Lewenberg: Ross set to defend dunk title in renovated contest

Josh Lewenberg

2/15/2014 5:03:57 PM

NEW ORLEANS - Something about Terrence Ross in the spotlight still seems unnatural, though he has proven that he's worthy of the attention.

On Saturday night he'll only take up a third of it when he aims to defend his Slam Dunk title in the new-look contest, taking place at New Orleans' Smoothie King Center.

A year ago, Ross defeated reigning champion and little-known Jazz forward Jeremy Evans in a fan vote, breathing some new life into a floundering competition.

But does he see himself as the defending champ?

"I only do that just because that's what everybody calls me or they always ask me if I'm going to defend my championship," said the Raptors' modest and soft-spoken sophomore, who was reluctant to re-enter the contest this season, though he felt obligated to. "I have to. I just feel like if you win a championship you have to defend it."

This year he'll share the court with a few more familiar faces. For the first time in 26 years, the Slam Dunk contest will feature three All-Stars, two of which compete on a team with Ross as the event takes on a controversial new format.

Teaming up with a couple of Eastern Conference All-Stars in Paul George and John Wall, Ross' squad will oppose All-Star Swiss Army knife Damian Lillard and the West's Harrison Barnes and Ben McLemore.

The contest's first round, a 90-second freestyle showcase, will force the teams to work together and assist on each other's dunks. Ross met with his teammates Thursday evening to rehearse and formulate a strategy. All three say they're ready to go.

"We got our game plan ready," said the Pacers' George, an All-Star starter. "We're all going to have fun with it, we're all going to be a part of one another's dunks so it'll be a fun game."

In the second round the East dunkers will go head-to-head with the competitors from the West until a team of three is crowned champion. Fans will then vote for the "Dunker of the Night" from the winning team. Intended to spice up an event that's lost its luster, the twist is one that may take some getting used to, one that not everyone is on board with. The participants, as you would expect, have high hopes for the new format.

"I personally like [the new format]," Ross said. "A lot of people don't like it but after they see what's going to happen, how the dunks are going to turn out everybody's going to like it."

"I think it makes it more fun," Lillard agreed. "It's a little bit less pressure on each individual dunker, it's a little more of a group thing and a team thing."

However, not everyone is so optimistic.

"I just feel like the dunk contest from back in the day has always been pretty simple and that's what made it good," said All-Star forward Blake Griffin, who won the 2011 competition after jumping over the hood of a Kia. "So I don't know how I feel about putting in a lot of extra stuff. I think it should just be get out there and let them dunk. I think they've made it a little too rigid. Just kind of make it more free and let guys have more fun with it and I think they'll get better results out of it."

Whether you love it, hate it, sit somewhere in between or are reserving judgment, the NBA will take another stab at reinventing an event that is still haunted by the memory of Vince Carter's iconic performance in 2000.

14 years after that fateful night in Oakland, Carter's show-stopping dunks remain a hot topic of conversation at All-Star weekend. At the time it was exactly what the dunk-off needed, problem is Carter set the bar too high.

"It was almost like he made it feel like it wasn't a dunk contest," said Ross, who was just nine years old when he watched Carter make history. "It was kind of like a clinic or like a tutorial, how he just went out there and every dunk he did was like first try, done, 50. It was unreal to see because you haven't seen anybody shut down a dunk contest since."

No one has topped it and perhaps no one ever will. All the format changes in the world won't change that but an infusion of young talent and star power could.

With Ross, the defending champ, facing off against three brand-name players, there's more excitement going into this weekend's event than there has been in years past. Still, everyone is clamouring to see a certain MVP throw his hat in the ring.

"LeBron (James) would make the Dunk Contest so much more exciting," Ross admitted. "He would have people hanging from the ceiling just to try to get in and watch it. The atmosphere would probably be unreal and that's something I would like to experience. If he ever does it I would sign up again for it. Hopefully one day he does it."

He has a Dunk Contest trophy on his shelf and a 51-point game on his resume, yet Ross is still getting comfortable with the attention. It took him a little while to allow his excitement to build up and come out but with a new format and fresh competition, the 23-year-old finally has his game face on. Better late than never.

"That's even more incentive for me to go in now and try to do it again," he said. "It's like a new contest."