JaVale McGee, Elvin Hayes and The Forgotten 1976-77 NBA Dunk Contest | Truth About It.net

JaVale McGee, Elvin Hayes and The Forgotten 1976-77 NBA Dunk Contest

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Updated: January 6, 2011

The historical invitation of JaVale McGee, a Washington Wizard, to the 2011 NBA slam dunk contest got the franchise all excited (which in turn got Dan Steinberg all bloggy). You see, this is the first player in Wizards/Bullets franchise history selected to participate in the dunk contest, so there’s little shame in taking the extra, perhaps unnecessary, step of hyping it up, along with showing the player that he has the team’s support. Plus, this franchise, fresh off an 0-17 start on the road this season, needs any good news it can get … and yes, this is good news. But is McGee really the franchise’s first?

On Wednesday night’s television broadcast of the Wizards-Sixers game, the trivia question of the night for the hometown D.C. crew, Comcast’s Phil Chenier and Steve Buckhantz, was to name the former dunk champions who have played for the Washington franchise (but for other teams when they won) — Michael Jordan and Kenny Walker was the answer. Other dunk contest participants who have played for the franchise (but again, who played for other teams during their participation) include: Rex Chapman, Robert Pack, Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes, DeShawn Stevenson, and of course, Darvin Ham.

Peruse this all-time list from NBA.com, nary a participant from the franchise for the “official” NBA dunk contest that started in 1984. But there was something about Chenier’s contemplative words as he can Buckhantz bantered about their trivia question before the answer was revealed.

“I know Elvin Hayes participated …,” Chenier trailed off.

Huh? Elvin Hayes? He played for the Washington franchise, starting in Baltimore in 1972-73, and stayed with the team in the District before moving on to the Houston Rockets for the 1981-82 season. Hayes played with the Rockets for three seasons before retiring after 1983-84, before the first official dunk contest and at age 38.

Was Chenier just rambling or was there something to this? A Google/YouTube investigation seemed to be the right move.

We know that the idea of the dunk contest originated in the ABA. About that league’s experience, Bethlehem Shoals writes in Free Darko’s ‘The Undisputed Guide To Pro Basketball History’:

Its weapons were far from conventional. In addition to its raw, frenetic play and ceaseless efforts to poach high-profile players from the NBA, the ABA came up with seemingly random publicity stunts; invented the three-point shot and the dunk contest; and staged surreal halftime performances (which included everything from Playboy bunnies to live bears, though never, unfortunately, at the same time). The league used an iconic red-white-and-blue ball that was a master stroke of branding and especially popular on inner-city courts. In theory, each of these PR microvictories brought the league that much closer to the marcoparadise promised by the would-be merger.

And the new NBA wasn’t afraid to adopt the ABA’s marketing pizazz, holding an actual dunk contest in the first season after the merger, 1976-77. A 2005 article/interview on Pacers.com by Conrad Brunner regarding Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman, the ultimate winner of this lost and forgotten dunk contest, states:

Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the dunk contest in the final ABA All-Star Game, the NBA launched an aggressive slam-dunk event of its own for the 1976-77 season, the first after the merger. Each team had one representative and players would be paired for dunk-offs when their teams met during the regular season. The big names of the era were involved, including Julius Erving, George Gervin and David Thompson – who was given the opportunity to be eliminated three times by a network (CBS) anxious for star-power. After the third elimination, Thompson finally was dropped from the bracket.

One Internet sleuth has made the below post on several message boards, comment sections and groups from ’round the web (posted in full below for retention’s sake) [UPDATE: Robert Bradley on the ABPR forum made the below post under an excellent reprinted article on that '76-77 dunk contest by Brett Ballantini that appeared in an old Courtside magazine.]

Does anyone else have any information about the NBA’s 1976-77 Slum Duk
Contest which was televised during the halftime of the CBS broadcasts
throughout the season?

I have a partial list of participants, and I know that Darnell Hillman
defeated Larry McNeill for the championship.

