Analyzing Aaron Gordon’s highway robbery

Aaron Gordon
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It’s not every day that you come across a highway robbery, let alone one that’s brazen enough to feature a 6’8”, 235-pound man as the victim. The culprits? One unassuming actor and two retired NBA legends.

If you’re a basketball fan — or avid meme consumer — you know exactly what I’m talking about. The outcome of the rage-inducing, stress-inflicting, stomach-turning 2020 NBA dunk contest.

Feb. 15 should’ve been a night of riveting redemption. Instead, it ended with the worst possible case of deja vu. Three attempts in four years, and not one trophy to validate unparalleled talent. 

Five years ago, no one quite understood the gifts of Aaron Gordon. His rookie campaign was largely underwhelming — a little more than 5 points a game was standard. He showed glimpses of his robust athleticism with two-handed slams here and there, but nothing too out of the ordinary.

That all changed in 2016. During Toronto’s NBA dunk contest, Gordon’s freakish dunking abilities were put out on full display. Pulling all the stops, he challenged the competition’s defending champ, Zach LaVine, head-to-head, dunk after dunk. 

Gordon flew high over Orlando’s 6’5” mascot, Stuff the Magic Dragon, perched on top of a hoverboard, paid homage to Karl Malone with a ridiculous 360-degree “Mailman Slam” and brought the ball underneath his legs while slamming it home with his left.

Comparatively, LaVine caught an alley-oop from afar near the free-throw line, windmilled from the free-throw line and brought the ball between his legs from (you guessed it) the free-throw line.

Despite his unforeseen creativity, natural-born aptitude for showmanship and near-perfect rounds of dunks, Gordon lost to LaVine for the final trophy. He became nothing more than a runner-up.

Gordon’s loss was wildly controversial. While LaVine’s showing was impressive, three of his six total dunks were strikingly similar variations of one another. Gordon’s were diversified and original.

Fans were up in arms, Twitter exploded and every prominent TV sports analyst couldn’t help but weigh in. Some felt LaVine’s win was justified; more demurred reality.

Nevertheless, at least one fact was clear. This was not, by any means, the last we’d see of Gordon.

Come four years later, and Gordon makes his long-awaited return to the NBA dunk contest. (Yes, I’m skipping over 2017. We’ll give him a pass though — he was injured).

On Feb. 15, 2020, donning a fresh orange and anthracite gray “City Edition” jersey, California sunset-inspired 361 Degrees sneakers and cupping therapy marks from the night before, Gordon was all business.

He got the ball rolling with an effortless reverse two-handed slam between the legs, propelling momentum forward and impressing judges enough to warrant a flawless 50.

Moments before, Miami Heat’s Derrick Jones Jr. (Gordon’s only real competition) began his dunkfest by using one hand to lift himself up and above frontcourt teammate Bam Adebayo. The yielded score came 4 points short of Gordon’s.

For the next few rounds, the two duked it out dunk by dunk as the other competitors, Pat Connaughton and Dwight Howard, fell off in elimination.

Gordon contorted his body above an awestruck Chance the Rapper in a reverse slam dunk. Jones Jr. brought the ball between his legs while jumping over two people.

Then, Jones Jr. kicked it up a notch by catching a backboard alley-oop, threading the ball between his legs and hopping over the very same person who assisted him. Gordon responded with a nasty 360-degree one-handed windmill off a pass from the side of the backboard.

Every dunk in the final round earned a 50. In such a situation, tiebreakers determine the winner (*cough* 2016 *cough*), not the contestants’ previous cumulative scores.

Jones Jr. was up first. In the first tiebreaking dunk, he caught the ball from a side-of-the-backboard alley-oop and (again) brought it between his legs. In the second, he sprinted from near half court, took one step inside the free-throw line and windmilled the ball with convincing authority. Total score: 98/100.

Taking another chance with Chance the Rapper, Gordon had no problem flaring his own rendition of a between-the-legs dunk over Chano. He then finished with the cherry on top (or what should’ve been) by inviting a new guest to the floor: Tacko Fall. In all but one unprecedented attempt, Gordon cleared the league’s tallest player, who stands at a menacing 7’5”.

And while Fall had admittedly ducked just a tad bit, it’s an indisputable fact that Gordon sprung above at least 7-plus feet. That in itself was breathtaking to watch. Total score? 97/100.

Three of the five judges –– Dwyane Wade, Scottie Pippen and Chadwick Boseman –– gave Gordon a nine (cue the onslaught of “9 out of 10” memes).

Fans jeered, commentators cried in confusion and Gordon shook his head with a saddening smile and subsequent sigh. To describe the overall feeling in the building as “shock” would be an understatement.

For the second devastating time, Gordon came up empty-handed.

What could’ve been easily avoided with a tie, additional round of dunks, nonconspiratorial judging or flipped victory through contest-cumulative score totals, turned out to be a total disaster and utter uproar.

Gordon has now publicly announced that he won’t waste his time with another future dunk contest, and to be honest, I don’t blame him. His absence alone should be enough for the NBA to change the rules moving forward.

“It’s a wrap,” Gordon said in the post-contest press conference. “I feel like I should have two trophies, so it’s over for that.”

We do too, Aaron, we do too. Two highway robberies for a once-in-a-generation talent like you is two times too many.

Ryan Chien covers rowing. Contact him at [email protected].