Michael Jordan vs. Dominique Wilkins: An oral history of the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk contest


Just look at the photograph. Start there. What do you see?

There’s a man, physically sculpted and suspended in air, poised to assault the rim with a basketball.

There’s an opponent, a microphone and camera ready to capture his reaction, sitting in uniform, unable to do more than he already has done.

Then there’s the crowd. They stand, in rapt attention. Some hold arms aloft in pre-celebratory anticipation. Others hold placards with '10' on them, ready to thrust them skyward whenever the man descends.

Michael Jordan will descend, won’t he?

From the sideline vantage point of Bulls photographer Bill Smith, it’s unclear. Smith’s iconic photograph, which vividly captures Jordan’s final, foul-line dunk from his epic slam dunk final against Dominique Wilkins at the 1988 All-Star game, makes the imagination wander.

It makes Jordan truly look like he can fly.

The Chicago Stadium digital clock reads 3:51 p.m. Everything else is low-tech, or maybe no-tech. With no smart phones, seemingly everyone’s attention is fixated on Jordan in the moment, in the present. There’s no preservation of the athletic feat beyond memory and photographs and YouTube videos.

And what memories. Thirty-two years have passed since Jordan recorded a perfect 50 on his final dunk, edging out Wilkins in a verdict not free of controversy on Feb. 6, 1988.

With the NBA All-Star game back in Chicago for the first time since then, NBC Sports Chicago interviewed participants and a judge, observers with ties to the event and future dunkers either not yet born or attending elementary school, to further preserve the occasion.

Whether you consider what happened at the raucous old barn on West Madison Street the greatest dunk contest of all-time or not, it featured two Hall of Famers, in their athletic prime, trading dunk for dunk with contrasting styles.

Chicago Stadium is gone. The memories remain. And they’ll endure for all time.


BRIAN McINTYRE (retired NBA senior vice president, basketball communications): [Current Warriors president] Rick Welts, who was in charge of marketing for the NBA at the time, had the idea of coming up with an All-Star Saturday. We were really good at borrowing ideas. Carl Scheer was the general manager of the Nuggets in 1984. He wanted to recreate the American Basketball Association slam dunk championship from 1976 [won by Julius Erving], which he also was involved with in Denver. We weren’t sure how it was going to go. But we did have Dr. J in it. We thought that’s all you need. But he lost to Larry Nance, who dunked two basketballs---boom, boom---at the same time. And it blew the lid off the building. We knew we had a keeper.

DAVID FALK (agent for Jordan and Wilkins): The dunk contest in ’88 was fairly recent. It had just been brought back in ‘84 in Denver. That had been a mainstay in the old ABA. And they had some amazing dunk contests with David Thompson, A Train [Artis Gilmore], Dr. J, [George] Gervin and Darnell Hillman. The old-time players when I was just starting in the business would tell stories: ‘Gervin did it where he put the ball in his elbow and punched it through. Dr. J had a double-double tap backwards on the backboard.’ You’d never seen those things because they weren’t on TV.

McINTYRE: The weekend was a big-time event. The year before we were in Seattle and before that Dallas and Indy. Each year, it grew. Rick Welts deserves a lot of credit for it.

DOMINIQUE WILKINS (Hall of Fame player; current Hawks broadcaster): I’ve been to a lot of dunk contests over the years. I tell people all the time that the granddaddy of us all is Dr. J. That’s who our game kind of flows out of because he was a magician. He was an artist. He was like a ballet dancer in the air. He kind of started it all. So what Michael and I ultimately did kind of flows out of Doc.

FALK: The only time Michael ever asked me a question about the dunk contest was his rookie year in Indianapolis. That was 1985. He asked what he should wear. Back then, unlike today, the NBA was much smaller. It was much looser. It wasn’t as regulated. And there were really no rules for the dunk contest. So I told him he should wear his Nike stuff because it was his stuff. He actually wore his black-and-red warmup suit with his chains. Many people think that rankled some of the established players like Magic [Johnson] and Isiah [Thomas] and that led to the freezeout [in the 1985 All-Star game]. It wasn’t because of the publicity. It was because of what they perceived as Michael’s arrogance in wearing his own stuff at the dunk contest. Of course, if they had their own stuff, they could’ve worn it too. But that’s a whole different question.


