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.

Call it both ways. Give us a fair whistle. Let the players decide the game. Don’t get in the way.

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.”

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.

Read more on the NBA:

February 15, 2020 at 10:46 PM EST
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Derrick Jones Jr. is the slam dunk contest champ

By Candace Buckner

With that, Derrick Jones Jr. is the champion and these judges should be banned from all dunk contests in the future. #JusticeForAaronGordon

February 15, 2020 at 10:35 PM EST
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Aaron Gordon just made it Tacko Night

By Candace Buckner

Aaron Gordon made the mistake by going to Shaquille O’Neal to get advice for his last dunk and Shaq told him to jump over the tallest man in the building, 7-foot-5 Boston Celtics rookie Tacko Fall.

Although Gordon clears Fall, who again is the tallest man in the building, this wasn’t impressive enough to the judges who score him one point less than Derrick Jones Jr.

February 15, 2020 at 10:32 PM EST
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Derrick Jones Jr. earns a 48

By Candace Buckner

Derrick Jones Jr. goes for the free-throw line dunk but jumps at least a foot in front of it. And though he made the windmill dunk, the judges give him a 48.

February 15, 2020 at 10:30 PM EST
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A busy night for Chance the Rapper

By Candace Buckner

Chance the Rapper is keeping busy tonight. For the third time, Aaron Gordon uses him as a prop. But like Derrick Jones Jr., as beautiful as the dunk was, Gordon goes with something we’ve seen before: leaping over human, between-the-legs dunk. While athletic, it lacked originality and the judges clearly don’t care: 50 points for Gordon. So you know what that means … MORE DUNKS COMING!

February 15, 2020 at 10:27 PM EST
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The dunk-off begins with Derrick Jones Jr.

By Candace Buckner

Let the dunk-off begin. Derrick Jones Jr. breaks out his between-the-legs dunk again, but this time while running in from the baseline to catch a pass off the side of the backboard. The force and accuracy … just exceptional. Another 50 for Jones.

February 15, 2020 at 10:25 PM EST
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Aaron Gordon steals Derrick Jones Jr.'s birthday cake

By Candace Buckner

Aaron Gordon brings out his teammate Markelle Fultz who bounces the ball off the side of the backboard. Then in swoops Gordon with the spinning, 360, one-handed slam. The judges even jumped out of their seats for that one. 5-0 for Gordon and we’re going to a dunk-off!

February 15, 2020 at 10:23 PM EST
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All the birthday cake for Derrick Jones Jr.

By Candace Buckner

Derrick Jones Jr. catches a lob off the backboard … jumps over a man … AND goes between the legs. He said this would be a dunk we’d never seen before and he was right. Perfect score and he has 100 points in the final. Gordon will need to reach perfection to tie.

February 15, 2020 at 10:22 PM EST
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Aaron Gordon turns to Chance the Rapper again

By Candace Buckner

Aaron Gordon uses Chance the (Short) Rapper once again. He does a beautiful job in elevating and turning in mid-air before finishing the one-handed slam. But was it worth another perfect score? The judges seem to think so, and some boos rain down inside United Center.

February 15, 2020 at 10:20 PM EST
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Derrick Jones Jr. clears two humans

By Candace Buckner

For Derrick Jones Jr., one person is not enough. No, no. This time he clears two humans while again, going between his legs before throwing down the hammer. The most impressive thing isn’t that Jones incorporated two people (the second guy was so short, the emcee probably could’ve cleared him). But Jones did this on his first attempt and gets another 50.

February 15, 2020 at 10:15 PM EST
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Wow, Aaron Gordon

By Candace Buckner

People are props here in the 2020 dunk contest. Aaron Gordon pulls Chance the Rapper out from the stands and clears the rapper (who’s really not tall). But that’s not the point. Gordon gets his second 50 score with another dunk that can only be described as: “Wow!”

Dwight Howard got to relive his glory past while Pat Connaughton got robbed, and now we have Aaron Gordon and Derrick Jones Jr. moving on to the final.

February 15, 2020 at 10:11 PM EST
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No but really, happy birthday to Derrick Jones Jr.

By Candace Buckner

Go Derrick! It’s your birthday! He spins 360, then while in mid-twist, puts the ball between his legs before completing the dunk on his first attempt. Another 50.

February 15, 2020 at 10:09 PM EST
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A 50 for Pat Connaughton

By Candace Buckner

For his second dunk, Pat Connaughton jumps over his teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo, grabs the ball THEN taps the backboard before dunking. Yup. It’s a 50.

February 15, 2020 at 10:05 PM EST
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Dwight Howard breaks out the Superman cape

By Candace Buckner

Dwight Howard brings back his old Orlando Magic teammate Jameer Nelson, who places the cape on Howard. This is the remix of his dunk from 2008 but with a twist: Howard places a No. 24 over the "S" on his chest. A nod to another former teammate: Kobe Bryant.

Howard repeats the same dunk but 12 years later, it’s not a 50. Chadwick Boseman, the actor from “The Black Panther,” gave him a nine. So only, 49 points for Howard.

February 15, 2020 at 10:00 PM EST
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Aaron Gordon takes the early lead

By Candace Buckner

Orlando’s Aaron Gordon gets the first 50 of the night with an impressive dunk that’s difficult describe and even more difficult to pull off to mere mortals. But to Gordon, it’s the equivalent of a layup. Gordon takes the early lead after the perfect attempt.