When Dwight Howard imagined this dunk, it was not his old friend Jameer Nelson bringing him a red Superman cape.
It was Kobe Bryant.
In that version, Bryant would have provided the cape to Howard, who would have been waiting in a Superman uniform. In that version, once Howard donned the cape, he would have revealed a surprise to Bryant. In that version Howard would have torn off the top layer of the Superman emblem to show the No. 24 to the man who wore that number for the second part of his career, the man whose respect Howard had worked to earn.
Instead, the dunk turned into a tribute for his former teammate who died in a helicopter crash last month.
“That was gonna be a lot of fun,” Howard said. “I was gonna dedicate it to him, but everything happens for a reason.”
Derrick Jones Jr. won a controversial victory in the contest after Aaron Gordon fell just shy of his score in the final round. Gordon jumped over Tacko Fall, the Celtics rookie who is 7-foot-5 — several contestants jumped over people for their entries.
Fall took several dramatic deep breaths as Gordon prepared to go. And although Gordon did not fully clear Fall’s head, he got close enough to impress onlookers.
Even Jones thought the judges might give Gordon a high enough score to force another round.
“It’s a wrap, bro,” Gordon said. “It’s a wrap. I feel like I should have two trophies, you know what I mean? It’s over for that. My next goal is going to be trying to win the 3-Point Contest.”
This contest was part of Howard’s revival. He’d asked to be in it, despite being older than most participants.
All the other performers were much younger than Howard, 34. The next oldest was 27-year-old Pat Connaughton of the Milwaukee Bucks, who was dressed as a character from “White Men Can’t Jump” for his first dunk. Gordon is 24, and Jones is 23.
“All the young guys was talking trash to me, saying, ‘What you got now, old fella? You’re old now. Let’s let the young guys do it,’” Howard said. “So it was a lot of fun just to be out there in the atmosphere.”
Having been through a serious lower back injury that kept him out of most of last season, Howard’s health has been something he’s not taken for granted this season. That he’s had it this year is part of why he wanted to participate.
“Last summer I had a chance to have a dunk contest with an actual street dunker on Venice Beach, and after we finished dunking, I was like, ‘Man, that felt really good to really get the crowd into it and just enjoy dunking a basketball again,’” Howard said. “I was super surprised that I was able to get up and dunk like that.”
His first dunk hadn’t impressed the judges very much. Despite being a reverse 360 dunk in which Howard flashed a smile at the judges in mid-air, he only received 41 points. Scottie Pippen gave it a nine and the rest of the judges gave it eights. Before his second dunk, he needled the judges about his low score.
Howard performed his tribute to Bryant as his second entry. The judges appreciated his tribute, awarding him a 49 out of 50 for the dunk, which featured Howard soaring through the air with 24 on his chest, receiving a pass from Nelson, and dunking it with one hand.
“I had basically a production for the whole dunk contest,” Howard said. “So we talked about what I was gonna do with the cape and Superman and really just dedicate it to Kobe and stuff like that.”
Knocked out after the first round, there were dunks he couldn’t do.
It also meant his tributes to Bryant didn’t get much time.
“I didn’t really get a chance to do everything I wanted to do to tribute to Kobe and the Lakers,” Howard said. “But this season, the rest of our career, we’re gonna make sure that we represent the purple and gold the right way. We know Kobe’s watching over us, and we’re just grateful and thankful that he gave us some great knowledge and we’re very appreciative for the time that we’ve to spend with Kobe Bryant.”
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