What Rising Stars Can Learn From LeBron James’ All-Star Mistake

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Every year the league invites players to participate in All-Star Saturday night events like the skills challenge, 3-point shootout and slam dunk contest. When an NBA player is selected to play in the All-Star Game or Rising Stars Challenge, it’s considered an honour.

Typically, the highest volume 3-point shooters compete in the shootout. The skills challenge is always studded with stars. When it comes to the dunk contest, however, the big names are scarce. With all due respect to Jeremy Evans and Terrence Ross, fans have to settle for watching non-household names compete for the trophy. The contest suffers from a lack of star power.

 

Photo: Damian Lillard/Twitter/Adidas Hoops


And that just might turn around this year. Last night, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard accepted the NBA’s invitation to participate in the dunk contest, CSN Northwest reports. Lillard will play in the Rising Stars rookies-sophomores game Friday night, as well as the All-Star game Sunday night. He will defend his Skills Competition title, and might as well take the league up on their offer to compete in the 3-point shootout (he shoots 40.5 per cent from beyond the arc, which is tied for 25th in the NBA).

If Lillard does in fact participate in all five All-Star events next weekend in New Orleans, he will be the first in the history of the game to do so. Other players across the league can stand to learn a thing or two from the 23-year-old reigning Rookie of the Year’s approach to the All-Star weekend.

 

Photo: Erik Daniel Drost/Creative Commons


That includes one of the biggest names in the game, LeBron James. For the past decade, basketball fans have been clamouring for the Miami Heat forward to enter the dunk contest. Year after year, he meets this pressure with resistance and ultimately refuses. “I’m not a dunk contest type of guy. I’m an in-game dunker,” James told CBS Sports in February 2012.

People have speculated that stars in today’s era refuse to participate in the dunk contest because they fear losing will be detrimental to their brands. Hall of Famer and two-time dunk champion (five-time competitor) Dominique Wilkins told Grantland’s Bill Simmons that excuse is “crap” and stupid because the event is about the fans, not the players.

Along with Wilkins, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are among the current and future Hall of Famers who put their brands on the line in the dunk contest to repay their fans for their support. Stars like Clyde Drexler and Shawn Kemp participated three times each despite never winning. Jordan lost the dunk contest in 1985 and astonishingly enough, his brand didn’t suffer.

In 1988, Jordan won the dunk contest. He took home a whopping $12,500, which amounts to 0.015 per cent of his $845,000 salary. He had a $2-million endorsement deal with Wheaties, so it’s a safe bet he didn’t participate in the contest for the prize money.

However, James’ participation seems to be all about the cash—not the fans. A week before his 28th birthday on Dec. 30, 2012, James told Fox Sports Florida, “It’s over with. I’m getting too old.” He said it isn’t worth his while to participate in the dunk contest. The slam dunk champion receives $100,000 from the league. That’s 0.005 per cent of James’ $19-million salary, and even less after factoring in his estimated net worth of $185 million.

During pre-game warm-ups on March 1, 2013, James shot the ball from behind his back, off-the-backboard and threw it down with authority. Upon seeing James’ dunk, Magic Johnson claimed on KIA NBA Countdown that he would give James $1 million to enter the 2014 dunk contest. At 0.05 per cent of his salary, James considered the offer. “Tell him I’ll get back to him,” James told ESPN. Sure.

Compared to players throughout history, NBA players today are more likely to put themselves before the fans.

 
There’s age, which led 28-year old Houston Rockets centre Dwight Howard to count himself out of this year’s events, despite stealing the show as Superman six years earlier when New Orleans last hosted the All-Star game. Twenty-eight appears to be the dunk participation cutoff for most players these days. In the mid-’80s, Erving participated in the dunk contest at the ripe age of 34 and 35.

There’s also the desire to unwind. All-Star Weekend is one of the few moments during the grueling regular season that affords players time off, tempting some to turn down invitations to compete in events such as the dunk contest to enjoy life. The 2011 Slam Dunk Champion, Blake Griffin, notably declined to defend his title to get some rest and relaxation. Similarly, Indiana Pacers superstar Paul George will start in the All-Star game, but he has said that he wants to limit the “extra stuff” so he can take respite during the weekend.

Interestingly, the lack of participation among All-Star veterans seems to be fueling first-timers’ competitive attitudes, including John Wall’s. When he saw George’s thunderous 360-windmill dunk during a January 2013 game against the Los Angeles Clippers, he insisted he could have done it better. The Washington Wizards guard has since been mulling on whether he’ll participate in the dunk contest or the skills competition. He is interested in competing against other stars, so Lillard’s decision may be what it takes to sway him. However, due to nagging injuries, Wall is leaning towards the less strenuous (and less exciting) skills competition, CSN Washington reports.
 

Athletic hubris aside, the dunk contest represents a great opportunity for Wall and other potentially participating players to increase their influence. Over seven million people tuned in last year in the U.S. alone, and the contest is one of the NBA’s biggest opportunities to sell their product to people who don’t follow the sport. With the proliferation of social media, a star-studded lineup and spectacular show will have the league’s assets trending worldwide. Basically, even if a player loses the contest this year, they still win.

 
The time to revive the slam dunk contest is now. It may be too late for James, but there’s still plenty of time for the up-and-coming stars. Lillard deserves credit for taking the first step. Other young stars such as John Wall would be wise to follow his example. What a shame it would be for any one of them to look back on his 28th birthday and realize it’s too late to become a slam dunk champion.

The field for All-Star Saturday night, including the slam dunk contest, will be officially announced tonight on TNT at 7 p.m. ET.

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