Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Feb. 12, 2014.
Late on the night of Feb. 11, 2000, Vince Carter lies awake in his Bay Area hotel. He is restless because his mind won’t stop. The next evening, in Oakland, he is to compete in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend, an event both celebrated and reviled and one Carter does not yet know he has been tabbed by the league to save.
His thoughts turn to the half-dozen or so slams he has planned for the competition, a stacked affair that will feature four All-Stars, either present or future, including Carter’s cousin and teammate. Not that Carter’s planning will matter much. Just minutes before the contest begins the next night, he will scrap all but one dunk he had prepared, almost totally improvising one of the greatest athletic exhibitions the NBA will ever see.
Carter seemed destined for this stage, ever since his first slam dunk in the sixth grade, a desperate attempt on the outdoor hardtop at Ormond Beach Middle School in Florida. Later, he had become such a feared dunker that at one national high school competition, which featured other future NBA All-Stars, the field simply forfeited midcontest after one particularly explosive Carter slam.
By early 2000, Carter was a newly minted All-Star, a dynamic scorer and one of the NBA’s rising names, but he was still a foreign entity playing in Canada for the Toronto Raptors. It would take a generational moment, his performance in Oakland, to reach his grandest level of fame.
Yet before Carter could become “Vinsanity,” before he could deliver one of the most talked-about, most celebrated All-Star moments ever, there was no dunk contest at all.
Following the scintillating showdown between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins in the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, the league’s ugly secret was that the event was hemorrhaging cachet. Throughout the 1990s, it failed to draw star participants, and those who did compete were often derided for the dunks they managed. The NBA began to tire of it as the main attraction of All-Star Saturday night, and in 1998, for the first time in nearly 15 years, the league would go into its midseason break without a dunk contest. “If it’s time to give it a rest,” NBA commissioner David Stern said then, “let’s give it a rest.”
* All titles reflect those that were held on Feb. 12, 2000.
Prologue: ‘There’s no playground trick that’s going to revive this thing’
Russ Granik (deputy commissioner, NBA): We had been struggling for some time with the dunk contest, in large part because a lot of the top players just didn’t want to do it.
Rod Thorn (executive VP of basketball operations, NBA): There was conversation that all the dunks that could be done had been done and maybe it was getting a little stale.
Mike Wise (NBA columnist, New York Times): The greatest skywalkers weren’t even competing. It had gone from Dr. J to Michael to Spud Webb to Dee Brown’s flying dunk, and at this point it was just played out. It’s done.
Jonathan Feigen (NBA writer, Houston Chronicle): I do remember the common things that we still hear: “It’s passé.” “We’ve seen everything we’ll ever see.” That was all said then, and it’s said now, and it’ll be said 10 years from now.
David Steele (columnist, San Francisco Chronicle): They were saying, “You know, once upon a time Michael Jordan showed up every year and Dominique showed up every year, and it had real characters and novelties like Spud Webb, etc., etc., etc.”
Elton Brand (forward, Chicago Bulls): The slam dunk contest kinda lost a little of its flavor over the years. There were a lot of regular dunks. I think Isaiah Rider had the between-the-legs dunk, and I guess Brent Barry went from the foul line. But it was nothing too outstanding.
Wise: There’s no playground trick that’s going to revive this thing.
Granik: There was some hesitation and even concern a little bit whether it was the best thing to do or not, but I think we had had two or three [dunk contests] in a row that just were not up to the standards of what we wanted to put on. So we said, “We have to take a breath here and see what we oughta do.”
Ahead of the 1998 All-Star Weekend at Madison Square Garden, a committee of NBA personnel including Stern, Granik, Thorn and NBA Entertainment president and chief operating officer Adam Silver concluded the league would not put on its annual slam dunk contest. In its stead would be a new shooting competition named 2-ball, where an NBA player would team with a WNBA player in a two-on-two shooting contest. To a world with no NBA Slam Dunk Contest, response from fans, media and the league itself was mixed.
Thorn: I would say it was unanimous initially [to suspend the dunk contest]. There were always people talking on both sides, but by the time it was talked through, everybody got on board.
Wise: I don’t remember anybody missing it. I don’t remember anybody saying, “Oh, my god, the dunk contest is gone.”
Granik: The dilemma for us was that, despite common criticism and a dissatisfaction on our part in the office with how it was going as a show, [the dunk contest] still always rated well. It was in the best spot at the end of the All-Star Saturday night, but it still clearly was a draw. And so our television partners weren’t really clamoring to get rid of it.
Frank Isola (NBA writer, New York Daily News): I remember thinking, like, “You’re in New York City. How are you not going to have the slam dunk contest?”
Thorn: There were conversations [within the league] from time to time, talking about, you know, “Maybe we could do it a little differently,” and, “Now we’ve got some pretty good dunkers out there who might be willing to do it,” and, “Maybe we ought to bring it back.”