WILKINS: We both missed [the event] a year apart [due to injury]. In Chicago, we both made the All-Star team. We knew we were going to face each other in the finals. We knew it. We knew it. No matter who was in that dunk contest, we just knew that we were going to end up going head-to-head. It was like it was ordained.

SPUD WEBB (current G League coach; 1986 slam dunk champion): They had the dunk contest in Indy [in 1985] that Dominique won. When Mike won in ‘87, he wanted that revenge in the city where he was playing.

FALK: We had recently signed Dominique as a client. You think about the lay of the land in the NBA in 1988. Dominque was one of the great athletes---The Human Highlight Film. But yet there’s Michael Jordan, who is the greatest player. It’s like you’re [Al] Pacino and you’re in a movie with [Robert] De Niro. And everyone is like, ‘Wow, how great of an actor is De Niro?' You’re not getting your props. Dominique is a competitive guy. As great of a dunker as Michael was, no one said Michael is a dunker. They said he was the greatest player ever. Dunking was Dominique’s forte. So here he is on Michael’s homecourt.

McINTYRE: Each guy had won one going into this. And each one missed one of the years to injury. There was a lot of anticipation, a lot of trash talk from the players. It was Michael’s hometown. Anyone in the building, it was obvious whose arena this was. The media interest was phenomenal. That building was so loud. And the energy was so much. I’m getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it. I forgot what I was doing and just watched.

BILL SMITH (Bulls team photographer): It wasn’t a given who would win the contest. We knew it was going to be one of the best of all time.

WILKINS: I never practiced [dunking] away from regular practice. Everything we did was spontaneous. And Michael was the same way. He never practiced those things. It was things we were doing in games. So we never really had to go in the gym and practice those things.

CHARLES OAKLEY (Bulls teammate of Jordan’s): Michael was just, ‘Hey, give me the ball. Let me go do something.’ He didn’t really work on nothing spectacular like these guys do today. When you got a creative mind, you do it as it comes. He didn’t know what was going to happen. When you can fly, you can do whatever you want.

TIM HALLAM (Bulls senior director of public and media relations): I can remember him saying he was going to be spontaneous. Typical Michael. Didn’t need a huge plan of attack but would make it happen. That’s just the way he is: ‘Whatever I’m going to do, I’m probably going to win this. And then make sure that I do.’ In fact, I remember sitting next to him and I said, ‘What’s the slam dunk trophy look like?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. But you’re going to see it when you’re putting it in the trunk of my car after the event.’ And he didn’t say it laughing.


WILKINS: Man, the electricity, the mystique, everything about Chicago Stadium back then was a perfect atmosphere for what we did.

HALLAM: The Stadium was the second-oldest building in the league at that time. From a media standpoint, we had no space, no room. Buildings weren’t like they are today. We had a media tent out in the parking lot. It was zero degrees. The wind was blowing. We had heaters in the tent. It was like the coldest day of the year.

McINTYRE: If you grew up in Chicago, you know cold. But that was cold. And we needed a lot of space for the media to work. And there wasn’t a lot of space in the old Chicago Stadium. Greatest place to watch an event. Worst place to have behind-the-scenes needs. They didn’t build buildings in the '20s with anything like hosting an All-Star game in mind. We had to put up a tent at Gate 3 1/2, the west side of the stadium parking lot. We had meetings eight months earlier about where we were going to put everything, divvying up space. I said, ‘Guys, the only thing that’s going to happen is if we get Chicago weather then and it’s like 10 degrees with 25 m.p.h. winds, we’re in deep trouble. Because everybody is going to freeze.’ We got the tent. We had propane tanks everywhere to keep everyone warm. But that Friday of All-Star weekend, the fire department came in, saw all these propane tanks and made us switch to kerosene. They also went over to the Hyatt and were taking down all these decorations we had for our big Friday night party. Said we had to comply with code. It turns out an administrative assistant for one of the aldermen in the city had called someone to ask for two or four tickets for the weekend and was turned down. To this day, whenever I smell kerosene, it takes me back to 1988. I saw people typing with gloves on their hands.

