How Julius Erving inspired the ABA to come up with a Slam Dunk Contest
1976

How Julius Erving inspired the ABA to come up with a Slam Dunk Contest

When the ABA announced its ninth and final All-Star Game in ’76, the league was determined to go out with a bang. The plan was to create a showcase for the ages to accelerate the merger with the NBA. And after a long brainstorming session, they came up with a concept of the Slam Dunk Contest.

We were sitting around the office one day, discussing things that would draw more people, and it just came to us – let’s have a dunk contest. That’s really where it came from. Three guys talking about what we could do to sell a few more tickets.

Jim Bukata, Remember the ABA

Those three guys were Bukata, the league’s director of marketing and public relations, Carl Scheer, general manager of the Nuggets – a team that hosted the All-Star Game – and ABA finance director Jim Keeler. And their main source of inspiration was the ABA’s ultimate high-flyer and the guy who revolutionized the art of throwing it down.

We actually got the idea from Julius Erving in a roundabout way. We had a guy named Jim Keeler, who was African-American, who handled the business affairs for the league. Julius used to kid him all the time, saying, ‘I’ll bet you’re the only black guy involved in the ABA who can’t dunk.’ And it kind of came in some way off that.

Jim Bukata, Remember the ABA

At that point, dunking was more about force, mostly done by big men. Very few added style and finesse to their jams. But Dr. J. did. He would fly through the air like no one else before, and that was exciting for the ABA crowd. The only problem was, the league couldn’t see it — not until Erving pointed it out.

It was Julius really giving us the idea that we’re the league of the dunkers. So we said, ‘Well if that’s the case, let’s have a contest.’ It really was as simple as that.

Jim Bukata, Remember the ABA

The Doctor eventually won the Contest after beating Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, Larry Kenon, and David Thompson. He pulled off the first-ever free-throw line throwdown, sending 17,798 fans at McNichols Arena into a frenzy. “I just wanted to make a nice, soaring play that would get the fans out of their seats,” said Erving after the event. “I really started going at halfcourt and got a good running start and made sure that I made the shot authoritatively.”

Today, almost five decades later, guys still use Erving’s dunk as an inspiration. And they still have the ultimate platform to showcase their gifts. All thanks to Dr. J. . the guy who planted the seed for a Slam Dunk Contest as we know it.