Granik: As soon as we finished the All-Star [Weekend] without it, we began talking about, “What should we do next year? Should we bring it back or not?”
Despite the underwhelming response to 2-ball and pleas from a large sect of NBA officials and followers to restore the dunk contest, there would be no dunk contest again in 1999. That year, a lockout caused a shortened season and wiped out the entire All-Star Weekend.
“I suspect it would have been brought back during the lockout year if we hadn’t had the lockout,” Granik says. “But I don’t recall if we ever made that decision finally or not.”
After a two-year hiatus, the NBA announced it would hold the slam dunk contest during All-Star Weekend in 2000. The league knew its resurrection had to be done right, so its first order of business was to establish a field of marquee stars NBA fans could get excited for.
Part I: ‘They don’t understand how great this dunk contest is gonna be.’
In terms of star power, no modern NBA Slam Dunk Contest lineup will match those of the 1980s, a period when eight of the league’s best players routinely competed in the event. But the NBA accomplished a coup in setting its field for the 2000 contest. It selected six of the game’s brightest young players, big names who would go on to 22 career All-Star appearances among them. They were Toronto’s Vince Carter, Toronto’s Tracy McGrady, Houston’s Steve Francis, Detroit’s Jerry Stackhouse, Philadelphia’s Larry Hughes and Golden State’s Antawn Jamison. (Jamison suffered a knee injury prior to the contest and was replaced by Charlotte’s Ricky Davis.)
Steve Francis (guard, Houston Rockets): Our trainer, Keith Jones, who’s been the USA national basketball trainer for years, pulled me into his office and said, “Hey, they want you to be in this dunk contest.” And for me, I didn’t think anything of it at first, but he had to explain to me the significance of just being selected into the dunk contest. Once he told me that, all I did was just think about when the dunk contest is. It’s in Oakland, I knew I had to play in the rookies versus sophomores game, so I was like, “It’s a great idea.”
Butch Carter (coach, Toronto Raptors): We always thought that Vince was gonna be in it. The issue was if Tracy was gonna be in it.
“Every now and then after practice I’d do a few just to fool around when everybody’s leaving and then leave it alone. It wasn’t, ‘I spent 30 minutes a day trying.’ You just didn’t have that time.”
Vince Carter (forward, Toronto Raptors): He wanted no part of it. He was like, “No, man. Nah. What’s the sense in me going against you?” I’m like, “It could be fun.” It took a lot of convincing. It was just every day, ’cause we lived in the same building. I’d go up there, “What about today? No? A’ight, I’ll ask you tomorrow.” So it was just like all day, every day, I’m asking him. We played video games. It was like, “Yeah, yeah — oh by the way, you gonna be in the contest? No? Oh, OK. I’m just gonna ask you again and again.” It was kinda like back and forth, back and forth. I mean, he just did not wanna do it.
Tracy McGrady (guard/forward, Toronto Raptors): I just felt like I wasn’t a creative dunker like that. I was like, “Why would I want to get into it knowing that [Vince is] gonna win?” I see his dunks every day and how creative he is. 
Vince Carter: Until the last minute, I think after [practice one day] we were fooling around — he was doing some stuff, throwing the ball off the wall, just all kinds of stuff — and he finally was like, “All right, I’m gonna do it.” It was tough. Even prior to [All-Star Saturday], maybe Thursday, he was like, “Man, I don’t think I wanna do it.” He was gonna back out!
McGrady stayed in the field, though like his cousin Carter, he did little preparation for the dunk contest. It was a common theme for the participants.
Francis: That was my first dunk contest. [I’d been in ones] in the ‘hoods and in the streets, yeah, but nothing professional. Every dunk that I did in the dunk contest in Oakland — I practiced zero dunks. Zero. You can ask the coach, the GM, anybody. I didn’t even practice any of them.
Dave Haggith (manager of media relations, Toronto Raptors): That was the thing that amazed me the most. On the night of the dunk contest, I hadn’t seen any of those dunks from either [Vince or Tracy] before.
Butch Carter: There was a $500 fine if my young guys dunked in a practice. There was no dunking allowed. I told them, “They’re my rims. Stay off my rims.”
Dee Brown (guard, Toronto Raptors): That was just going to embarrass the older guys. If it wasn’t a $500 fine, it was, “You had to deal with Oak [Charles Oakley].” You pick or choose which one you want. You’d probably be better off to get the $500 fine than deal with Oak, Kevin Willis or Antonio Davis.
Paul Jones (analyst, TSN): Because the older guys had pride. And a guy like Oakley — when it came down to it, he might hurt one of his own teammates for trying to dunk on him in practice, right?
