Make no mistake about it, it was rough to be a Golden State Warriors fan in the late 90s and through much of the 2000s.
The occasions to celebrate were few and far between, particularly if you were one like me who started going to games just after the 1993-1994 season (i.e. the last playoff appearance until the “We Believe” team rolled around).
One fleeting bright spot for the team and its fans came in the the early 2000s. It didn’t come in the form of wins or team accomplishments, and it was not something you could hang a banner for at Oracle Arena. Jason Richardson, the Warriors shooting guard, won back-to-back Slam Dunk Contests in 2002 and 2003. The 2003 victory was the one that stood out because it felt like, for the first time in a long time, something good was finally here for the Warriors.
Earlier in that All-Star Weekend, Gilbert Arenas put on a show in the Rookie-Sophmore game that also included Richardson and Troy Murphy. Arenas won the game’s MVP award, following in Richardson’s footsteps who had won that award the previous year. The Warriors, bereft of young talent for many seasons, appeared to have found a diamond in the rough with the second-round pick Arenas, who put on a show early in that All-Star Saturday.
But the marquee moment of the weekend for Warriors fans would be the Slam Dunk Contest where Jason Richardson would defend his crown. In a field that would include former Slam Dunk Contest champion Desmond Mason and two players who would go on to have distinguished careers in the league (Amare Stoudemire and Richard Jefferson), Richardson would have to deal with a strong group of competitors if he wanted to repeat.
The Warriors shooting guard would start out the contest strong. Richardson’s first dunk was one where he tossed the ball ahead into the key, catching it on the bounce as he went up, bringing the ball up and then throwing it down with his right hand.
That dunk, in its combination of elevation and power, earned Richardson a perfect score of 50 and made it clear he was going for the title again. Save for a strong between the legs effort by the Suns’ rookie Stoudemire, the scores in the first round were not particularly strong and thus Richardson was able to take command of the contest.
Only needing 29 to make it to the second round, many would have expected Richardson to do something conservative or safe for his second dunk. Instead, Richardson again tossed the ball into the key, catching it off the bounce as he jumped, bringing it to his hip as he did a 360 degree turn before throwing it down with his right hand.
Receiving another 50 for that dunk, Richardson scored a perfect 100 in the first round, with two dunks that ranked amongst the best I’ve ever seen. In fact, both of Richardson’s dunks would have been great final dunks, the ones you would pull out when you were trying to seal the victory in the final round. However, there was so much more that was in store for all of us watching.
The final round featured a matchup of the first round of the 2002 Slam Dunk Contest between Richardson and Desmond Mason. Mason had won the 2001 Slam Dunk Contest and was Richardson’s biggest competition in 2003.
Richardson’s first dunk saw him go to the right side of the court, toss the ball ahead and, after catching it as he jumped up, dunking it with two hands behind his back.
It was a pretty safe and conservative effort by Richardson that earned a 45, perhaps owing to Mason’s first dunk earning a perfect 50 after going in between his legs in the air with the ball, moving it from his left hand to his right before dunking it. Mason’s second dunk was much more pedestrian and earned a lower score, particularly after missing his first attempt. Mason still posted a 43 to give him a 93 for the final round. The degree of difficulty needed on his final dunk was incredibly high for Richardson, and he would need either a 49 or 50 to claim his second straight title.
However, Richardson came up with a final dunk that would get that perfect score and seal his second straight Dunk Contest win. Standing on the baseline, Richardson tossed the ball ahead, bounced it off the hardwood, caught it while he jumped up and, after putting the ball between his legs dunked behind his back.
With that dunk, the crowd at Phillips Arena in Atlanta erupted in cheers and the players sitting courtside spilled onto the court while Kenny Smith yelled on the TNT broadcast, “I’ve seen something that I’ve never seen before [...] The Dunk Contest is back!”
Perhaps I am biased but I would say that Richardson’s dunk was one of the best in Dunk Contest history and one of the best I’ve ever seen. I would argue that it was better than the dunk Richardson did to win the contest in 2002 and that his overall performance was better in 2003 than 2002, reflected in the three perfect scores he earned on dunks in 2003.
The combination of the speed at which Richardson performed his dunks, the way he was able to elevate, and the power with which he threw those dunks down, was something that only the greatest dunkers could do. The power Richardson possessed as a dunker was one that was at the same level as Dominique Wilkins, the player to whom he was most frequently compared to and one of the greatest Dunk Contest contestants of all time. Richardson’s 2003 win put him in elite company as only Michael Jordan had won back-to-back Slam Dunk Contests, though they would soon be joined by Nate Robinson and Zach LaVine in that category.
The Dunk Contest, after having a brief resurgence at the 2000 All-Star Game in Oakland courtesy of Vince Carter, had fallen out of favor by the early 2000s. After being part of what made the NBA a global sensation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the NBA decided to cancel the event in 1998, reflecting just how far it had fallen. But Jason Richardson’s dunks, especially those in that 2003 contest, made the Dunk Contest feel like appointment-viewing and injected a bit of life into a contest which had been sorely lacking.
It’s really hard to overstate how big of a victory this felt for a Warriors fan. Beyond the lack of team success, the Warriors didn’t have any kind of individual player success. The most recent Warriors All-Star at that time had been Latrell Spreewell, who went on to choke his coach P. J. Carlesimo, earning a suspension before being traded.
What Richardson’s two Slam Dunk titles represented for us Warriors fans was a slight bit of hope that we could be an interesting team. We didn’t expect to become the Lakers overnight, but we could hope to be competitive rather than a perennially irrelevant doormat. With a backcourt featuring a two-time Slam Dunk champion in Richardson and the Rookie-Sophmore Game MVP in Arenas, it felt like the Warriors might be onto something and could put out a team that would be fun to watch.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. That off-season, Arenas would leave to sign an enormous contract with the Washington Wizards and it would be three more years before Richardson would taste any kind of success with the “We Believe” squad. Then after putting together one of the most magical upsets in NBA history, the Warriors would quite ignominiously trade Richardson in a draft-day deal to the Charlotte Bobcats for Brandan Wright. But for one moment, it felt like the Warriors would have an exciting young backcourt that could help them break into the realm of NBA relevancy.
Eventually we would get there, but for those of us watching in the early 2000s, we thought it would be Arenas and Richardson that would lead the way. On that All-Star Saturday in 2003, it felt like it might be possible.