Nate Robinson is this week’s Athlete Of The Week after the diminutive 5-foot-9 New York Knicks’ guard captured his second NBA slam dunk championship in an entertaining event which featured some creative and unique showmanship on the part of both Robinson and defending 2008 NBA slam dunk champion, Dwight Howard, at the U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, on Saturday.
Robinson and Howard each started the contest in impressive fashion. In the opening round, Robinson earned a 46 score after throwing a high lob from the top of the three-point line, catching the ball on a single bounce in the lane, and launching himself toward the hoop for a nice windmill and powerful finish with his right hand.
The second dunk of the first round requires that each participant be assisted by another NBA player. Robinson chose Knick teammate Wilson Chandler in a manner that must have made Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni and Knicks’ general manager Donnie Walsh each cringe and wish that Robinson had used someone like Jerome James, instead.
After a running start, Robinson used the back of Chandler as a springboard for a flying right-handed dunk, earning him a score of 41. That was enough to send Robinson to the finals with a total opening round score of 87, slightly better than the 85 posted by Denver’s J.R. Smith and the 84 scored by Portland’s Rudy Fernandez. Robinson then retreated to the locker room (hold that thought for a moment).
Howard meanwhile, advanced to the finals with a perfect score of 50 on each of his two first-round round dunks, the second of which came after some amusing theatrics. Howard’s first attempt took him several tries because of bad passes, but he was finally able to convert, lobbing a high pass from out of bounds, beyond the left baseline, catching the ball in the lane on a bounce, and finishing with a 180, right-handed windmill slam. For his next attempt, Howard disappeared into a phone booth that was set up in the stands, a little beyond the spot from where he tossed the pass on his earlier dunk. Howard, who created a stir with his title-winning dunk in last year’s contest by soaring through the air with a red Superman cape, emerged from the phone booth with the same cape tied around his neck, along with blue “Superman sneakers” as a special eleven-foot basket was wheeled out next to the regulation ten-foot hoop. A pass from Orlando Magic teammate Jameer Nelson accidentally caught the rim as it caromed off of the backboard, but that miscue didn’t affect Howard’s timing at all, as he caught the ball off of the rim and threw it down hard with both hands, making it look easy, despite the extra foot to climb.
Naturally, knowing that green kryptonite is the only thing that can stop Superman, Robinson then returned from the locker room trading his regular blue Knick uniform from the opening round, for the Knicks’ alternative St. Patrick’s Day green threads, accessorized by an elbow sleeve and specially-made sneakers, each in bright “kryptonite green.”
In the finals, Robinson wowed the crowd, throwing a high-arcing pass from the left corner, catching it on a bounce in the paint, pumping in the air with his back to the rim, converting a brilliant reverse jam. That dunk inspired TNT’s Kenny Smith to comment on air that “Nate is a freak of nature.”
Howard though, answered with an even better dunk, sending a huge buzz through the crowd, coming from along the right baseline, tossing the ball off of the right side of the backboard, catching it with his right hand, and forcing it home with a long, sweeping, forceful finish. Even Robinson reacted with a wince which suggested that he knew he was slightly outdone.
However, then came the moment which stole the show. Robinson, knowing he had to finish Superman off, resorted to using Howard himself, as well as a green “kryptonite” basketball for his final dunk. Howard, with a great show of sportsmanship, stood in the lane, facing the basket, and waved his hands, encouraging the crowd to cheer for Robinson. Nate The Great responded by leaping over the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Howard to make an amazing right-handed dunk. Howard ducked his head just a bit, and Robinson put his left hand on Howard’s back, but the dunk was still good enough to bring the house down.
Robinson was going to use 6-foot-11 Knick teammate Jared Jeffries for his final dunk until Howard agreed to Robinson’s request, which was made in a hotel elevator the day before the contest.
Howard tried to answer, running the length of the court, attempting to take off from the foul line, but he actually jumped from just inside the foul line for a nice dunk, but it wasn’t enough.
With the top of his head coming up only to the letters “MAGIC” on Howard’s Orlando Magic uniform, a nervous Robinson could barely listen as he hid his face under the front of his jersey while he and Howard waited for TNT’s Cheryl Miller to reveal the winner of the deciding fan vote submitted via text messages. Seconds later, Robinson exulted with both arms raised high after Miller called his name as the winner in a close vote, with Robinson winning 52% of the vote to Howard’s 48 percent.
Robinson returned the nice sportsmanship, telling the crowd, “Dwight was a great sport in letting me dunk over him. So, everyone give Dwight a hand for letting me dunk over him. That was the key point of the dunk contest.”
Hours after he won, Robinson admitted to WFAN’s Tony Paige that the outcome might have been different had Howard not agreed to be Robinson’s human prop. “I would have been stuck. I would have lost," Robinson said.
Robinson, who also won the event in 2006, joined Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Harold Miner, and Jason Richardson as the only two-time NBA slam dunk winners.
With Cleveland megastar Lebron James saying he may participate next year, Robinson left the door open for returning in 2010, in Dallas, to defend his title, but focused more on being happy to win this year. “I already did three [slam dunk events],” he said. “But, if they really want me to come back, I gotta dig in the archives and try to see if there are some more dunks I can do. Right now, I’m gonna enjoy it. I got the championship back to New York City.”
Well, Knick fans, it’s not the championship you’re seeking for New York, but for now, it was one that was a lot of fun to see.