Vince Carter: The only time I remember practicing was in San Antonio. We were on the road in San Antonio at their facility. We were fooling around, just whatever. It was probably a week or two [before the dunk contest]. I mean, it was close, for sure. So I was just toying around with some stuff and just seeing if I could do it, how I felt about it and how they reacted to it. That was kind of my practice time. Every now and then after practice I’d do a few just to fool around when everybody’s leaving and then leave it alone. It wasn’t, “I spent 30 minutes a day trying.” You just didn’t have that time.
Though there was a field of six participants set to dunk in Oakland, three especially caught the eye of those around the NBA. Their reputations seemed to precede them.
Jerome Williams (forward, Detroit Pistons): I grew up in the same area as Steve Francis, so I knew him very well and I had played with him for summers leading up to him being drafted. I knew that he had a very good chance of winning just because I had seen all his dunks. He was very creative and very talented. Tracy, we had seen him do some spectacular things, but I had actually voted a dunk contest in Detroit when he was in high school a year before he came to the league. I saw a lot of his creativity from a dunk contest standpoint. So I was like, “They don’t understand how great this dunk contest is gonna be.”
Grant Hill (forward, Detroit Pistons): I played in Detroit, and in ’95 they had a Magic Johnson All-Star Game at the Palace [of Auburn Hills]. I was a judge, and [Kevin] Garnett and Stephon Marbury and Vince Carter and all those guys were there — it was their class. And Vince Carter went out and did one dunk and then everybody quit. So he won the slam dunk contest in ’95 just off of default.
Vince Carter: KG and those guys were like, “All right, that’s enough.”‘
“If you watch it on the second dribble I smacked the ball real hard and that’s when I felt like I powered up, you know, like Mario Bros.”
Hill: I think he just did a windmill, but it was how high he was and how powerful it was. I was sort of in my prime and jumping and dunking and considered a good athlete, and it was like I couldn’t have gone out there and competed with that. And he was in high school.
Francis: Even coming into the  dunk contest they said [Vince] was going to win. So everybody was up against him.
Cynthia Cooper (judge, 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest): We knew he could dunk. We knew he was athletic. We just didn’t know what to expect from him in the dunk contest.
Wise: Just based on the top three guys, T-Mac, Steve Francis and Vince, all of a sudden you had some legitimate guys levitating above the rim. It was a sense that the slam dunk winner that year wasn’t going to be a novelty player or a cult hero. He was a bona fide NBA All-Star.
Steele: A lot was riding on this for not only the league but the people who love the league and really care about it. So they wanted to see these youngsters really go out and prove that the NBA had not just completely died because Michael Jordan was gone.
For Carter and McGrady, before the dunk contest, there was the small matter of arriving in Oakland for All-Star Weekend. They were VIPs in northern California, but their schedules were packed tight. Few moments from that weekend could match the luxury in which they reached the Bay Area.
Haggith: Vince and Tracy were both very young, and this was one of their first real experiences like that, being flown out to All-Star on their owner’s private jet.
Glen Grunwald (general manager, Toronto Raptors): We were sitting on the plane, and Vince and Tracy showed up. And [Raptors owner] Larry Tanenbaum had — I think it was a G5 — one of those ultraluxurious corporate jets. And Judy, his wife, had catered a beautiful flight. She had shrimp and filet mignon and you name it. I was looking to gain about 10 pounds on the trip.
Haggith: It was shrimp cocktail, hors d’oeuvres — you know, fancy food befitting a private jet flight.
Grunwald: And Vince and Tracy get on the plane, and they were hungry already and they sort of saw what was there and they said, “Oh, man. We gotta get some real food.” So they sent their driver back to McDonald’s to bring a boatload of McDonald’s to the plane.
Haggith, the Raptors’ top PR man, was assigned to stay on his players’ hips the entire All-Star Weekend. While the official basketball festivities were held at Oakland Arena (now Oracle Arena), most other NBA events happened across the Bay Bridge where the players’ hotels were, in San Francisco.
Haggith: For both Vince and Tracy, but Vince especially, it was like traveling with the Beatles. We would literally be in a car in the parking lot after an appearance and fans would be rocking the car. His schedule for that weekend was jam-packed. We were back and forth over the bridge between Oakland and San Francisco between NBA appearances and events and his practice, and by the time we got to Saturday night, he was already pretty exhausted. And he just needed an hour of time to himself to grab a quick nap or get freshened up. So he just asked to be able to come out to the arena for All-Star Saturday night a little bit later because he wasn’t on ’til later. The NBA was very accommodating. They arranged a car for us.
Vince Carter: The traffic was so bad our car didn’t show. It was nowhere to be found. Nobody could find our driver, so we had to fit five of us in one car.
Haggith: Vince and Tracy, you know, their knees were up by their ears squeezed into this car. We were stuck on this bridge, and I was worried we weren’t going to get there in time.
Vince Carter: That long drive sitting in between these guys … it was brutal. And I was like, “I’m gonna cramp up and I’m not gonna make it. It’s gonna be the worst contest.”
