The year: 1988. The site: old Chicago Stadium. The occasion: All-Star Saturday.
That was the stage on which Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins duked out what is widely considered the greatest dunk contest of all time. And the stakes were high before the two even stepped on the floor. Remember: That was only the fifth dunk contest in NBA history, with Jordan and Wilkins each claiming one crown apiece early on. Respective injuries kept them from squaring off in 1986 and 1987, but in ’88, the score was set to be settled.
It was, but not without controversy. Jordan eked out Wilkins on the strength of a cocked-back remix of Julius Erving’s famous foul-line dunk but many claim that Wilkins was swindled out of victory after judges awarded him just a 45 on a preposterous two-handed windmill that preceded Jordan’s finale.
With a Chicagoan-heavy judge’s panel and on Jordan’s home floor, it’s not the most outlandish of conspiracy theories.
But Wilkins insisted that there’s no hard feeling about the suspect finish. All that mattered to him was that the fans got their money’s worth. They did and, with a cursory YouTube search, can do so to this day.
“Of course we both thought we won,” Wilkins told NBC Sports Chicago Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson as a part of Johnson’s expansive oral history of the contest. “No matter who won, the fans got their money’s worth. And that’s what I tell people. Do I think I won? Yeah. But it didn’t matter at that point because we entertained for the fans. The fact we’re talking about it 30 years later lets you know how important that dunk contest was.”
In fact, Wilkins says the two haven’t spoken about the events of that night since.
“We joke about it all the time. But you know something that we’ve never done, Michael and I. We’ve never talked about it with one another,” Wilkins told Johnson. “It’s kind of an unspoken thing between us. We know what we did. So we don’t have to talk about it.”
The spectacle of that contest derived from the intensity of the competition between Jordan and Wilkins, their spontaneity and creativity, and the level of each’s stardom. These were two future hall of famers, and intra-conference foes, going head-to-head in an extension of an individual rivalry that helped define an era of basketball. The result was pure art.
“It really set up for in my opinion the greatest dunk contest ever,” Wilkins told Johnson. “To this day, no one did it the way we did it."
For the full, inside story behind the 1988 dunk contest, click through to K.C. Johnson’s oral history of the events of that night (and everything that led up to it) here.