Here’s who I’m managed to come up with so far -

SLAM DUNK PARTICIPANTS [32?]
Atlanta Hawks – Joe C. Meriweather
Chicago Bulls – Mickey Johnson
Denver Nuggets – David Thompson
Detroit Pistons – M.L. Carr
Golden State Warriors – Larry McNeill
Indiana Pacers – Darnell Hillman
Kansas City Kings – Richard Washington
Los Angeles Lakers – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Milwaukee Bucks – Alex English
Philadelphia 76ers – Darryl Dawkins
Phoenix Suns – Ronnie Lee
Portland Trail Blazers – Moses Malone
San Antonio Spurs – George Gervin
Washington Bullets – Elvin Hayes

First round – ???, Denver, CO (McNichols Sports Arena)
Quarter-Finals & Semi-Finals – 12Feb77, Milwaukee, WI (Milwaukee
Arena)
Finals – 5Jun77, Portland, OR (Portland Memorial Coliseum)

So, this unconfirmed research, combined with Brunner’s report of one man per team and Chenier’s memory of Hayes’ participation (Chenier himself played for the Bullets from ’71-72 through part of ’79-80), is probably not enough evidence for a full-on report, but certainly enough for a blog post suggesting that JaVale McGee isn’t the first player in Wizards/Bullets franchise history to participate in an NBA-sanctioned dunk contest.

Furthermore, Brunner writes in his Pacers.com article:

Hillman beat Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his way to the title round. He faced Golden State forward Larry “the Hawk” McNeill in a dunk-off during the NBA Finals, with Hillman winning thanks in large part to his signature slam, rock-the-cradle. The contest met with lukewarm response and was shelved. The NBA didn’t revisit the dunk contest until 1984, and it’s been an All-Star Weekend staple ever since.

And Steve Kroner, in a 2005 article titled ‘Enjoying ‘Mile High’ should be a slam dunk’ from the San Francisco Chronicle, writes:

The competition had an undeniably schlocky feel, all the way to the final between the Warriors’ Larry McNeill and Indiana’s Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman that took place during the 1977 NBA Finals. Hillman, who attended San Jose State, wore a “Bottle Shoppe” jersey at the request of a friend.

Now would be an appropriate time to turn to the offerings of YouTube … starting with presenting the best first: the final battle between the 6’9″ McNeill and the 6’9″ Hillman.

Classic items of note: ‘rowdy’ Portland fans shower a couple of the contest judges with boos — Mendy Rudolph, a then CBS basketball analyst and former NBA referee, and Denver basketball writer Larry Bortstein — but the Blazers fans give Boston Celtics great Sam Jones plenty of love as a judge. Also, Darnell Hillman’s afro … which has been anointed with the ‘Best Afro’ award by Free Darko’s ”The Undisputed Guide…’ in their pro basketball hair index that spans from 1969 to 1979. The flow of the ‘fro adds to the gliding movement of Hillman’s dunk attempts (oh, and along with his random, non-NBA tank top and shorts … and the “Bottle Shoppe” shirt at the end). Hillman’s dunks are by far better than other dunk contestants from those ’76-77 days (at least amongst the footage available, which we’ll get to). Let’s check the film of the final courtesy of YouTube user patvilhauer:

YouTube user WiltatKansas has three uploads of the ’76-77 dunk-offs from the preliminary rounds, unfortunately none involve Elvin Hayes. But they all do have a nice aura of unintentional comedy in the sense of how much the game of basketball has advanced … highlighted by the irrelevant-to-winning microcosm of the dunk. Then again, as I once alluded to in a post when I hosted TrueHoop, dunks can be kind of important.

This first video pits Alex English of the Milwauke Bucks versus Mickey Johnson of the Chicago Bulls. It seems to take place on the Indiana Pacers’ home court for some reason … so, the crowd is pretty tame (at least compared to Portland during the NBA Finals … go figure). And the dunks? Well, completely lame in comparison to today’s standards… what you might see in a college pre-game layup line, or even high school.

This next one between Joe C. Meriweather of the Atlanta Hawks and Mel Davis of the New York Knicks seems to take place in a completely random gym. Things get a bit fancy when Davis goes off the backboard, which is lauded as a “timing attempt” by the CBS announcer. But here’s the fun/relevant part to Washington Redskins fans. As you probably know, famed former Redskins owner, the late Jack Kent Cooke, used to own the Los Angeles Lakers (from 1965 to 1979). At the end of the clip below, another CBS announcer interviews Jimmy “The Greek” — apparently these dunk contests were shown at halftime or at some juncture during the 1977 playoffs. The Lakers and Portland Trailblazers faced off in the Western Conference Finals that year and Jimmy “The Greek” seems to be at the Great Western Forum, ready to deliver some gossip on a potential sale of the Lakers’ former home court. “The Greek” says:

“$25-million was offered by Jerry Buss to Mr. Kent Cooke for this affair. But Mr. Kent Cooke is in Las Vegas at the moment, he’s been there since June, of course. He’s had a little problem with his wife of 42 years. So consequently, this had to be sort of curtailed or put away until a deal is be made between Mr. Cooke and Mrs. Cooke.”