Haggith: We pulled up to the arena about a half hour before they were supposed to be on.
Part II: ‘I’m going to have people shaking their heads’
Inside the Oakland Arena, a frenzy unlike many others was building for the first NBA Slam Dunk Contest in nearly 36 months. The stars had been aligned. Now it was time for the show.
Cheryl Miller (sideline reporter, TNT): Everybody was a little bit nervous but optimistic that this would be the slam dunk [contest] that would bring back the prestige.
Steele: It rained cats and dogs the whole weekend, and there was unbelievable traffic getting in there. But it was jam-packed. All the stars were there. All the celebrities were there. All the players were lined up around the court. They were so glad to see this back and to see the electricity that they really could not wait.
Francis: I was just looking at all the celebrities there. Denzel. Spike Lee. I think Halle Berry was there. There was a lot of Hollywood people.
In the tunnel before the event, Paul Jones interviewed Vince Carter for Canadian television as he was about to take the court. His tenor did not suggest a man about to put on the show of a lifetime.
Jones: The camera went off, and I said, “Good luck, man. This is you. Get out there and do it.” And he shook his head and said, “Aw, thanks. Thanks. I don’t know, man.” And he walked away. And I thought, “Oh, OK.” I’ve got a master’s degree in sports psychology; it just goes to show what confidence does. And a guy like Vince — he may have appeared to be not very confident, but at the same time, he got out there and when the lights went on he rose to the occasion.
The contest began with Hughes missing his first dunk. Then McGrady, tossing the ball up to himself, flushed home a killer reverse leapfrog slam that got the crowd to its feet. Next was Francis’ turn. With no real dunk planned, he scanned the court, drew inspiration and improvised. He lobbed the ball to himself but could not catch it cleanly. Instead, soaring to the hoop as the ball rolled off his right hand, he threw it in off the bounce almost with his wrist. The arena roared.
Francis: When I walked out the locker room — they have footage of it — I said something slightly to my brother. I said, “I’m about to throw it up from half court.” And that was it. I see Shaquille O’Neal, I see Tim Duncan, I see Isiah Thomas, I see Cynthia Cooper — a lot of people I idolized growing up. And I see them right there, and that alone gave me enough adrenaline to do what I did.
Next up was Vince Carter.
James Posey (forward, Denver Nuggets): Going in, you hear so much about Vince Carter, and you see so many of his highlights on ESPN it was like, now that he’s in the slam dunk competition, what could he come up with that we hadn’t seen? I just remember sitting courtside there with Shaq, KG. Everybody had their camcorders out ready just to take in everything.
Miller: I asked [Stackhouse] who he’s got in this, and he said, “I’m going with Vince. He’s got the liveliest legs out here, and I’ve seen him and T-Mac huddled up so they’re planning something.” Everyone that was involved kind of knew that something spectacular was going to happen with Vince.
Dirk Nowitzki (forward, Dallas Mavericks): It was my first dunk contest, so I wanted to soak up as much as I could. I was fired up to be there.
“So I said to Tracy: ‘Just stand here and bounce it and get the hell out the way.'”
Marv Albert (broadcaster, TNT): I normally didn’t do [the dunk contest] then ’cause I found afterward that, because I always do the All-Star Game, it kills your voice for the next day. You feel it because it’s all about the excitement of the call; it’s a little tough on the throat. But that one was worth it.
Brand: I’m kind of in a race [for rookie of the year] with Steve Francis, but we worked out together at Maryland, so that’s who I’m rooting for to win the slam dunk contest. [After] his first dunk, I’m thinking, “OK, we have a chance.” But then Vince Carter comes out with the most amazing dunks I’ve ever seen.
Miller: Vince and I, before we even [went on] air, I was giving him a hard time. Like, “Come on, Vince. How serious are ya?” He was like, “Cheryl, trust me. I’m going to have people shaking their heads.” I was like, “Really? So I’m thinking, ‘shaking their heads’? So what type of …” And he says, “Cheryl, I kind of have an idea what I wanna do, but that can change.”
Vince Carter: I changed my routine in the layup line of the dunk contest.
Carter took to the court for his first dunk that night with no true plan. The slam he had prepared to open with he instead decided to use second in his routine. For his debut, he thought back to a dunk he had done only two or three times before in his life. It was a risk. He had barely completed the slam when he practiced it.
Vince Carter: I just remember they called my name. I was a little nervous, and as I got the ball, I’m thinking, “Final decision: yea or nay?” And I look around, and I could just feel the energy in the building off of just the anticipation, and I was just like, “Yeah, let’s go for it.”
As his NBA peers ringed the court, Carter approached the hoop from the left, took a few power dribbles and rose from the floor. He launched into a 360-degree turn, only he was spinning the wrong way, rotating the unnatural direction for a right-handed dunker. No matter, for he completed his revolution while simultaneously windmilling the ball before stuffing it through the hoop with a ferocity nearly unseen before. It was the first perfect score — a 50 — of the night.
