NBA All-Star Weekend: Mac McClung defends title in dunk event desperate for star power

INDIANAPOLIS — As the NBA transformed Indiana‘s capital into an advertisement for All-Star Weekend, the talk of the town (or at least the bar at St. Elmo Steak House) turned to nostalgia about the dunk contest.

“There was nothing I looked forward to more,” seemed to be a consensus. “Does anyone care anymore?”

The discussion went from, “It hasn’t been the same since Vince Carter,” to, “I bet Zach LaVine vs. Aaron Gordon was for that generation what Carter was for us,” and, “Mac McClung was pretty good last year.”

With that, there was some optimism about this year’s dunk contest, as McClung returned to defend his title, and Jaylen Brown joined the G League guard as the first All-Star to participate in the competition since Victor Oladipo in 2018. Rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. and two-way signee Jacob Toppin rounded out the field.

That’s a G Leaguer, a two-way guy, a rookie and Brown. The pressure was on the Boston Celtics wing to deliver against McClung, whose performance last year was legitimately jaw-dropping, if the NBA had any hope of enticing other All-Stars to take part and resurrect what was once the weekend’s showcase event.

The league tried — really tried — but it could not deliver a dunker better than McClung.

“There’s so many people that came at me before this,” said McClung. “Oh, man, you should be mad. You want to be in the NBA. You deserve to be in the NBA. And I believe I do. But I also think this is my human experience, and it’s my human experience for a reason, because without this grind and struggle I probably wouldn’t be able to impact like I do and have been lucky enough to do things like this. So this is my story, and I’ve embraced it. I’m going to keep fighting. I’m not going to quit no matter any other outcome.”

Jaylen Brown did his best to hang with the reigning dunk champ, Mac McClung. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Let’s just say the judges were kind to Brown. His first dunk, a recreation of Dominique Wilkins’ two-handed windmill, was encouraging. His second dunk? Not so much. The first attempt failed, and when Celtics teammate Jayson Tatum successfully threw a lob on the second attempt, and Brown leaped over YouTube celebrity Kai Cenat, he completed the dunk but was late to replicate Dee Brown’s elbow-over-the-eyes jam.

There were even some boos from the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd. Fans felt the judges shortchanged Toppin, who somehow received a worse score for completing a spinning 360-degree through-the-legs dunk. So, yeah, Brown advanced to face McClung in the final on a dunk that was widely derided. Not a great omen.

Brown’s final-round dunks: a powerful 360 and a left-handed slam over Donovan Mitchell, complete with a sequined glove, drawing attention to criticism of his handle. Good but not great. The best part about them was Brown’s jersey tribute to Terrence Clarke, a Boston-area draft prospect who died in a 2021 car crash.

“Terrence was like my little bro,” said Brown. “Definitely a Boston connection. I wanted to have a purpose in everything I was doing. I wanted everything to have a message behind it, and I think that’s what I did.”

The judges thought enough of Brown’s dunks that they required McClung to deliver something better than a score of 49 on his final dunk. He delivered, outfitting Shaquille O’Neal with his high school jersey — a call-back to McClung’s winning dunk from a year ago — and throwing down a reverse over the Hall of Famer.

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“Shaq is so cool to put on my high school jersey,” said McClung. “Makes me emotional that he did that. When he put it on, he said, ‘You better not miss this dunk.’ And I was like, ‘All right, I won’t miss it.'”

McClung followed a similar script to last year’s victory. He opened the contest by grabbing the ball off someone’s head and tossing it up to himself for the dunk of the night. It was akin to his opener from 2023, when he grabbed the ball from someone’s head in mid-air, tapped it off the backboard and found the net for another statement. The rest of McClung’s attempts followed similar twists on dunks we’ve seen before.

What was a welcome surprise became a novelty act the second time around. McClung is the first back-to-back champ since LaVine, and all anyone talked about was how the panel tried to hand Brown the contest.

When McClung arrived at the podium, a member of the NBA’s communications staff queried, “Same time next year?” McClung responded, “We’ll see,” one of three times he was non-committal about trying a three-peat.

Brown also didn’t sound like he’s bound to participate again. Fans probably aren’t clamoring for it, either.

“I think that was what the ultimate thing was to go out and have fun,” said Brown. “I accomplished that. It was an honor. At least I can say I did it at one point in my career, and I can live with that.”

What fans want are the biggest names — Michael Jordan vs. Dominique Wilkins — and originality. This was old hat. Take a page from Brown and raise your game, superstars, and try to beat a G League sensation.

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