By Casey Bannon
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — He flew over Shaq like Nate Robinson did with Dwight Howard. He dunked and then dangled on the rim by his forearm like Vince Carter. And he tore open his jersey to reveal a Superman shirt like Cam Newton.
On a night where creativity, culture and controversy collided, Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Hamidou Diallo stole the show and then slipped away with a dunk contest victory on All-Star Saturday night.
After requesting the “biggest man in the arena,” Diallo strolled in front of the A-list courtside crowd who usually do the entertaining themselves. He passed billionaires, singers, actors and actresses, colleagues and a shimmering collection of jewelry between all of them. But he was looking for someone in particular–Shaquille O’Neal. After finally spotting him on the far side of the arena and appearing to meet him for the first time, their walk across the Spectrum Center left everyone wondering if he could he really jump over the 7-foot-1 Shaq. Everyone but Diallo, that is.
“Yeah, I was definitely sure,” Diallo said. “I wouldn’t have brought him out there if I wasn’t sure.”
Despite his internal confidence, doubt and angst filled the arena around him as Diallo took a running start and placed his left hand on the back of O’Neill to begin his jump. Even Shaq winced in preparation of a failure to launch. Instead, Diallo cleared the Hall of Famer easily, punched it home and for good measure, left half of his right arm in the hoop just as Vince Carter did in 2000. Diallo hung there for what felt like an eternity, more than enough time to open up his Thunder jersey to show his Superman undershirt. It was a tribute perhaps, but it felt like a statement after his towering achievement of clearing the real O’Neal after cobbling together mockups in practice.
“We tried having people stand, putting basketballs on top of them, just to make sure I could clear the shot,” Diallo said.
The rest of the contest was anti-climactic. For his last dunk in the final round against Dennis Smith Jr., needing only a 43 to win, Diallo called on Migos front man Quavo to hold the ball over his head while he leapfrogged over him and finished it with two hands. Nines across the board from the five judges would be enough to call it a night.
Diallo wasn’t the only one to call on a hip-hop superstar, as Smith Jr. used fellow Fayetteville, N.C., native J. Cole to toss him a lob for perhaps the second-most impressive dunk of the evening. Wearing Cole’s No. 15 jersey from his high school days just three hours down the road, Smith floated over the seated rapper from outside the restricted area and brought the arena to its feet. It was one of four perfect scores on the evening and one of three 50s in the second round.
With players only being judged on the dunk attempt they convert this year, Smith along with fellow competitors John Collins and Miles Bridges used all three of their attempts to their advantage—at times to the dismay of the Charlotte fans. Smith was booed after his final dunk of the evening despite receiving a perfect score—after multiple failed passes from Steph Curry and muffed transitions, Smith finally vaulted over the back of Dwyane Wade and hook-slammed it with the right hand.
“Dennis stole my third dunk,” Diallo said. “I was going to try to use D-Wade last and just try to do a little thing for one last dance. That was my favorite player growing up but it still worked out for the best. “
Also unimpressed by the lack of fan support was Collins, who promised to appeal to all ages with his dunks before the contest. He did just that by using his second attempt to honor the “First in Flight” history of the host state. There was a model Wright Brothers’ airplane, flanked by five people dressed as Tuskegee Airmen. Collins himself wore an old-fashioned flight scarf and helmet while jumping over the plane from just inside the free–throw line. Despite clipping the wings with his right foot on the takeoff, the Hawks forward landed safely and completed the dunk for an underwhelming score of 42.
“The fans just didn’t react,” Collins said. “And the judges were harsh tonight.”
Representing his hometown team, Miles Bridges gave the Hornets faithful in attendance something to cheer about in the second round, posting the first 50 of the night. He might have added another and possibly advanced had his off-the-backboard and between-the-legs dunk not rattled out in the opening round.
Rookies have now taken home the slam-dunk hardware to their respective teams for the second year in a row after Donovan Mitchell won in 2018. For Diallo, neither the first All-Star weekend experience nor the prospect of clearing the gargantuan Shaq was daunting.
“I’ll say it’s the New York in me,” said the Queens native. “I know how to play things down a little bit. I just went out there and I knew if I did what I had to do, I was going to bring a trophy home.”