Miller: It was like a huge tsunami in the arena. All the big wigs, from Shaq, from KG, you had Jason Kidd — everybody was like, “Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh!”
Steele: It was just this huge explosion of noise when he did that.
Williams: To come out of the gate with that — everybody was like, “Whoa, wait a minute! Wait a minute!” Something we’d never seen before, never been done before, as your first one?
Haggith: Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett, their eyes were just miles wide. Their jaws were on the floor. They just couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
Allen Iverson (guard, Philadelphia 76ers): There weren’t any words that you could really control that came out of your mouth once you saw it, you know what I mean? It was basically, “Oh, my god,” or, “Wow, did you see that?”
Nowitzki: The crowd was just going nuts. I think I punched somebody in the ribs.
After the dunk, Carter let out a primal scream, the reaction to his doing the best execution of a dunk he had scarcely completed before the contest.
Vince Carter: I didn’t hear anything. The yell — it was so loud, it was like I was in a box screaming with nobody else there. I just went numb for a second. … That dunk I did in San Antonio. Barely made it. So that’s why I scratched [it]. That dunk was a scratch. But then all of a sudden, I was like, “The hell with it. Let’s go.” As I took that first dribble, and if you watch it on the second dribble I smacked the ball real hard and that’s when I felt like I powered up, you know, like Mario Bros. And I just felt like I gained two, three inches [when I jumped]. When I took off and turned around, the rim was right here [at eye level].
It took minutes for the crowd to calm down, long enough for Stackhouse and Davis to complete their first-round dunks in relative anonymity. “[Stackhouse] was just shaking his shoulders, like, ‘Really?'” Miller says.
All anyone cared about was Carter and what he would do next, but two competitors, McGrady and Francis, did not wilt away. For their second-round dunks, McGrady uncorked a two-handed windmill alley-oop while Francis showed off perhaps his best dunk of the night — an alley-oop where he leaned in toward the basket, cocked the ball back toward his ankles and threw it in. McGrady received a 49, Francis a 50.
Carter’s second dunk was the slam he originally planned for the first round. Starting from behind the basket, he ran straight toward half-court and then, stopping abruptly a step inside the baseline, he rose, spun to face the basket and windmilled the ball through again. Four of the judges raised a 10. One, Kenny Smith, did not.
Vince Carter: Once I did it, when I looked over — 10, 10, 10, 10, 9 — I was, like, “And he’s a Carolina guy!” Like, “Come on, bro.” [Laughs.]
Miller: We’re like, “Are you kidding me?” [Smith] almost got banned from future judging on the slam dunk [contest] for that. We were killing him. Danny [Ainge, broadcasting the event for TNT] was killing him. I’m in my producer’s ear during the commercial break. I’m like, “Kenny, are you crazy? Just put down the pipe and back away from it.” He’s like, “Cheryl, I could’ve given him a 50.” But he was right. The one thing Kenny did say was that first dunk Vince did set the bar so high that it’s like he did it to himself.
Vince Carter: I was definitely going for a perfect night. That was my goal, and he spoiled it for me.
Entering the third round, McGrady, Francis and Carter had already clinched a spot in the finals, and so there was a general sense they should perform an easy slam and save their best dunks. Francis missed his third-round dunk, but McGrady let loose his best jam of the night. From straight on, he tossed the ball in the air and caught it in a 360-degree turn, pumping the ball between his legs for good measure. It was an emphatic 50 and would have been a much bigger deal were it not for what happened next.
Part of the dunk contest’s rules in 2000 stated that at least one of each participant’s first-round slams had to come with the aid of a teammate. Going in, Carter wasn’t fully aware of the stipulation.
Vince Carter: They didn’t quite tell us about the partner thing, so we didn’t practice that at all. I didn’t know. So I was like, “What the heck could I do?” I had saw in a magazine — this is about the time the Strength Shoe was out — and there was a picture of this guy in the air and he had his hands between his legs, jumping up in the air. So I said, “OK, I’m gonna try it.” So I said to Tracy: “Just stand here and bounce it and get the hell out the way.” He said, “What are you gonna do?” I said, “Just bounce it and back up. About this high.”
On Carter’s middle finger that night were stitches from an injury earlier in the regular season, so he had concern whether he could complete his dunk. His vision was to catch McGrady’s bounce pass in midair, pass the ball from his left hand to his right hand through his legs and slam it through. As he rose off the floor to try the dunk, a funny thing happened: The NBA players courtside began to recognize what he was trying. The roar started before he could finish the slam.
Reggie Theus (sideline reporter, TNT): When he got up, he was already way in the air, but as he threw the ball between his legs, it was almost like doing the wave. You could see the guys. All of a sudden they were starting to build. They were standing and grabbing, and all of a sudden [Vince] came back around and flushed it on the other side. And everybody just erupted. There was just a frenzy when that happened.
