5 of the Best Dunkers in NBA History

Updated on March 22, 2019
Jan Michael Ong profile image

I like writing about food, sports, personal finance, the stock market, reality TV, cartoons, comics, collectible card games and video games.

Julius Erving was the face of the NBA in the 1970's.
Julius Erving was the face of the NBA in the 1970's.

Julius Erving

"Doctor J" Julius Erving was one of the most iconic figures in the 70s with his iconic afro hairstyle and his gravity-defying acrobatics. The Doctor helped popularize the free throw line dunk through the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest.

Whether it be the ABA or the NBA, Doctor J would graciously glide through the air like an eagle and go over the giants of the basketball court. The Doctor seemed to defy the laws of physics and gravity with his aerial acrobatics. While his opponents have already landed on the ground, Doctor J seems to still be hovering in the air.

Julius Erving gained notoriety in the 1976 ABA All-Star Slam-Dunk Contest. He was against the top talents of the league such as Artis Gilmore, David Thompson, George Gervin, and Larry Kenon. The league was dying then as the rival National Basketball Association was providing stiff competition and basketball was not as financially viable as it is today with merchandising, sponsorship and television deals. Despite the doom and gloom surrounding the league, the five players were still able to put on a show capped off by Erving's now infamous free throw line dunk.

Julius was not just your average fringe dunker he was one of the more talented players in his heyday and one of the most talented players ever. He led New York Nets to two titles. One in 1974 and one in 1976. Julius was essentially the face of the ABA.

When the merger between the NBA and ABA happened, the Nets were in dire financial straights and were forced to sell the rights to Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers were more than happy to scoop up the Doctor and try to build the team around him.

The initial team the Sixers formed around Doctor J included notable players such as Henry Bibby (father of All-Star Mike Bibby), Joe "Jellybean" Bryant (father of Lakers Legend Kobe Bryant), Doug Collins, Darryl Dawkins, World B. Free, Caldwell Jones, and George McGinnis. This was a stacked roster of athletic players.

The Julius Erving-led Sixers teams have always been seemingly loaded with talent. They could however never seemingly get to the promised land due to tough competition from the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.

It was not until the arrival of big man Moses Malone that the Sixers got a much-needed boost. The Fo-fo-fo Sixers. Moses predicted a sweep of all of their opponents. The Sixers were close to their goal, and their only hiccup was a loss at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks.

At last, Julius Erving finally captured an NBA crown.

Shawn Kemp unleashes his famous bicycle dunk during the Slam Dunk Competition.
Shawn Kemp unleashes his famous bicycle dunk during the Slam Dunk Competition.

Shawn Kemp

Shawn Kemp was not a highly touted prospect in the 1989 NBA Draft. Early picks such as Louisville's Pervis Ellison, Duke's Danny Ferry, Michigan's Glen Rice, and Arizona's Sean Elliot were regarded with much fanfare.

Though Shawn was technically in college since he enrolled one semester in Trinity Valley Community College, Shawn was practically a raw high schooler as he never played in the collegiate environment.

Shawn was lucky to have landed in Seattle at a below lottery pick as the expectations there were not high. He was also privileged to be under the tutelage of savvy veteran Xavier McDaniel.

Shawn did not produce special results in his rookie campaign. He only averaged 6.5 PPG 4.4 RPG and .9 BPG on less than 50% shooting. He only started in a single game.

McDaniel was shipped to Phoenix the very next season to make room for Shawn's development. He was exchanged for Eddie Johnson and two draft picks.

Kemp's sophomore season proved to be his breakout season as he significantly improved his production across the board. He now averaged 15 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 1.5 BPG on 50.8% shooting.

The once-unheralded rookie was now a force to be reckoned with. Together with Gary Payton, Eddie Johnson, Ricky Pierce, and Nate McMillan, the Seattle Supersonics had a solid core of talent they could build upon.

The nickname "Reign Man" was given to Shawn by Sonics announcer Kevin Calabro. It has stuck ever since.

Shawn joined the Slam Dunk Competition a total of four times (1990, 1991, 1992 and 1994) and surprisingly never won the event. The closest he ever got was a runner-up finish in 1991 when he lost to Dee Brown

The best dunk he pulled off was a mid-air bicycle ride that is one of the best ever in the event.

Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton would go on to become one of the most exciting duos of the nineties. Though they would never win the championship together, the closest they got was in 1996 when they reached the Finals. They however lost to the Bulls 4-2. The Sonics were a stacked team with Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins, Sam Perkins, and Nate McMillan. They could not just overcome Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman.

After his stint in Seattle, Shawn would be traded to Cleveland and would battle weight problems. Things got worse in Portland when Shawn began to dabble in cocaine and alcohol.

After two years with the Blazers, Kemp would end up with the Orlando Magic. Kemp was just a shell of his former self at this point. He only averaged 6.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and .4 BPG. He only shot 41.8% from the field. It appears that years of substance abuse and weight problems have taken away the luster of this once great superstar.

Kemp has made comeback attempts with the Mavericks and Nuggets, and these ultimately did not work out.

Dominique Wilkins was literally a walking human highlight reel.
Dominique Wilkins was literally a walking human highlight reel.

Dominique Wilkins

Dominique Wilkins was known as the "Human Highlight Reel" during his playing days. He was an endless source of eye-popping dunks and aerial acrobatics. Dominique was a showman in every sense of the word.

Nique would be known for his playoff battles with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. There were points in the games where it seemed that Nique was on a showdown with these Legends. While Dominique has fallen short in many of these duels, he always had a good showing and should be commended for his courage in facing two of the greatest players in his era.

