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The hidden meanings behind the All-Star Dunk Contest jams

What were the dunk participants really saying with their jams on Saturday night?

2022 NBA All-Star - AT&T Slam Dunk
Juan Toscano-Anderson dunks over Andrew Wiggins in a move that can only be described as “nuts”.
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Before the regular season kicks back up again for the Golden State Warriors, let’s take a final look at the Dunk Contest from Saturday night, featuring Juan Toscano-Anderson. Sure, the dunk contest was widely ridiculed as disappointing, and spurred calls for the Three-Point Contest to become the headlining event of All-Star Saturday, but that may be because observers only looked at the surface of the jams. Look deeper, and you’ll see these weren’t just dunks - they were symbolic art pieces.

Juan Toscano-Anderson: “The NAFTA”

JTA wore a Mexican-flag-colored Warriors jersey and dunked over the NBA‘s most prominent Canadian, and the first Canadian-born player to start an All-Star game, Andrew Wiggins. In case the symbolism wasn’t clear, JTA had Julius Erving sign the basketball, as if it was a treaty. He’s a doctor, so that makes it official. The dunk was both a symbol of continental togetherness and also the aspirational nature of Mexico in relation to their neighbor to the north.

Cole Anthony: “The Burden of Inheritance”

Cole Anthony wore his own father‘s jersey, despite his father having a successful but not particularly impressive NBA career. Cole Anthony chose the New York Knicks jersey, with his own team’s shorts, perhaps a prediction of his own future journeyman, workmanlike career. After all, he also put on work boots, which took him a very long time to lace up. But what is it like to have the legacy of a famous father? The shoes are difficult to fill. They’re weighty, like Timbs. When Cole Anthony struggled to land the dunk, it showed that while nepotism can elevate you in the NBA, the expectations can also drag you down like an anchor.

Jalen Green: “The Crypto Crash”

Green’s first dunk was predicated on him using technology - the blockchain-enabled and wild market for non-fungible tokens - to revolutionize the dunk contest. This follows in the footsteps of a famous technological dunk fail, when Aaron Gordon used a drone to pass him a basketball for a dunk. It ultimately failed and cost Gordon a chance to lose in the finals again. This NFT dunk also failed many, many times, while Green’s own highlights played on a chain, standing in stark contrast to his live failure.

Honestly, the value of the NFT he was hawking must have plummeted in value with every miss, just like Dogecoin whenever Elon Musk appears on television. But even the fundamental basis of the NFT has been devalued. Jalen Green is the most disappointing rookie in the entire NBA, No. 2 draft pick whose statistics are terrible. So when Green is wearing a necklace playing his own highlights, even those of lost value over the course of the season. Ultimately, Jayen Green’s dunk is a warning about the dangers of new technology and specifically the worthlessness of NFTs.

Obi Toppin: “The Trials Of Being A Young Knick”

Obi Toppin’s first dunk was a metaphor for being a young player in New York City. Like JTA, he leapt over a human being, but instead of a teammate, he dunked over celebrity “dunk coach” Chuck Millan. In other words, his coach was an obstacle that he needed to overcome in order to succeed. And he had to use Millan - there’s a 0% chance Tom Thibodeau would participate in an All-Star Weekend stunt. But on his first missed attempt, we see the other perils for a young Knicks. Toppin landed awkwardly and stumbled into a crowd of photographers, barely escaping injury. In other words, he was almost killed by the media! Finally, Toppin was desperate to make the finals and thus extend his time on the court - despite being a 2020 lottery pick, he hasn’t played more than 13 minutes in a game this month - and so his only choice was to go outside the purview of Coach Thibs. Thus, he went behind his back.

Juan Toscano Anderson: “The Siren Call of Nostalgia”

JTA’s dunk in the finals was an attempted echo of a Vince Carter jam. Juan Toscano-Anderson was easily the least famous player in the dunk contest. He’s also 28 years old, an age that is ancient considering how young dunk participants have been in recent years. And so he decided to evoke Oakland. Not the newly-gentrified Mission District-East that much of Oakland currently is, but his Oakland, the Oakland of 2000, pre-9/11, pre-housing crisis. And Vince Carter had one of the most memorable dunk performances of all time in Oakland in 2000. JTA couldn’t get his whole arm through the hoop like Vince did, just as the dunk contest itself lacks the impact and reach it used to have. Was Toscano-Anderson as good as Air Canada? Absolutely not, but everything was better 20 years ago.

Jalen Green: “The Tenuousness of Potential”

Green ultimately pulled off a very impressive dunk with his second try in the first round, a between-the-legs 360. Just like his rookie season, the dunk had a great deal of potential, but just like too many of his shots this season, it failed to go in. Draft picks are like new cars - they lose their value quickly after they’ve gone out into the world. The ideal version of this dunk is a 50, just like the ideal version of Jalen Green is a scoring champion and All-Star. Unfortunately, the harsh reality of the NBA season in and the very nature of existence me and they were perpetually dreaming of what might be without recognizing the reality of what it is. He still received 45, proving the judges still believe in hope.

Juan Toscano-Anderson: “Pre-Believe”

For his last dunk of the finals, JTA was already trailing Obi Toppin. So he put on the jersey of former Warriors dunk champion Jason Richardson. And J-Rich wasn’t just a dunk champ, he was a member of one of the great underdog teams in NBA history, the We Believe Warriors, who upset the Dallas Mavericks in 2007. However, it turned out to be a tribute to Richardson’s teams up until that series, where they were known for falling short, over and over again. In fact, the journey mirrored the path of those Warriors: He made it out of the first round despite being an underdog, and then in the next round, he got waxed. Let’s hope for his sake the Warriors don’t also immediately dump JTA for a younger, more exciting big man like they did with J-Rich.