TORONTO — You’ve probably heard about it, or you’ve experienced it first hand, but it bears noting that it was a few thousand degrees below zero outside the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night, so if Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon decided they wanted to simply keep dunking until, say, June or so, everyone on hand would have probably been okay with it.
Alas, those two can’t do that because they are mere mortals, but they seemed like anything but in the main event of Saturday night’s All-Star festivities, as they threw down dunk after dunk, each one more incredible and acrobatic than the last, through three overtime rounds of a truly remarkable dunk contest before LaVine was declared the winner by force of mere attrition. Really, they both won. Really, no one in the building lost.
“For real, you all just watched history, man. Because I don’t know what we just did,” a mentally exhausted LaVine said after the contest. “I think we should share the trophy because [Gordon] did some stuff I’ve never even seen before. He did some crazy stuff, man. This is ridiculous.”
It truly was. Gordon took a ball out of the outstretched hand of his Orlando Magic mascot Stuff the Dragon—who was rotating 360 degrees on a hoverboard—soaring high for a loud dunk after a mid-air, one-handed 360 of his own. LaVine dunked twice from the free-throw line, adding in a windmill during one of them, possibly on a whim because he was in the air for so long. Gordon took another feed from Stuff, this time off the mascot’s head, one-handing the ball underneath both his legs as he basically sat down mid-air before a powerful jam. LaVine’s first dunk featured him practically floating beneath the basket.
There was a 360 windmill off-the-side-of-the-backboard bounce pass for Gordon; there was a between-the-legs reverse off a self-thrown bounce pass from behind the backboard for LaVine. There was so much more. On the official scorer’s page, they had to draw four extra rows of boxes in blue ink as the two men put up six perfect 50-point dunks in a row.
"I swear, I’ve never tried some of that stuff before. I don’t know—I just tried it. [Gordon] brought the best out of me, man. I had to bring my A plus, plus, plus game. It was ridiculous," LaVine said. "It was some of the most incredible dunks I’ve ever seen."
"I’m at a loss for words, man. It was awesome, win or lose. I had so much fun. It’s a dream come true, man. I’m really speechless," an overwhelmed Gordon said. "I kind of don’t really know what I just did. I’m going to have to watch it again."
What was most sublimely enjoyable about LaVine and Gordon going toe-to-toe wasn’t any of the props or gimmicks—it was simply them taking off. The mascots and the hoverboards and the dramatic, Michael Jackson inspired entrances were fun, but it will always be most awe-inspiring and ultimately satisfying to see an athlete with incredible acrobatic ability do their thing.
"In my personal opinion, man, we did some things that nobody else did. Like half the dunks we did were like professional-dunker dunks, and it takes them four or five times to try it and make it, and we did it on the first try. It was crazy," LaVine said. "At the end of the day, we both didn’t have dunks. [Gordon] was trying to throw it off the shot clock. He was like, 'I’ve never tried that before.' We were looking in our bag of tricks. Ain’t nothing left. I just found a little piece of dust."
Saturday night was a perfect demonstration of why the unfathomably talented LaVine and Gordon could mean something for this competition (if they both agree to participate again next year, as they absolutely should) which has been lacking a true draw for a while.
The NBA’s premier players have uniformly begged off from the event in recent years for a variety of reasons, the foremost being that it takes an awful lot of time and effort to conceptualize, learn and execute an original and impressive dunk. You would think that 19-year-old Will Barton, the youngest player in the competition and the youngest in the entire league for that matter, would’ve been able to inject some fresh energy and creativity into the proceedings. But even he was struggling to come up with ideas.
"It’s a challenge, we’ve seen so much," says Barton, who, along with Detroit’s Andre Drummond, didn’t make it out of the first round. "You’re really bringing a lot of work to the event. But that’s the fun part. You get to think, you get to be creative, and you just try to come up with new ideas and hopefully it works out for you."
Gordon, just 20 years old himself, said he scoured the Internet for inspiration, watching videos of amateur dunk troupes like Team Flight Brothers and Dunkademics for ideas.
"I was also watching a lot of the old dunk contests, and they were putting up pretty basic dunks because nobody had seen them," Gordon says. "Now, if you do something like that, people are going to look at you, like, get this guy out of here. You’ve got to definitely be creative. But, you know, the longer the game is going to be around, the more people can be creative and the more people can do."
It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone doing more than this, as Gordon and LaVine combined for a dunk contest to end all dunk contests. But as buzzing fans made their way out of the arena and into the arctic tundra that is downtown Toronto this weekend, Gordon admitted he secretly wanted what everyone in the place was hoping for—that these two could have just kept going.
"If I knew it was going to be like that, I would have prepared better and we would still be here dunking, going 50 after 50 after 50 after 50," Gordon said. "We would have been here all night."