KAREN STACK UMLAUF (current Bulls assistant coach; then special assistant to GM Jerry Krause): Believe it or not, at that time we used a typewriter to do the running play-by-play. So I was the typist for the rookie game. We fed the media the play-by-play and the notes. And they were like, ‘If you want to stay there for the rest of the contests, feel free.’ So I had a halfcourt seat at the scorer’s table to watch the 3-point and dunk contests. Little did I know what I was in for.


WEBB: I was coming off an injury that year. I never expect to lose. But I knew that it was going to be tough because I couldn’t do all the dunks I wanted to. Those guys got to dunking against each other. And it was like, ‘Wow.’ They were doing some very impressive dunks that you dream about. You know that that’s not the type of dunks you can do because they can palm the ball too. Watching it, you go, ‘Well, Dominique is putting on a show.’ On the sideline, some of us were saying how powerful his dunks are for a dunk contest. We figured that he [would win].

McINTYRE: Spud. Clyde Drexler. Jerome Kersey. Greg Anderson. Otis Smith was a tremendous dunker. But in the first round he had to follow Michael. He didn’t have a chance.

OAKLEY: Dominique did some dunks you ain’t never seen before.

WILKINS: Props take the element of surprise away. We wanted the fans to be surprised by everything we did. They didn’t know what was coming.

McINTYRE: I do remember looking over at the judges table. [Bears Hall of Fame running back] Gale Sayers was one of them and he was a God when I was a kid growing up in Chicago. I’m looking over at them thinking, ‘Man, I’m glad I’m not one of them.’ The pressure [was on], and I’m thinking, ‘How many of those guys have dunked?’ They did a decent job. Very tough to do.

Editors note: The judges were Sayers, Los Angeles Dodgers Vice President Tom Hawkins (a Chicago native), Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich, former NBA player and Dunbar High alum Johnny Green, and former NBA player Randy Smith.


McINTYRE: I thought one of 'Nique’s windmills was going to bring the backboard down. It was like watching two guys and the gym was empty and they were going one-on-one. They were both crème de la crème of the dunkers. They both got [perfect] 50s on their first dunks. Michael was the most competitive human being I have ever met. Period. And that’s in a league with a lot of competitive players.

OAKLEY: I remember Michael got a 47 on his second dunk. I was sitting right there by the bench. The crowd started booing.

WILKINS: I said, ‘I got it.’ Because I thought my last dunk was my best dunk. I knew my last dunk that I’m going to get a 50.


WILKINS: It was just a two-hand windmill off two feet. And I brought it from my knees. It ain’t too many guys who can do that.

HALLAM: That dunk was outrageous.

WEBB: He shouldn’t have got no 45.

WILKINS: I got a 45. And I’m like, ‘Uh oh. Is the fix in?’ I knew I was in trouble.

McINTYRE: The rogue alderman cast the wrong vote on that one.

ADAM SILVER (current NBA commissioner; then a paying fan while attending University of Chicago Law School): I was taken in by the crowd probably the same way the judges were. Dominique is a good friend today. But it felt like everyone in that stadium was rooting for Michael.

WEBB: Just, wow. If you’ve never done it before, you don’t know how difficult it is. That’s what I say about the guys judging. It wasn’t something we’re used to seeing---a two-handed, windmill powerful dunk. You just don’t see a two-handed windmill dunk down by your shoe. And he dunked real hard.

WILKINS: 45? I would’ve been happy with a 47 or 48. But a 45? C’mon, man.

GAIL GOODRICH (Hall of Fame player; contest judge): We didn’t discuss the votes. The votes were individual. While it wasn’t an envelope, we didn’t talk about it. We just voted. It was a very, very close contest. I judged my best. I didn’t feel any pressure. I didn’t think it was difficult. I was very honored to be a judge.


SMITH: Michael had a number of different dunks. And I didn’t know which he was going to use. He probably didn’t either. It depended on how it went. It’s kind of like an ice skater going through his routines. You pull out what you need at the end. He certainly did.

WILKINS: It was a helluva dunk. Don’t get me wrong. Anytime you go from the free-throw line off the fly like he did and he’s pumping it in the air, it’s a beautiful dunk.

JORDAN (to reporters at the 1988 event): I was nervous, the only time in the contest I was nervous. I knew I needed something really spectacular to win. I was searching the crowd for something to do. Then, I saw the man who started it all, Julius Erving. He indicated to me I should go the length of the floor and take off from the free-throw line.