Miller: In my ear, I could just hear Kenny. Kenny Smith was going crazy, like, “That’s a wrap! That’s it! That’s it!”
Albert: It went crazy. They went nuts. We’re so accustomed at those events to see the players — it’s kind of a jocular-type atmosphere at those Saturday night festivities. So the players are loose and they all react and overreact to it, but that was genuine reaction. They could not believe what he did.
James Duthie (broadcaster, TSN): As soon as the ball went through the mesh, it was as loud as anything I’d ever been a part of. Everyone was kind of doing what Shaq and Garnett and [Chris] Webber were doing, where they put their arms out like the old Fred Sanford “I’m coming to join ya, Elizabeth” thing, where they had their hands on their heart. People were falling over chairs and jumping over chairs.
Cooper: We [became] part of the fans. We don’t want to judge this. We wanted to share in the excitement. And that’s when Isiah — Isiah’s crazy — he jumped right over the [judge’s] table. We’re like, “Maybe you need to be in the dunk contest.”
Isiah Thomas (judge, 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest): I don’t know what made me jump up like that. It’s like — I’m a fan. There’s an old saying in my neighborhood where I grew up. They used to say when you get shot, it was like, “It shot bolts through my heart, baby.” And that dunk shot bolts through my heart.
Brand: I was just trying to hype [Steve] up, like, “Let’s go.” Then after Vince started getting hot, it was like, “All right, it’s pretty much over, bro. But ya did good, man.”
Rick Barry (judge, 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest): Thank god for slow motion, because it happened so fast I don’t think you really, truly appreciate how incredible the dunk was until you watch it in slow motion.
Jed Jacobsohn (photographer, Getty Images): It was a pretty dynamic moment photographically. I had one frame that pretty much sums it up. [The ball] was perfectly between his legs, he’s got his eyes up at the hoop.
Wise: David Steele, who at the time was with the San Francisco Chronicle, has this baritone laugh. And there was this, “Oh, my god! Oh, my god!” And it was so loud it kind of reverberated on press row.
Steele: [Laughs.] I don’t think I was conscious of actually what I said at the time. I just remember being in shock. I just remember yelling a lot, a sort of a combination of yell and laugh. My laugh tends to carry.
Wise: When you’ve got reporters falling over themselves, which in some cases we were, you know you’ve upped the ante for the event. Some of the most cynical, jaded sports writers who had covered 10 of these are sitting there looking at each other and falling over each other. There was a part of us that it was all sort of like we were in front of televisions as kids watching Julius Erving take off from the free throw line again. It was one of those moments where it almost transported you back to when you started following the game.
Cooper: There was a sense that we needed to have a new scoring scale for Vince Carter. Once you gave him a 10, you’re like, “OK, what next?” We needed something where we could go, “OK, all right, that first dunk was a 10. Now we’re going to the 13s and the 15s.”
The dunk was a perfect 50. Once he landed, Carter extended both arms upward, one cocked at the elbow, the other straight, and pointed to the sky — a kind of Usain Bolt salute eight years before the Jamaican sprinter would win gold in Beijing. As he walked back toward center court, Carter waved his arms and, to the camera, mouthed his most famous words of the night: “It’s over.”
Vince Carter: Never practiced it. Never tried it in my life. Once it went through it was like, “Thank you, God.”
Nowitzki: I remember [his] pose. I still make fun of his pose once in a while. In warm-ups [with Dallas, where Carter now plays], sometimes I squeak [a dunk] in over my fingernails and I point up to the Jumbotron and say, “It’s over.” And everybody’s laughing. But, yeah, it was over at that point.
Part III: ‘And then I rubbed my arm ’cause I’m like, “This is gonna hurt.”‘
To many, it was over. Though not to McGrady and Francis. Despite Carter’s outsized performance in the first round, the pair trailed by only a few points. In the first round of the finals, Francis earned a 43 for a leaning windmill jam while McGrady was given a 45 for a two-hand alley-oop windmill of his own. With all his prepared dunks scrapped, the pressure was on Carter yet again to think up something spectacular.
Williams: Sitting there and seeing it live was like, “OK, this is what the fans paid to see.” [It was] just, “You come up with one, I’ll come up with one.” Back and forth. Back and forth. Everybody could not wait for the next dunk. It was that kind of buildup because you knew any of those three guys could win and come up with something crazy.
Posey: We were talking about, “What is [Vince] gonna do next?” We were sitting on the edge of our seats trying to see.
Antawn Jamison (forward, Golden State Warriors): Me and Vince was best buds, so I was definitely pulling for him. He’d come over and be like, “I got something they ain’t seen before.” And I said, “Well, I’ve seen everything.” But he definitely had some stuff we had never seen before.
