Spud Webb, Dominique Wilkins reflect on dunk contest 35 years later

Spud Webb of the Hawks leaps to victory during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Stephen Dunn  /Allsport

Combined ShapeCaption
Spud Webb of the Hawks leaps to victory during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Stephen Dunn /Allsport

Hawks star Dominique Wilkins didn’t expect the 1986 NBA slam-dunk contest to be much of a competition. His usual nemesis, Michael Jordan, was out with an injury. The other participants combined for one previous appearance.

One player, a 5-foot-7 rookie named Spud Webb, was a teammate of Wilkins, who had never seen Webb even attempt a dunk.

“That little son of gun was secretly in the gym working on some dunks,” Wilkins said. “I said to him, ‘You’ve been in the gym with somebody working on them dunks. I should knock the hell out of you right now.’ We kinda laugh about it.”

Thirty-five years after Webb beat Wilkins, the two will serve as judges in the dunk contest at halftime of Sunday’s NBA All-Star game at State Farm Arena. As he prepares for his second time as judge, Webb would like to clear up something: There were no secret practices. The dunks he used that February night in Dallas were the same ones he used in high school and college. There wasn’t time for anything else.

Hawks general manager Stan Kasten told Webb about the opportunity only a few days before the event. On Friday, Webb flew to Los Angeles and appeared on the Johnny Carson show. (“You don’t turn Johnny Carson down,” Webb said). On Saturday, the day of the contest, he arrived in his hometown of Dallas.

Over 16,000 fans packed Reunion Arena that night. Almost every one of them rooted for Webb. At the time, the 22-year-old rookie was the shortest player in NBA history. He traveled an unusual path to get there.

In high school, Webb received zero offers from four-year colleges. Then he transferred to N.C. State and was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the fourth round. The Pistons waived him, and the Hawks picked him up for the league minimum. If he were to win the contest, Webb would receive $12,500, almost one-fifth of his yearly salary.

His first dunk went through the basket, hit him in the head and bounced out. He earned an early lead as Wilkins — the 27-year-old defending champion — waited on the sidelines with a first-round bye.

The Knicks’ Gerald Wilkins, Dominique’s brother, began the contest in second place. He finished last in the second round after failing to score in a jump from the free-throw line, a dunk that Jordan would perfect two years later to beat Dominique Wilkins. Gerald Wilkins and the Pacers’ Terence Stansbury were eliminated, setting the stage for an all-Hawks final.

Webb and Dominique Wilkins had scored 138 points each on three second-round dunks. The totals started fresh after each round.

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He wasn't known as the Human Highlight Reel for nothing. Dominique Wilkins has to be considered the greatest dunker off two feet of all time.

Credit: Photo: AP

He wasn't known as the Human Highlight Reel for nothing. Dominique Wilkins has to be considered the greatest dunker off two feet of all time.

Credit: Photo: AP

Combined ShapeCaption
He wasn't known as the Human Highlight Reel for nothing. Dominique Wilkins has to be considered the greatest dunker off two feet of all time.

Credit: Photo: AP

Credit: Photo: AP

After a break of a few minutes, Webb and Wilkins were ready. At this point, Wilkins no longer considered the outcome preordained. The two friends started the final round by both scoring a perfect 50 on one-handed spin dunks.

Webb’s final dunk might have been his best: He bounced the ball off the court, onto the backboard and into his right hand before slamming it in. The judges gave him a 50. A smile seeped from his usually steely lips. Webb didn’t act like a rookie.

“Once the game starts, you just play. Once a dunk contest starts, you just go,” Webb said. “I knew the repertoire of the dunks I could do. ... So it wasn’t like I was nervous. I guess you’re so young you just don’t know.”

The judges took a few moments to deliberate after Wilkins’ last dunk. The crowd chanted “Spud, Spud, Spud.” At that point, did Wilkins even want to win?

“I don’t care how big a friend (you are) or even my brother,” Wilkins said. “I want to beat you. I want to win. That’s just the way I am. It can be my mom out there on the court. If you can be there, I’m trying to beat you.”

Wilkins earned a 48, two short of what he needed. The crowd erupted, and Webb hugged his teammate. In the ensuing years, the two sometimes joked about that night in Dallas but more often kept it to themselves.

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Five-foot-seven Hawks' Spud Webb won the 1986 NBA Dunk Contest. He remains the only player under 6-foot to have won the All-Star weekend contest.

Five-foot-seven Hawks' Spud Webb won the 1986 NBA Dunk Contest. He remains the only player under 6-foot to have won the All-Star weekend contest.

Combined ShapeCaption
Five-foot-seven Hawks' Spud Webb won the 1986 NBA Dunk Contest. He remains the only player under 6-foot to have won the All-Star weekend contest.

That’s how the NBA stars of the 1980s operated. It wasn’t until the 2020 All-Star game that Jordan told Wilkins he should have won the ’88 contest.

Webb remains the dunk contest’s shortest winner. Only one other player under 6-foot has won. The 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson triumphed in 2006, thanks in part to Webb, who trained him and stood as a prop on Robinson’s best dunk.

Webb is now the president of basketball operations for the Texas Legends of the G League. He played 814 games in 12 seasons for four NBA teams, averaging almost 10 points per game. Still, it’s his unlikely win over “The Human Highlight Film” that sticks with him.

“One hundred thousand people have told me they were there,” Webb said. “The place only holds 20 (thousand). It’s just something that grows on you. And you just get used to it and understand that you’re going to have to talk about it everywhere you go.”