A Peek into the Absurd and Inevitable Future of Our Favorite Disappointment

The 2022 NBA Dunk Contest begins with an enormous American flag descending from the rafters like a parachute, covering the court in a spangled carpet. We, in our living rooms, watch Paul McCartney and John Cougar Mellencamp descend as well, girdled in harnesses, crooning, “Ain’t that America.” Madonna joins them on stage dressed as a sexy Betsy Ross, with a stars-and-stripes halter top and pioneer cap. Halfway through the song, McCartney and Mellencamp let go of their instruments, which bolt back up into the rafters, and zip themselves down from the top of their heads to their toes. We discover that it is not the aging icons at all, but pop sensations Dr. Bang and Nutz $upreme, who launch into their party hit “Space Hump Alert.” Madonna reveals herself to be Madonna, but with even fewer clothes. On cue, we hump the space around us.

Marv Albert greets us on screen, and we are amazed that though his skin has become mottled and ashen, his hair remains a vibrant black, and his voice is as velvety as ever. Welcome, he says, to the 2022 China National Petroleum Slam Dunk Contest! Before the contest begins, he tells us, we must first revisit some of the classic moments of Dunk Contest History. A montage of images flashes before us, featuring dunkers from bygone eras: Michael Jordan, Larry Nance, Vince Carter, Blake Griffin. Dr. Bang and Nutz $upreme provide the background music. Some of us go into the kitchen to gather snacks; the rest of us space-hump. 

At center court, a statue is unveiled: Gerald Green, poised in mid-air, lips puckered while blowing out a candled cupcake. We nod our heads in reverence and admire the verisimilitude of the bronze figure. A legend, we all agree.

At last, the main event. The first dunker of the evening is a third-year veteran from San Antonio, averaging 2.6 points and 0.3 assists in 5.3 minutes per game. We cheer, because he is a fan favorite. As he struts out to center court, we admire his signature avant-garde tattoos, for which he is known. On his right calf, a black and white of him as Michelangelo’s David. His left forearm features a color rendition of him as a founding father, signing the Declaration of Independence. On his right shoulder he wears a crown and pushes a riding mower. His neck is a Pollock-esque splatter. On his cheek, in cursive: “This is not a cheek.”

The excitement is palpable. The contestant pounds the ball between his hands, then signals to the sidelines. Two men in maroon jumpsuits step onto the court, holding large burlap sacks stamped with the NBA logo that seem to gyrate and pulse from within. They approach the lane, and dump several enormous cobras onto the court. The crowd in the stadium gasps, as do we. The contestant, unperturbed, kisses his fist, points to the rafters, and streaks toward the hoop. Just as we are certain the snakes will get him, he leaps above them, slamming with a powerhouse windmill. The ball drops to the lane and the snakes snap and hiss at it. Taking advantage of the distraction, the contestant swings off to a safe distance. We applaud and high five each other, though some of us think this too closely resembles his effort from last year.

Before the next contestant takes his turn, we are treated to Dr. Bang and Nutz $upreme covering the old tune “The First Cut is the Deepest.” Behind them, female dancers swing blades back and forth, while miniature sprinklers spurt real-looking fake blood onto their legs. We are disgusted and delighted.

We have high hopes for the second dunker, though he is nowhere to be found. Suddenly, a red sports car appears from the stadium tunnel and inches out to center court. Our contestant, a nine-year veteran out of Atlanta, stumbles from the driver side door. He has on street clothes and is visibly intoxicated. He argues with a stadium security officer, who administers a Breathalyzer test. The camera zooms in on the results. He has blown a .4, and we understand that it is a miracle he is still alive. While the stadium cop fumbles with his handcuffs, the dunker turns to the camera and winks. It’s a ruse! He’s stone cold sober! To prove it, he swipes the handcuffs from the officer and cuffs the two of them together. The dunker picks up a nearby basketball and lopes toward the hoop, dragging the hapless officer with him. The two of them leap at the same time, and for a brief moment, their movement is perfectly in sync. Together, each with a hand on the ball, they slam it down. When they land, the officer produces a key from his uniform, unlocks the cuffs, and we recognize him for the first time as the teammate of the contestant. Marvelous, we say, though we secretly knew all along.

The third and final dunker is a newcomer to the competition, and we know very little about him. A rookie from Cleveland, he averages 10.2 points per game and 7 rebounds in 20 minutes per game. We can’t recall ever hearing about him in the past. He jogs to center court to a polite applause, and gives an acknowledging nod to the crowd. In our living rooms, we are abuzz with tension. We have been impressed by the night’s performances, but we can’t help but feel unfulfilled. Where is the artistry? The sublime moment of surprise and brilliance? We wonder: could this be the dark-horse dunk for which we could have never prepared ourselves?

The rookie dribbles and stares at the hoop with intense concentration. At once, he bolts into a run, approaching the basket with lightning speed. He leaps, twists, pumps, and reverse jams the ball behind his head. We hold our breath, anxious. Walking away from the hoop he uses his jersey to wipe sweat from his forehead. He high-fives a fan in the front row. We watch and wait. The rookie grabs a bottle of water and squirts some into his mouth. He glances from the judges to the scoreboard. What’s he got up his sleeve?

His scores flash upon the screen, and we are bewildered. That was his dunk? Isn’t there anything more? Some of us are upset. Perhaps this is still a part of it. Perhaps this dunk is some sort of statement about other dunks. An homage? Even as we wonder, Marv Albert bids us goodnight and Dr. Bang and Nutz $upreme pump through our speakers. In our confusion, we’ve missed the crowning of the champion. We space-hump, though we secretly wonder, is it really over?


Doug Cornett is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. He earned his B.A. in English from Skidmore College, and his M.F.A. in creative writing from Portland State University. His work has previously appeared in such journals as Superstition Review, Vestal Review, Fringe Magazine, and elsewhere.