Ben McLemore was surrounded. OK, sort of surrounded. Within about two hours Friday, some of the game’s more spectacular dunkers – past and present – sat in a hotel ballroom, offering conflicting thoughts about this and that, including the annual Slam Dunk Contest that is a fixture during All-Star Weekend.
LeBron James almost snorted his disdain for the event. Blake Griffin admitted he suffered from stage fright when he leaped over that car three years ago, then said he would jump back into the contest if the LeBron would. Dominique Wilkins said the key to victory was believing you can fly, can touch the sky, and that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy were coming to town.
“Imagination is everything,” said Wilkins, a former Atlanta Hawks forward who won the competition in 1985 and a year later was eliminated by teammate and diminutive guard Spud Webb, who once played for the Kings. “You have to be creative, spontaneous, especially if you’re one of the smaller guys. And I don’t like the props. Get yourself a basketball, some sneakers and come with the element of surprise.”
Wilkins offered one more interesting observation: He selected McLemore as his sleeper in Saturday night’s contest at the Smoothie King Center.
“That kid has a lot of bounce,” Wilkins praised. “I like his chances.”
So, no, there is no pressure on the Kings rookie, one of the six players in the revised two-round team format. Damian Lillard (Portland) and Harrison Barnes (Golden State) also represent the Western Conference, with Paul George (Indiana), John Wall (Washington) and defending champion Terrence Ross (Toronto) combining efforts for the East.
In the opening round, the contestants have 90 seconds to attempt as many dunks as they want. The winning “team” has the option of going first or second in the elimination round.
McLemore abandoned his previous plans to try a 720-degree throwdown – a two-revolution spin, followed by a one- or two-handed slam – but he said his cautionary approach has nothing to do with a whirlwind 48 hours that included a 13-hour travel delay Thursday out of New York, an 11 p.m. practice later that night, a Friday schedule packed with media sessions, a community outreach appearance that included refurbishing a local school, another evening practice and the official rehearsal.
But McLemore had no complaints. Fatigued or otherwise – and he appeared bleary-eyed and a little overwhelmed – the Kings’ 6-foot-5 shooting guard had hoped to be among the invitees. He also happens to be a dunk contest veteran dating to his high school days in Missouri and Texas.
Windmill. Double-pump. Two-handed reverse. Tomahawk.
McLemore has tried all the dunks, though he shares Wilkins’ aversion to jumping over automobiles. He’ll leave the daring exploits to Griffin, who has skipped the competition since 2011 and admitted he simplified his winning leap because of nerves.
“I was actually supposed to windmill it, but when I got up there, I got a little stage fright,” Griffin said. “When the car rolled out there … it’s harder than it looks.”
While Griffin said James’ involvement would entice him back into a competition that has lacked star power in recent years, Wilkins was encouraged by the participation of three All-Stars (George, Wall and Lillard).
And McLemore. He cautioned against forgetting McLemore.
Wilkins – a marvelous, springy athlete at 6-8 – also disagrees with Kings assistant and 1991 dunk champion Dee Brown. (These dunkers are as cantankerous as Democrats vs. Republicans.) He doesn’t believe McLemore’s small hands are an impediment.
“I have small hands, too,” said Wilkins, an underrated all-around player who was voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame one year after becoming eligible. “I couldn’t palm the ball, (except) maybe every once in a while. But I jumped really high and cupped the ball. (McLemore) … is very active. I like him a lot, the way he moves and runs the floor. Just use the imagination, and don’t think too hard.”
McLemore, who just turned 21, only knows Wilkins, Webb, Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, et al., from watching videotapes.
“My era?” the soft-spoken rookie asked. “LeBron James. That’s my guy. Growing up, I thought he would be (in dunk contests).”
With a smile, he added, “But leave it to the young guys.”