Magic Johnson is the latest sports fan to challenge LeBron James to enter the NBA dunk contest.
If James enters the contest, Magic will pay the winner $1 million. According to an ESPN report, “the NBA currently pays $100,000 to the winner and $50,000 to the runner up,” so that is quite the incentive. James has never participated in the contest and NBA fans are salivating for him to step up to the plate and answer the challenge. The argument is that the best high-flyers in the game have always participated in the contest and in order to be considered the “pound for pound” best of an era then you have to win the dunk contest. James is undoubtedly the best player in the game today, but if he doesn’t participate in the dunk contest he will have left something out of his impressive resume and give the hordes of James haters a reason to forever question his greatness.
James is first and foremost a professional athlete, but he is also a sports entertainer and is paid to entertain. By not participating in the dunk contest, he is not only disappointing his fans, he is failing to fulfill his commitment to give fans what they pay for.
The disappointing 2013 dunk contest increased the effort to have James enter the contest. The absence of any marquee players made James’ absence all the more glaring. James has added fuel to the fire with his pre-game warm up drill which includes an array of spectacular dunks. The Miami Heat players have turned their layup line into a dunk highlight film and James has displayed some dunks that would get him a perfect score in the official dunk contest. The pressure to enter the dunk contest has become so intense that James even considered ending the pre-game ritual.
James is having a magical season, better than last year when he won the MVP. He will easily win the MVP this year, making it his fourth MVP award. That will tie him with Wilt Chamberlain. Only Bill Russell (5), Michael Jordan (5) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6) have more.
This is the thing about James: he can only be compared to the greatest players in history. He has no contemporaries to challenge his greatness. Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are in the conversation, but one is at the end of his career and the other is at the beginning. It is why it is so frustrating to see him shun the dunk contest year after year. How can we compare his greatness when he won’t put his dunking skills to the test? It’s not like he hasn’t been in dunk contests. He won the dunk contest at the McDonald’s All-American game in 2003.
One argument is that James, ever wary of his image and legacy, has nothing to gain and everything to lose by entering the contest. That is the talk of a coward not a champion ready to meet all challengers. James is one of the best in-game dunkers in the NBA. On a nightly basis he is likely to rock the rim in an awe inspiring move. He owes it to the fans to put his high-flying skill on display and have them compared to the best.
There is no doubt having James in the contest would be a ratings bonanza, restore prestige to the fading event, and bring out the best high flyers in the games. Everyone would want to see a Blake Griffin/LeBron James dunk-off. It would bring back memories of when Jordan went up against Dominique “The Human Highlight Film” Wilkins.
The two players James is compared to most, Jordan and Bryant, each won the dunk contest. Along with championship rings (Jordan has six and Kobe has five), they have the upper hand in any debate. Jordan and Bryant never backed away from a challenge. They understood what it meant to be a champion player and a champion sports entertainer. Jordan has gone so far as saying he would take Bryant over James. Jordan’s rationale was primarily based on rings, but still the point is when champions are challenged they are required to step up and meet that challenge.
Last year James won his first NBA Championship. Prior to winning he had become this generation’s Wilt Chamberlain i.e. the most dominant player in the game, but a loser when all the marbles were on the line. He had come up short twice, once with Cleveland and then again with Miami. He had taken the blame for the losses and the legions of LeBron-haters had grown larger with every missed free throw or game-winning clutch shot. When he finally won the ring, the haters had to find another reason to hate and the dunk contest became the next source.
James can’t let the haters win. Now is the time for him to step up and meet the challenge. He can’t retire with that big question mark on his record. This year’s dunk contest was pathetic. A bunch of “dunk specialists” embarrassed themselves with a display of missed dunks (six contestants missed 36 dunks) that reminded you of kids practicing their first dunks in the local gym. James is the only thing left that can save this time-honored event.
So along with Magic’s $1 million, how about some others step up and make this an event that James can’t turn down? How about Jordan and Shaq match the $1 million offer? What if we started a campaign with corporate sponsorship with all proceeds going to charity? I wouldn’t be surprised if this campaign could get into the $10 to $20 million range. If “The Decision” deserved full treatment by ESPN, then the “LeBron James Jam Contest” deserves more.
Maybe then and only then will James forget about protecting his image and do what he is paid to do: to be a professional athlete and champion sports entertainer.