The divorce between Cooke and his first wife didn’t happen until 1979 (thus, when the Lakers were sold and Cooke decided to move east to tend to the Redskins), and she received $42 million in the settlement, which at the time was a U.S. record. So, a “little problem” indeed. Not sure if Vegas helped or not.

The Greek was also asked about Tony Dorsett and the general NFL reaction about him going to the Dallas Cowboys (who made a trade with the Seattle Seahawks to jump up in the ’77 draft and take Dorsett with the second pick).

“If I know George Allen, he’s called Ben Bradley of the Washington Post and the sports editor George over there 20 times already complaining about it. He is accusing Seattle of being a farm club to Dallas.” {laughs are exchanged}

Sorry to digress, it’s a D.C. sports thing … on to the clip of olde tymey dunking:

This last one pits Joe C. Meriweather in a subsequent round against George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs and is probably the most mundane of all the clips … a couple missed dunks really hurt Gervin.

The story of the lost and forgotten 1976-77 NBA dunk contest is far from complete, especially as far as Elvin Hayes’ participation is concerned. In discussing the phenomenon of this event with Bethlehem Shoals himself over G-chat, he exclaimed that Hillman reminded him of McGee. From Brunner’s article, the ‘Rock-the-Cradle’ dunk was a signature of Hillman … and from this past summer league, we know McGee is an admirer of that very same move.



  • http://www.apbr.org/forum Robert Bradley

    Actually, the original research was done by me. I had done similar research on the NBA’s one-one one contests and HORSE contest in the ’70s.

    They seem to have copied it verbatim and passed it off (to a certain degree) as their own work. Such is life on the Internet.

    It was mainly compiled from various newspaper articles. You can find the thread on our forum where it was originally posted here – http://www.apbr.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1077

    Robert Bradley
    Founder and President Emeritus
    Association for Professional Basketball Research

    Author
    The Compendium of Professional Basketball
    http://www.XalerPress.com

  • John

    I love this story and the video, but Moses Malone did not play for Portland in 1977:

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/m/malonmo01.html

  • Matt Beahan

    Moses was drafted by Portland in the ABA dispersal draft, but he was traded to Buffalo a couple of weeks into the season without seeing any game action. I think he played a couple of preseason games, though.

  • http://www.truthaboutit.net/ Kyle Weidie

    Yea, what Matt said …

    Basketball-Reference.com lists transactions at the bottom of player pages. So, since he was drafted by the Blazers on August 5 in the dispersal draft and then traded to Buffalo on October 18, it might make sense that his name was listed in a Portland regard at some point.

  • http://www.truthaboutit.net/ Kyle Weidie

    BTW, thanks for sharing Robert….

    However, not sure if anyone was really copying your work — it really seems like that comment you left on the ABPR forum simply made it’s way to other sites … but I don’t think others were necessarily trying to rip you off.

    In any case, I’ve updated this post and have given you the proper credit — hope that this works for you.

    I would, however, love to know how/where you came across Elvin Hayes’ name as a participant. I’ve reach out to the Wizards’ PR people but have yet to hear back.

    Again, thanks a lot for sharing and sorry I did not properly credit your research in its origin the first time.

    -Kyle

  • http://www.apbr.org/forum Robert Bradley

    Kyle – That works fine for me (once you post something on the Internet you kind of brace yourself for this sort of unattributed use, so I don’t blame aanyone who wasn’t able to track down the original source).

    If you want to e-mail me, I’ll send you a couple copy of the news articles that i have, one of which mentions him participating.

    - Robert

  • http://www.apbr.org/forum Robert Bradley

    (that above post should read “copies of a couple of new articles – one from the 2/14/77 Wisconsin State Journal mentions Hayes losing to Larry McNeill.

    - Robert

  • http://www.apbr.org/forum Robert Bradley

    Also – Moses Malone was traded by Portland on October 18, 1976 to Buffalo for a first-round pick three days before opening night (October 21) so he wasn’t on their roster during the regular season, only during the preseason.