Dominique would compete in multiple Slam Dunk Contests (1984, 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1990). He would end up winning in 1985 and 1990.

Unlike the watered down Slam Dunk contests of today featuring a lot of unknowns, Dominique faced some of the greatest players in history such as Michael Jordan, Shawn Kemp, Julius Erving, Scottie Pippen, and Clyde Drexler.

The Atlanta Hawks made the playoffs during most of Dominique's twelve years there. The Hawks even made a 57-win season in 1986-87. The farthest the Hawks ever got with Dominique was in the second round. They never got over the hump.

Dominique was unceremoniously traded for Los Angeles Clippers Star Danny Manning. The Hawks thought this was a good move as the versatile Manning was much younger at twenty-seven than the thirty-four-year-old Wilkins.

This would end up being a public relations disaster for the Hawks as Wilkins had become an icon in Atlanta. The Hawks would trade Manning the very next season. The Hawks might have made the Finals in the absence of Michael Jordan, but Atlanta squandered the opportunity and ended up with an oft-injured player they traded a season later.

Wilkins would only play out the 1993-94 season with the Clippers and sign with the Boston Celtics. He would have foreign league stints after that. He would also later on play with the San Antonio Spurs playing alongside David Robinson. Dominique would end his career playing alongside his brother Gerald with the Orlando Magic.

Vince Carter was half man half amazing for his tenure in Toronto.
Vince Carter was half man half amazing for his tenure in Toronto.

Vince Carter

Half man. Half amazing. That was what Vince Carter was in his prime. He was known as "Air Canada" and was the face of the Toronto Raptors.

Carter had a very similar effect in terms of attendance and fanfare that Jordan had when he was starting out with the Chicago Bulls. Sure, both players did not win much during their first few seasons in the league, but they put people in the seats and brought recognition to their respective teams. The NBA is not only about sports but also about entertainment.

Carter had a spectacular rookie season averaging 18.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, and 1.5 BPG. For this, he was named the NBA Rookie of the Year.

Vince would gain more notoriety in his second season when he would absolutely dominate the Slam Dunk Competition. While the contest was a staple of the All-Star weekend in the 80's and early 90's. However, it lost its luster as a lot of dunks were repetitive and many of the league's premier stars did not bother to join.

Air Canada would basically revive the competition on his own with a vast array of dunks. Among the favorites were the honey dip dunk, between the legs bounce dunk and the 360-degree windmill.

Vince would serve as the de facto leader of the Toronto Raptors during his seven seasons there. He would provide the fans with countless highlights and with several playoff berths. Though Vince would later move on to teams like New Jersey, Orlando, Phoenix, Dallas, Memphis, and Sacramento, Carter would always be remembered most for his time in Toronto.

Michael Jordan turned the the Slam Dunk Competition into his own personal showcase.
Michael Jordan turned the the Slam Dunk Competition into his own personal showcase.

Michael Jordan

Michael Jeffrey Jordan is widely regarded as the greatest player of all time. Michael Jordan entered the league as one of the most entertaining players. His gravity-defying moves quickly endeared him to the Chicago Bulls fans and later to the rest of the country.

Michael was a showman, and fans far and wide flocked to the arenas to see him. Seeing Michael perform was special. You were sure whenever he stepped foot on an NBA court, it would be memorable.

When Michael entered the league, the faces of the league were Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Michael was the new sheriff in town and aimed to take the mantle of the NBA from the two legends.

While Michael was not yet into winning championships and garnering MVP's, his claim to fame was the Slam Dunk Championship. Unlike the slim pickings nowadays, the Slam Dunk championship in Jordan's heyday featured the crème de la crème of the league's best players and dunkers. Imagine the likes of Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins, Larry Nance Sr. and Darrell Griffith in a single dunk contest. The dunk contests were stacked back in the day.

Michael joined three dunk contests - 1985, 1987 and 1988. He lost his first foray to rival Dominique Wilkins. He missed 1986 due to an injury. He beat out Jerome Kersey in 1987. He avenged his loss to Dominique Wilkins in his rookie season in 1988.

Among Michael's most iconic dunks during the contest are the Kiss the Rim dunk, the 180-degree dunk, and the free throw line dunk.

When Michael was young, he did not have a jump-shot, did not make his teammates better, was not a lock-down defender and had a lean built. Michael would work to have a more muscular frame and a more complete game. His game that was once dependent on pure athleticism is now dependent of fundamentals and technical ability.

Jordan would also become a lock-down defender able to shut down the best scorers in the game. Michael would graduate from a mere showman to a legend. He would have a stellar career with 14 All-Star appearances, 5 MVP awards, and 6 NBA Championships.

Best Dunker of All Time

Who is the best dunker of all time?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Jan Michael Ong

    Comments

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      • Jan Michael Ong profile imageAUTHOR

        Jan Michael Ong 

        17 months ago from Metro Manila, Philippines

        Thank you for reading my article Dora. Who do you think is the best dunker?

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        17 months ago from The Caribbean

        Thanks you for this informative, entertaining article on these giants in my favorite sport.

      • Jan Michael Ong profile imageAUTHOR

        Jan Michael Ong 

        17 months ago from Metro Manila, Philippines

        Thank you Larry. Who do you think is the greatest dunker? My money is on Vince Carter.

      • Larry Rankin profile image

        Larry Rankin 

        17 months ago from Oklahoma

        Interesting analysis.

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