“On a good day I could have probably put my wrist in. On a good day.”
Vince Carter: Right before it was my turn, I remember sitting and thinking, “What am I gonna do?” I was thinking and thinking. So I’m thinking I played in Gary Payton’s basketball game the summer before leading up to that year. I was in the layup line fooling around, jumping over the rim, dropping [the ball] in and whatever. And Cuttino Mobley was there at that game with me. So we were talking [on the court in Oakland], and I said, “Yo, you remember in that layup line, the whole thing?” I said, “I’ma try that, but I’ma put a twist to it.” He was like, “All right, what are you gonna do?” I said, “Just hear me out.”
What he ginned up was his most radical dunk of the night — something new, even dangerous, an attempt he might well hurt himself trying. To visualize the dunk, he first paced it out on the court.
Vince Carter: So I walk it off, and if you notice right before I get to the rim, I say, “Dear God, please don’t let me fall off this rim.” And then I rubbed my arm ’cause I’m like, “OK, this is gonna hurt.”
Approaching the basket from the right wing, Carter swooped in, bent low to gather himself and then sprang in the air. He cocked the ball high with his right hand — high, high above the rim — and stuffed it through. Only in the process he continued his arm through the hoop and grabbed on to the rim with the inside of his elbow. He hung there, balletic, for a moment so upon replay there could be no mistake what he had just done. When he landed on the floor, he held his head down to listen. The cameras panned the crowd, the judges, the players. No one knew quite what to do.
Posey: Everybody was like, “All right, that’s just a basic dunk.” But they didn’t know he just put his whole elbow in the rim and was hanging there by his elbow. It took a while to register.
Brand: It was just like a pause, like, “OK, is that good?” And then, “Whoa, wait! His whole arm is in the rim? Woooooaaaahhhhhhhhh!”
Francis: I was quiet. I couldn’t believe I just saw that. I don’t think anybody in the arena knew what to think when that happened.
Darrell Armstrong (guard, Orlando Magic): [The crowd] was like, “What the hell?”
Steele: It was only a few people who got it, and some of us on press row jumped up and went, “Whoa!” And everybody was just like, “What? It’s just a good dunk.” And I was like, “Do you see what he’s doing?” And they sort of did a double take, and they all sort of ran for the monitors to see again. And then they showed the replay up on the scoreboard, and that’s when everybody sort of went crazy.
Butch Carter: I don’t think you’ve ever seen a dunk contest where a guy did a dunk and it stunned everybody to figure out mentally what he had just done.
Mike Fratello (broadcaster, TNT): I just remember kind of saying, like, “Forget it. This is over now.”
Jason Kidd (guard, Phoenix Suns): It’s something you dream about when you’re a little kid, but then to see someone actually do it was amazing.
Albert: You look around and see mouths open in astonishment of what they saw. It’s one of those — almost like the Jack Buck call: “I don’t believe what I just saw.”
Thomas: It’s that moment of silence when everyone is in awe that takes your breath away.
Vince Carter: I wanted there to be a delayed reaction, basically. I remember for me I felt like I was up there for, like, two minutes holding on. I was like, “OK, Butch is gonna see this somewhere and he’s gonna go crazy if I fall off this rim.”
Grunwald: I thought, “Oh, no. He’s gonna hurt himself now.”
Iverson: First of all, you’re saying, like, “OK, this guy can jump like he [can] jump,” but you couldn’t believe his imagination was running so wild to where he could create something like that.
Brand: The creativity — like, who would even think to do that? I was young then; I could dunk. But I’m thinking, like, “Man, there’s no way I could do any of that stuff.”
Nowitzki: On a good day I could have probably put my wrist in. On a good day.
Vince Carter: When I woke up that next morning, my whole right arm was black and blue.
Butch Carter: Tracy will tell you: When [Vince] stuck his armpit in the rim, he knew it was over.
Vince Carter: Probably a lot of guys [did].
Francis: I didn’t think that. I didn’t think I was going to lose at all. I was thinking the whole time that I was going to win.
Butch Carter: If you say, “What are the top three dunks ever in a dunk contest?” You’re always going to have Dr. J in Denver jumping from the free throw line. You’re going to have Michael doing the same thing in Chicago. And you’re definitely going to have Vince’s arm in the rim.
Even for all that, there was still a competition at hand. While McGrady missed his final dunk, in essence eliminating him from the contest, Francis earned a 48 for his favorite dunk of the night: an alley-oop reverse leapfrog where he coiled his body high in the air and seemed to bring his knees to the bottom of the net for the stuff.
