Brent Barry, one of three L.A.-based players to win slam dunk contest, revisits 1996 triumph
Brent Barry had a vision.
The speakers at the Alamodome in San Antonio would blare the intro of LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad.”
“Calling all cars, calling all cars,” the dispatchers would say. “Be on the lookout for a tall, light-skinned brother with dimples wearing a black Kangol, sweatsuit, gold chain and sneakers.”
Then Barry, a skin-and-bones Clippers rookie, would step onto the court dressed exactly like LL Cool J — down to the Kangol. And as the song begins with a primal scream, he would kick off the 1996 NBA slam dunk contest by jumping from the free-throw line, gliding toward the basket and jamming the ball through the rim.
All he needed was for the NBA and commissioner David Stern to sign off on the plan.
“And the league shot me down,” Barry said. “I was so bitter about that. There’s a reason why his last name was ‘Stern.’ ”
Plan B also flopped. “I’ll dunk the ball. I can do some things. And then I’ll sit down and watch Jerry Stackhouse and Michael Finley win the dunk contest. That’s not what happened.”
Instead, Barry ended the 1996 slam dunk contest as the champion, proceeding Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin as the only Clippers or Lakers to win the marquee event of All-Star weekend.
Saturday at Staples Center, Barry will be broadcasting All-Star Saturday’s events, including the contest he once won, on TNT. This year, Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr., Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell Jr. and Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. will be competing for the trophy.
Back in 1996, Barry, the son of NBA legend Rick Barry, was pretty sure he wanted no part of the dunk contest.
He was on the court nine years earlier in Seattle when Michael Jordan won the contest. He and his brother Drew even got a picture with Jordan.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t inspire me,” Barry said.
But it also gave him a first-hand look at what he’d be getting himself into, and he was smarter than that.
“I’d never had lost a dunk contest. I don’t mean to say that to sound overly confident or cocky. It’s the fact that I knew better,” he said. “ I only want to go up against the guys I can beat. I pick the guys who can’t dunk. And then I enter that contest — and win it.”
But Joe Safety, a former Clippers communication head, saw Barry dunking after a practice and decided to try to get him into the contest. One day before the announcement, Barry got the word he was in.
Barry wasn’t onboard with the idea, though. Only a few of the six dunks he actually made during his rookie season came before the All-Star break. But Safety told Barry it was too late; he was in the contest.
So, Barry got to planning. He went to work on the timing, developing the order and some contingency plans.
“Let me play it like a Pearl Jam show,” Barry thought. “I’ll come out with a good one. And then I’ll get into the Eddie acoustic set. And then come back with something strong and play — well, [the Pearl Jam song} “Go” — at the end here. And, then I’ll sit down.”
The set list turned out to be a winner.
Due to a combination of a chilly Alamodome, forgetfulness and nerves, Barry kept his Clippers warmup jacket on for the contest. Barry went first with his 90-second routine and quickly worked through three dunks — two self-tossed alley-oops and a 360 — before he paused to stare at the free-throw line.
He jogged away to the other side of the court before sprinting toward the line with the ball in his hand, jumping from the line in recreating a dunk Julius Erving and Michael Jordan made famous.
Barry would use the dunk again in the finals of the contest to win the trophy.
More than two decades later, the title is still near the top of his resume despite winning a pair of NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs during a 14-year NBA career. They remember that he’s the only white player to ever win. They remember the free-throw line dunk. They remember that he’s the only person ever to win the contest in a light coat (the following year, Bryant dunked in the first round in a warmup shirt).
And if they ask, they’ll soon remember what Barry did with the trophy.
Barry had the basketball-shaped hardware laser cut in half, making it some of the most unique serving items in the world.
“If someone wants to see it, I bring it and it looks great. It’s in full context there, all put together. But then I can palm the top of the ball and take the top off to reveal its dual purpose — for chips and dip or Halloween candy or whatever you want to do with it,” Barry said.
Saturday, it’ll take more than a jacket and a dunk from the free-throw line to win. The contest has become a showcase for props and celebrity cameos. And while he’s calling the action, Barry will be smiling — and a little jealous.
“I’m glad that the dunk contest has made its way into the theatrical thing it should be. It should be totally goofy and totally fun. And as much of a show as possible,” he said. “I wish I had that chance.”
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