ORLANDO – When Aaron Gordon is out and about in the community – either in Orlando where he plays for the Magic, back in his native San Jose, Calif., or anywhere in between, really – he usually gets approached by casual and hard-core basketball fans who want to get something off their chests.
“Man, it’s almost every day,’’ Gordon said of the fans who randomly approach him. “(They usually say), `You got robbed! You should have won that dunk contest!’’’
The dunk contest that those fans refer to, of course, is the one in 2016 in Toronto when a wide-eyed and smiling Gordon oozed confidence and power out of his every pore and electrified the basketball world with his jaw-dropping athleticism and creativity. That night, he did things never before seen in the 30-plus-year history of the dunk contest when he jumped over Magic mascot, Stuff, contorted his body in all sorts of ways and sent multiple charges of energy throughout what was then the Air Canada Centre. All of that, and somehow, Gordon still didn’t win that night after being controversially edged out in a “dunk-off’’ against two-time dunk champion Zach Lavine.
That result didn’t sit well with fans worldwide, and truth to be told, the 24-year-old Gordon still feels somewhat empty without a title that he felt should have been his. That 2016 moment – still unforgettable for both positive and negative reasons – is a big reason why Gordon is in Chicago this weekend and back for what he says will be “my final dunk contest ever.’’ On Saturday night (TV: TNT), he will compete against 2008 dunk champion Dwight Howard, Miami Heat high-flyer Derrick Jones Jr. and versatile Milwaukee Bucks’ guard Pat Connaughton in the AT&T Slam Dunk competition from Chicago’s United Center. Howard, a standout with the Magic from 2004-12, is back in the event for the first time in 11 years, Jones Jr. was a dunk contest runner-up in 2017, while Connaughton is the plucky, upstart underdog in his first NBA dunk contest.
As for Gordon, this is more than just a carefree, no-pressure event for him. He is going into Saturday night’s event with the sole purpose of trying to right what he and so many fans felt was a wrong in 2016.
“So, I’m just going to go and make it right now,’’ he said with conviction.
The dunk contest will be held in Chicago for the first time since 1988 when Bulls’ legend Michael Jordan famously and infamously outdueled fellow Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins. Much like with Gordon and LaVine, many felt that the taller and more powerful Wilkins should have that night, but instead Jordan’s high-flying heroics were deemed more impressive while dunking before his home crowd.
Wilkins was one of several dunkers who a young Gordon admired while growing up and dreaming of one day competing in the premier event of NBA All-Star Saturday night. Another was 2000 winner Vince Carter, the 22-year NBA veteran, who squared off against Gordon’s Magic earlier this week at Amway Center.
“Vince Carter, for sure, Dominique Wilkins, Darryl Dawkins, Julius Erving, Spud Webb, Blake Griffin, Jason Richardson,’’ Gordon said when asked about which dunkers he admired. “I mean, each one had his own individual dunk style. Vince Carter, he was the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All-Time) because he had it all – the show dunks, the in-game dunks and the alley-oops. Darryl Dawkins and Dominique Wilkins had power, power, power all over your head. Julius Erving was the one-leg, right-handed, cradle and the elevation. Blake Griffin could get all the way over somebody. And Spud Webb was a little guy dunking so you had to respect that, too.’’
Gordon, who like the Magic has endured his share of erratic ups and downs this season, heads into the dunk contest with loads of confidence over how he’s played of late. In his last seven games, Gordon has averaged 19.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists while shooting 45.4 percent from the floor and 41.2 percent from 3-point range – big improvements over his production in December (14 games, 13.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 40.2 percent from the floor and 30.4 percent from 3-point range) and January (13 games, 13.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor and 27.1 percent from 3-point range).
Two of Gordon’s best all-around performances of the season came this week against Atlanta (26 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two 3-pointers) and Detroit (25 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and three 3-pointers) – both of which were Magic victories. As has been the case for a couple of seasons now, Gordon’s play is very often a barometer for the Magic as he has posted significantly better numbers in the 22 wins that he’s appeared in (16.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 45 percent shooting overall and 34.5 percent from 3-point range) than in the 27 losses he’s been a part of (12.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 40.2 percent shooting overall and 27.8 percent from 3-point range).
“If he plays like he did (on Wednesday in Orlando’s 116-112 overtime defeat of Detroit), then we’ll have a chance to make progress,’’ predicted Magic coach Steve Clifford, whose 24-31 squad will have 27 games remaining after the break for the All-Star Game. “You know, we’re obviously going to have to play better. But if (Gordon) could play like that, it would be a big plus.’’
Before he tackles that task, Gordon turns his focus to this weekend’s Dunk Contest, an event that he takes with the same seriousness as a playoff game.
As someone who first dunked a basketball at the age of 12 and a player who became something of a YouTube sensation when he was 14 when he regularly dunked over high school foes with ferocity, Gordon has always been of the belief that winning an NBA Dunk Contest is part of his destiny as an basketball player.
The “art of the dunk,’’ as Gordon refers to the process of flying through the air and ramming the ball through the rim, is something that he’s given great thought to. He’s been able to get in some dunking practice in recent days, but he has remained tight-lipped about his plans for the event, saying only that Magic mascot, Stuff, isn’t likely to make an appearance in the event this time around.
“Not a lot of people in the world can dunk, so to be creative with it, name the dunks all the way through the NBA Street, the And 1 mixtapes, NBA Live and all the (other) dunk contests, it’s a beautiful thing,’’ he said. “It’s a mixture of creativity, athleticism and grace all at once.’’
As for predictions, Gordon will tell anyone who will listen that he feels that it is his time to win the Dunk Contest. Then, and only then, can basketball fans across the country and worldwide approach him with messages of congratulations instead of reminding him that he got “robbed’’ in 2016.
“It was a ton of fun (in 2016). It was something that I’ve always wanted to do. And it still is – to win an NBA Dunk Contest, so here we go,’’ Gordon said with a wry smile.
“I’ve got some things that the dunk contest has never seen before,’’ he also promised. “Hopefully, you’ll see that trophy coming back to Orlando.’’
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