Many may view it as a dying art, but the slam dunk remains a wondrous spectacle on the basketball court. Viewers and critics fall in and out of love with the dunk over the decades; some consider it a skill, some consider it a classless way to show up an opponent. (The NCAA even banned dunking between 1967 and 1976.) With time, the slam dunk grew to be associated with many of the more memorable moments in league history.
There are, of course, the all-time greats in dunking; the guys who knew how to strike the right balance between showmanship and skill. It’s hard to pare down the list, but in the end a couple legends burn just a little bit brighter. Here are the top 10 greatest dunkers of all time.
10. Tracy McGrady
The 2000s kicked off with an NBA Dunk Contest for the ages. The competition came down to Toronto Raptors teammates and cousins, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady. McGrady was the runner-up and never won the contest. However, he’s still considered one of the best dunkers in the history of the game — and for good reason. His two-handed dunk received a perfect score. It’s still referenced in current dunk contest scenarios.
9. Spud Webb
Of course, part of the wonder of guard Spud Webb winning the 1986 NBA Dunk Contest came from the fact that he was a wee bit shorter than the rest of his competitors. But height clearly didn’t stop Webb from dominating the scene. He floated up to the basket better than players much taller than him. The legend of Webb’s Dunk Contest win lives on today, especially since the retired point guard can still dunk on guys taller than him.
8. Clyde Drexler
Clyde Drexler easily tops the list of dunkers who never won the NBA Dunk Contest, especially because it’s what he’s most known for. He put his skills on the NBA court as a 21-year-old rookie, fresh out of the University of Houston, with a resume boasting time with the “Phi Slamma Jamma” teams. We must acknowledge, however, the list of players who “Clyde the Glide” lost to: Larry Nance, Dominique Wilkins, Kenny Walker, and Michael Jordan (twice).
7. Darryl Dawkins
It should probably be illegal to talk about great dunks without mentioning Darryl Dawkins and his glass-shattering abilities. Self-named “Chocolate Thunder,” he’d been in the league a few years before an infamous incident in Kansas City on November 13, 1979.
Dawkins dunked the ball so hard that the fiberglass backboard exploded into oblivion. The spectacle grew in notoriety as he made another backboard his victim just a couple weeks later in Philadelphia. Hoops fans can thank the maneuver for the next move by the NBA — installing shatter-proof backboards with breakaway rims in all arenas.
6. Larry Nance
Long before his son dunked on Brook Lopez for the LA Lakers, Larry Sr. put on the original dunk show. In fact, he won the first NBA Dunk Contest. In the inaugural competition in 1984, Nance went toe-to-toe with legend Erving, one of the top five greatest dunkers to ever grace the game. Impressively, the young Phoenix Suns forward emerged the victor, in a moment that even had Erving cheering along with the crowd.
5. Dominique Wilkins
Also known as the Human Highlight Reel, Wilkins was most notable for his windmill slams. Out on the open floor, he would fill the wing in transition, where he was the preferred target of point guard Doc Rivers in Atlanta.
To showcase his skills, ‘Nique participated in five Slam Dunk Contests, winning two of these competitions in 1985 and 1990. In doing so, Wilkins faced off against the likes of Nance, Shawn Kemp, Walker, Webb, Julius Erving, and Jordan in what many considered a heyday for the dunk.
4. Shawn Kemp
Shawn Kemp declared for the 1989 NBA Draft as a 19-year-old without playing one minute of college basketball. As a young, raw athlete, Kemp simply outran and out-jumped the competition for show-stopping dunks, blocks, and easy put-backs. The Man Child would rip down a rebound, put the ball on the floor, and drive coast-to-coast as a one-man fast break for hammer dunks. With time, Kemp added a consistent jump shot and a solid mix of post moves to his offensive repertoire.
3. Julius Erving
The fact that Dr. J performed as a well-rounded player who led perennial contenders is somewhat lost in the shuffle behind his array of dazzling athletic feats. His dunk was, of course, a highlight of his playing resume.
In 1977, he split the entire Portland defense on a coast-to-coast drive before climbing the ladder and jamming the ball down into Bill Walton’s face in Game 6 of the NBA finals. In 1983, Erving won a footrace against Michael Cooper for a loose ball at mid-court. On the break, Dr. J cradled the basketball and went “Rock-a-Bye Baby” over Cooper to close out the regular season and ignite the Philadelphia Spectrum crowd.
2. Vince Carter
In his prime, Carter was the most electric performer in all of sports. With an explosive first step, “Half Man Half Amazing” could drive to the rim at will and finish off plays with floaters, scoop shots, and hammer dunks.
In 2000, Carter shut down the Slam Dunk Contest in Oakland. In taking the event, he put on a show with a reverse 360 between the legs and windmill slams. For his final dunk, Carter went vertical to jam the ball and his elbow into the basket before he gestured to fellow Carolina alum and former slam dunk contestant Kenny Smith that the competition was already over — all other contestants should be happy with second place.
1. Michael Jordan
In line with the rest of his NBA career, Jordan set the gold standard for the aspiring NBA dunker, winning back-to-back slam-dunk competitions in 1987 and 1988. In taking the crown both times, he stared down Wilkins, kissed the rim, cradled the ball, and took off from the foul line.
As an in-game dunker, a young Jordan was known to humiliate the competition off dribble drives, lobs, offensive put-backs, and backdoor cuts. As the most successful pitchman in the history of sports, Air Jordan hawked shoes with the implicit belief that Nike helped him to fly.