There was buzz in the arena that, for his final act, Carter might perform a 720-degree dunk — a slam in which he would spin two full revolutions like an acrobat, an incomprehensible dunk he had actually completed before. “If anything I would have tried it the last dunk,” Carter says. “If I know I would have won the dunk contest [with it], that would have been the time to try it.” Instead, to cap off the contest, Carter sprinted the full length of the court and leaped from a step inside the free throw line for a two-handed jam. The night, and the trophy, was his. “I just wanted to do something to get it over, to get my dream,” he says. “My dream was to hold that dunk contest trophy.”
Fratello: It was kind of an easy conclusion in the end. When he got done, you knew emphatically that this was his night.
Vince Carter: Once I got the trophy, I’m walking off to the back. I’m a Dr. J fan. He’s my idol, the guy who I looked up to. That was the first guy that shook my hand and congratulated me once I got off the court. Best thing ever. He came and said, “Young fella, congratulations,” and we took a picture holding the trophy with my friends. And I still have it today.
Duthie: I remember running into the locker rooms after to try to get a one-on-one with Vince, and so we got in there in good position and I ran over and everybody came to scrum him. And it was sort of one of my proud moments as a reporter. I just said, “We’re TSN from Canada. We have an exclusive one-one-one.” Which was total B.S. But they all sat back while we did this three- or four-question one-on-one before they all stuck their mikes in.
Theus: I remember my son wanted so badly to take a picture with [Vince] and ironically he was my son’s favorite player growing up. My son one time said to me, “Dad, do you have any old film of you playing in the NBA?” And I said, “Sure.” So I went and got a game where I scored my career high in Boston Garden. And I came down the first time and shot a nice, little leaner. Next time, made a nice pass and came down another and went to the bucket hard and got a finger roll. And my son looks and says, “So, dad, when are you gonna dunk the ball like Vince Carter?” And I said, “Dude …” I turned the tape off and told him to get out of the room.
The excitement from the evening would not die down. Not that night. Not nearly 15 years later.
Theus: That brought the dunk contest to another level, and it was one of those moments like when Marvin Gaye sang the national anthem [before the 1983 NBA All-Star Game]. It was one of those moments that changed the way people sing the national anthem, and from that point on, no longer was just a plain 360 ever going to be enough.
Iverson: Michael Jackson is my favorite artist of all time, and it was like the closest thing to a Michael Jackson concert to me on a basketball level. I don’t think a dunk contest will ever be duplicated in that fashion ever again.
Brand: It was my first [NBA Slam Dunk Contest]. Maybe that’s why I’m kind of nostalgic, but there was like a true buzz on that court like I could imagine when Dominique and Jordan went at it, you know what I mean?
Williams: The only other dunk contest that can really compare with that one is Dominique versus Jordan.
Albert: To me, it was the most memorable since Julius when the ABA first introduced the dunk contest in 1976 and he took off from the foul line. It’s hard to compare doing a slam dunk contest with doing some of the classic games — the playoff games and the championship games. But that’s one you remember. That’s one I’ll never forget.
Granik: I admit to a personal view here that [Vince] might have been the best ever. And I saw Dr. J and Michael and Dominique.
Jamison: The one good thing about me not participating is I had a front row seat to all of the spectacular dunks. Definitely looking back into it, I would never have had a chance to even compete with those guys and the stuff they were throwing up. People tend to forget — I mean, Vince was unbelievable — but Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady did incredible dunks.
“Everybody was thinking it: ‘God bless Vince Carter. The slam dunk competition is back.'”
Iverson: That’s what takes it even more overboard. Any other dunk contest Steve Francis or Tracy McGrady could have won by a landslide.
Feigen: McGrady was pretty great in it, and I thought Steve Francis had one of the best performances ever. It’s just he had the second-best performance that day.
Francis: [Vince] beat the best. He beat the best that was out there to challenge him.
Iverson: Vince was just — it was just his night. Nobody could have beat him that night. Nobody.
Vince Carter: After that first dunk that I made and I had accomplished it better than I had ever practiced it, I was like, “I feel bad for everybody. Even my cousin.” ‘Cause I was in a zone then that I couldn’t even explain to anybody.
Miller: Everybody was thinking it: “God bless Vince Carter. The slam dunk competition is back.”
Thomas: It was great for all the fans that weathered the storm. Trying to get [to the arena] and everything else — it was damp and wet and muddy, and traffic was crazy coming from San Francisco. For the people who weathered that — they and I, we felt very rewarded.
Iverson: I was a part of it, and that’s the greatest part of it. I can tell my kids, my son, that I was a part of that night.
Grunwald: You know how you go to a movie and someone says, “This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,” and then you go see the movie and it was funny but not the funniest movie you’ve ever seen? You can overhype things sometimes. And Vince exceeded the hype in that dunk contest.
Granik: We left the arena [saying] to ourselves, “Maybe there’s still something left in the slam dunk contest after all.”
More Vinsanity: The hoops legacy Carter left in Canada »
Jason Buckland is a writer based in Toronto. He has also written for the Toronto Sun, MSN and the New York Times.