick Jones Jr. says his last dunk was worth a 50 and that Aaron Gordon’s final dunk over Tacko Fall wasn’t worth a 50: “There’s no way I should have got a 48. He clipped Tacko’s head so they couldn’t give him a 50 for that one.” pic.twitter.com/9JJ3fVwdu4— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) February 16, 2020
Jones even went so far as to say that the judges’ handling of Gordon’s final score was “fishy” because “they took so long to give him the result.” Sure enough, ESPN reported Saturday night that two of the judges said that the panel had intended to set up a tie score so that there would be another round of dunks, but that a math error scuttled the plan and gave the victory to Jones. Adding to the credibility issues: Wade, one of the judges who didn’t give Gordon a 10, was Jones’s teammate on last year’s Heat — a clear conflict of interest.
There you have it: Two elite competitors left openly griping at puzzling verdicts that decided the outcome in a way that undercut the winner’s moment and left the loser feeing robbed.
Remarkably, the judging mistakes began long before the messy final round and they involved all four competitors.
Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton had a legit case to make the final round over Jones, but a questionable 45 score on his first dunk prevented him from advancing. The crowd responded to that, rightfully, with loud boos.
The worst score of the entire night involved Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, who donned a Superman cape and wore the No. 24 on his chest as a nod to Kobe Bryant, his former teammate. While the thoughtful tribute was well-executed, his dunk wasn’t super in the slightest. Howard caught an alley-oop pass from former NBA guard Jameer Nelson and threw down a simple one-handed dunk. Somehow, he was rewarded with a 49 — a higher score than both Jones and Gordon received for their vastly superior final efforts.
During and after the contest, other NBA players weighed in on the mystifying decisions.
“Judges are wilding,” Ja Morant wrote on Twitter.
“AG got robbed again,” wrote Joel Embiid.
“The judges need to be fined,” added Evan Turner.
“Derrick Jones don't even believe that,” wrote Jamal Crawford.
Therein lies the biggest problem with incompetent officiating: everyone lost because both the process and the results were so easy to question. Gordon lost, obviously. Jones lost because his first Dunk Contest title was shrouded in controversy. The NBA lost because Morant, a dream option for next year’s contest, suggested on social media that the 2020 contest had “made my decision easier.”
Most of all, the fans lost because they were left, after listening to the competitors and the judges themselves, to conclude that the event didn’t meet a bare minimum standard of professionalism.
The judges didn’t call it both ways. They didn’t provide a fair whistle. They didn’t let the players decide the outcome. They got in the way.
The NBA needs to do better than this.
— Ben Golliver
You can find our live updates and analysis from the dunk contest, the three-point contest and the skills challenge from Candace Buckner in Chicago below.
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