SILVER: I remember him going to the opposite end of the court and clearing away the photographers or whoever was in his way. There was something that felt almost dangerous about it, like people were in his way and he was clearing them out. I remember the sense of anticipation was incredible.

WEBB: The people were giving the judges hell for what they gave Mike in one round. The building was getting real live. They wanted to see Mike do something special. And then he brought out something special.

HALLAM: My memory of the foul-line dunk was his foot went over the line. And I was hoping it would be behind the line. Nobody seemed to care, though. I mean, it’s legal to do that obviously. But I was hoping it would be behind the line just for historical sake and for the next guy trying to do it.

FALK: That gave way to the Nike commercial about flying. It was tremendous.


McINTYRE: There are two classic shots.

SMITH: I was the Bulls photographer. So I could pretty much go anywhere I wanted within reason. Most of the photographers that day were on the baseline. Sports Illustrated was on the baseline. I was there for a while. But when it came down to the final dunk, I had watched him try that in practice. Sometimes he’d make it. Sometimes he didn’t. I knew it was going to be risky. So for the final dunks, I moved over to the sideline. I haven’t seen another picture from that angle. I don’t remember if anybody other than TV cameras were over there. I moved over there thinking, ‘I don’t know. It’s cool to have the scoreboard in the background. What do you do? I’ll get the crowd.’ That seemed like that was the shot. It was the only way to show the distance that he was jumping.

McINTYRE: Walter Iooss Jr. from Sports Illustrated is one of the greatest sports photographers of all time. Apparently, he had a conversation with Michael and tried to determine which way he was going to go so he’d get right there. I had given him that [baseline] spot. I’m watching him as much as I’m watching Michael. After he got the one famous shot [with the scoreboard in the background], he looked at his camera and kissed it. He knew he had it. And then he walked out and left. He went to the back. He didn’t have to shoot anymore. And this was before digital cameras. He just knew he caught it. And look at it. He nailed it.

SMITH: I was really nervous. Back in ‘88, there was no autofocus. Everything was manual. The whole thing was going to happen in a second, less than that. You don’t know if you’re going to get it in focus. Is it exposed? Is the camera crooked? Does your hand shake because you’re so excited? You just didn’t know what’s going to happen. And then I was like up all night because you can’t look at the back of your camera a second later and know if you screwed it up or not. And so I dropped the film off and I could hardly sleep. We had a lab right by the Stadium. It was just a few blocks away. They had a night drop. You could drop it off at night and get it at 8:30 in the morning. And I was there at 8:30 a.m. I thought, ‘Please, the one shot I want is that [final dunk].’ Of course I had like 30 or 40 rolls [of film]. You had these little boxes of slides. They had a big light table. And you’d go through it with little magnifiers. I just tore through it to try to find the dunk moment. I didn’t even go home to my office. I stayed in the lab. And then I got it and secured it and went home and looked at everything else.

SMITH: I thought I had it. But you just never know. You could miss by just a little bit. And it’s become my most iconic shot. Nike has purchased it over and over and over again. They wanted to buy the shot. But I told them it’s mine. It’s on a 35-millimeter slide. It’s in a fireproof safe.


JORDAN (to reporters at the 1988 event): The judging was tough all day. It's incredible how some dunks got rated. I feel if this wasn't in Chicago, it might have gone the other way. The home crowd helped me. The adrenaline gave me extra energy. 

WILKINS: I’ll put it like this here: It could’ve went either way. But a slight advantage being here in Chicago, the swing votes here. You know how it goes.

FALK: Obviously, Michael Jordan has been a very special person in my life. You never root against Michael Jordan, ever. But you have to think Dominique probably had a reasonable gripe. He was pretty spectacular in the contest.

OAKLEY: You don’t win unless they give you the trophy. So we can cut the talk out.

GOODRICH: Like a basketball game, it could go either way. That particular day, I felt Michael was just a little bit better than Dominique. Different styles. It’s subjective.

McINTYRE: They both had a great quote afterwards. ‘Nique said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘It’s hard to beat somebody in their hometown.’ Michael said, ‘Had this been in any other town but Chicago, I might not have won.’ Key words there are ‘might not’.

