DALLAS — The National Basketball Assn. slam-dunk competition, a celebration of an art form that only a few tall and extraordinary athletes have mastered, had become somewhat routine after two seasons as the main sideshow of the league's All-Star weekend.
Then, along came 5-foot 7-inch Anthony (Spud) Webb of the Atlanta Hawks, who showed a sellout crowd of 16,573 at Dallas' Reunion Arena Saturday that you don't necessarily need to be tall and able to contort your body into a pretzel to dunk a basketball with style and precision.
What Webb did need to win the NBA's third slam-dunk title and renew interest in the event was a remarkable 42-inch vertical jump, a little imagination and a vocal following from fans in his hometown of Dallas.
Simply having Webb competing added some much-needed excitement and interest to an event that had grown rather stale. In fact, there was almost a circus atmosphere to the competition, and Webb, listed at 5-7 but said to be closer to 5-5, performed like a midget being shot out of a cannon. Clearly, though, Webb belonged in the competition, even if he is the shortest player in the NBA. He easily made it through the early rounds, dazzling the crowd with a repertory of dunks that included a 360-degree spin, a two-hand double-pump effort and a number in which he threw the ball on the floor and caught it on the way up for a two-hand reverse.
But Webb appeared to be in over his head in the finals against teammate Dominique Wilkins--also known as "The Human Highlight Film"--who easily beat Michael Jordan last season to become the reigning slam-dunk king.
In the best-of-two dunk final, Webb received a perfect score of 50 for his first dunk, a 360-degree, one-hand effort. The crowd, many of whom no doubt remembered Webb when he played at Wilmer-Hutchins High School here, gave him a standing ovation.
Wilkins countered with the same dunk, drawing the same perfect score. The crowd booed.
It was as if Wilkins was being penalized for being 6-7 instead of 5-7.
On Webb's second dunk, he threw the ball off the backboard and impressively threw it down with his right hand. Again, a perfect score. Again, an ovation.
Wilkins' second dunk was a spectacular two-hand windmill from the baseline. As the judges' votes were being tabulated, the crowd chanted "Spud . . . Spud . . . Spud" in anticipation of a Webb victory. Wilkins received a 48.
The little man had won.
But did he deserve it?
The five judges--former NBA greats Dave Cowens, Tom Sanders and Cazzie Russell, tennis star Martina Navratilova and former Dallas Cowboy Roger Staubach--obviously thought so.
Wilkins, a close friend of Webb's, said Webb deserved to win. But Wilkins, and other observers, questioned his score on the final dunk. He received three 10s and two 9s from the judges.
"I got a 50 on that same dunk last year," Wilkins said. "I thought (the judges) would take that into consideration."
Boston's Kevin McHale, a courtside observer, thought Wilkins should have won.
"It's just amazing," McHale said. "I don't know how the judges gave Dominique a 9 on that last dunk. . . . Spud did well, but Dominique was amazing."
That's not the view of Navratilova, who said she's an avid NBA fan.
"Every dunk Spud did was different," she said. "He showed real imagination. We judges were indifferent to the crowd's reactions. We were determined to make sure the winner earned it."
Webb, a rookie who makes the NBA minimum of $70,000, earned $12,500 Saturday. Wilkins, who makes $585,000, won $7,500 for second place. Terrence Stansbury of Indiana finished third, and New York's Gerald Wilkins (Dominique's brother) was fourth.
Both Julius Erving and Larry Nance declined invitations to dunk, and Jordan is still recovering from a broken foot. But the way the crowd and the judges got behind Webb on this day, he still would have been tough to beat.
Webb, a little man of little words, was bubbling with excitement during and after the competition. He pumped his arm in the air to excite the crowd and jumped around after being told he won. Afterward, he said he thought he would win all along.
"No, I didn't surprise myself," Webb said. "That is stuff I've been doing for a long time. Now, the people are seeing it. I came in with the objective to win. I didn't plan any of my dunks. I just thought of whatever came into my mind after the referee handed me the ball."
Webb's personal favorite of his eight dunks Saturday?
"The 360," he said, without hesitation. "I love to see it. I love to do it."
Webb's teammates had been kidding him recently, thinking there was no way he could beat Wilkins. Atlanta center Tree Rollins joked that Webb should wear a cape to help him jump higher, and Wilkins suggested he use a step-ladder.
"I have dunks those guys had never seen before," Webb said. "I think they were surprised."
But really, wasn't Webb, a rookie from North Carolina State, even a little surprised that he won?