WILKINS: Of course we both thought we won. No matter who won, the fans got their money’s worth. And that’s what I tell people. Do I think I won? Yeah. But it didn’t matter at that point because we entertained for the fans. The fact we’re talking about it 30 years later lets you know how important that dunk contest was.


VINCE CARTER (current Hawks forward; winner of 2000 slam dunk contest): For diehard sports fans and someone like myself, who watched to learn, that contest was memorable. I was 11 years old. I was working on the small hoops and I’m like, ‘Ooh, I’m going to do this.’ When I got my chance to dunk at 12 the next year, I tried to do some of those things and learn as I got older. Of course you watched to ooh and aah and see what they’re going to come up with and say, ‘How did he think of this?’ You gawked at Mike’s ability to fly and jump from the free-throw line. Then you look at Dominique’s ability to fly but the power that he had. It’s one thing dunking with power with one hand. But there are not a lot of people out there, even today, who are dunking with that kind of power with two hands and a windmill. Those are the guys I watched and wanted to be compared to when it came down to style, power and grace. Anything you think of in a dunk contest, I wanted to have a little bit of all those guys. I wanted to be part of the history of dunking.

ZACH LaVINE (Bulls guard; winner of 2015 and 2016 slam dunk contests): I grew up watching it. I remember playing it in my little VCR, pausing it, rewinding, going out and trying to do that little side windmill he did on my Little Fisher Price hoop. Both those dudes are iconic.

WEBB: When you’re going to camps talking to kids, you really don’t get the appreciation of what those guys did that day. The competitiveness and the edge they had in wanting to win against each other. To see the motivations they had, it carries on to your play. When you’re getting ready to do something, you saw how they dug down deep to try to outdo one another.

SILVER: People have to remember that it wasn’t as if you could then click on your phone later that night and re-watch it. It had to be sort of frozen into your memory. Now it’s confusing in a way because I’ve seen that dunk on television so many times since then. And I’m always trying to separate my memory, which is of course a different angle than the camera’s angle, of what I saw versus the camera. And of course your memory can trick you a bit too. The way I remember it, I think he took off from the halfcourt line.

FALK: It was the greatest dunk contest that I’d ever seen, before or since. I think the event has sort of run its course. All the guys jumping over props and Dwight [Howard] with his Superman cape, it’s just so hokey. And even with the buildup, you were not disappointed by the result. Oftentimes, you have a great fight or great game in theory and the event is just boring. That was extremely exciting. Head to head, either guy could’ve legitimately won the contest. Many people said if it wasn’t in Chicago, Dominique might’ve won. But, hey, it was in Chicago.

STACK UMLAUF: I show my girls [the photo of her courtside]. My friends have seen it. At the time, that poster came out pretty quickly after. There was a famous eatery, Bigsbys. And a lot of people would go there postgame. We’d all stand there and look at the poster. It’s funny: I don’t wear glasses often. I happened to wear them in that game. Friends look at [the photo] and say, ‘That doesn’t look like you.’ And I’m like, ‘Believe me, it’s me.’ It really was a privilege to see.

SMITH: Gatorade used [the photograph] on a poster initially. A couple years later, I was in Bangkok on vacation on a little side street. I was walking around taking pictures. I walked by this tiny little sporting goods store. They had that Gatorade poster in the window. I stopped and I took pictures of it. I was looking for somebody to tell but nobody spoke English. I was like, ‘Hey, I took that shot!’ I was thrilled. It’s like 12,000 miles away in Bangkok, where they may or may not have known him.

FALK: You have to understand Michael. He enjoyed the competition. He was young. But what he wanted the most was a ring. People say he’s the best dunker or the best one-on-one player in the league. That meant nothing to him. It was almost a negative. What he wanted was what Magic and Bird had. He wanted jewelry. He wanted rings. So while he enjoyed the fun of the competition, I don’t think it had the kind of significance to him that it had to other people.

WILKINS: We joke about it all the time. But you know something that we’ve never done, Michael and I. We’ve never talked about it with one another. It’s kind of an unspoken thing between us. We know what we did. So we don’t have to talk about it. It really set up for in my opinion the greatest dunk contest ever. To this day, no one did it the way we did it. We didn’t use props. We didn’t use any of that stuff. We just used a basketball and our sneakers and our imagination.

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