Chuck Millan will never forget what happened on the night of his 16th birthday. He invited friends over to his house in Bonita Springs, Fla., and together they gathered in his living room. Millan says he didn’t want to do “birthday stuff” on Feb. 12, 2000. Something more important was taking place instead. “I wanted to watch Vince Carter in the dunk contest,” he says two decades later. “I don’t even celebrate my birthday, man, I celebrate the dunk contest.”
This weekend marks the 20-year anniversary of the night that Carter helped resurrect the NBA dunk contest from the grave of All-Star weekend. With a series of a show-stopping slams, the Raptors star helped save the competition, taking center stage at an event that didn’t occur in 1998 and 1999. It was among the most memorable moments in Carter’s career and changed the landscape of Canadian basketball. But to Millan, the cofounder and CEO of Team Flight Brothers, the world’s leading professional dunking company, that contest’s impact is more personal.
“Without that night I wouldn’t have started my company,” he says. “Vince Carter’s dunk contest that night changed the path of professional dunking.”
Being a professional dunker is different than being a professional basketball player. Though many pro dunkers played basketball at some level themselves, professional dunkers travel the world entertaining fans by putting on contests, showcasing their dunking prowess during halftime shows and by dunking in commercials, among other common jobs. Millan was once a professional dunker himself, and Team Flight Brothers has helped grow the sport and increase its popularity. Still, many dunkers have second jobs, finding other ways to supplement the often modest five-figure or low-six-figure salaries that come from a year’s worth of events. One professional dunker estimates there are maybe 60 true professionals in the world. A group of 10–12 dunkers currently dominates the industry, frequently working the best jobs.
Listen to some of those elite dunkers talk, and it becomes obvious that what they do is far more than novelty entertainment. It’s a profession that combines world-class athleticism with boundless creatively. It’s also a relatively new.
“[The 2000 contest] put dunking in somewhat of a limelight,” says Jonathan Clark, a 31-year-old professional dunker considered to be among the world’s elite group.
Like Millan, Clark remembers the night of Carter’s showcase. Clark, a California native, was in his grandmother’s living room, eating his favorite meal: a Fatburger burger, Fat fries and a Vanilla milkshake. “I just know my life was different after watching that dunk contest,” he says.
As he aged, Clark grew an affinity for jumping, both on the basketball court and on the track. He attended UCLA, participating in both high jump and triple jump. And after his jumping career ended, he felt an athletic void. It was in February 2013 that Clark made his first between-the-legs dunk, an homage to one of Carter’s famous slams in the 2000 Bay Area event. It served as a spark, opening Clark’s eyes to a professional industry he previously didn’t know existed. “That was the dunk that kicked it off,” he says. “100%.”
Millan notes that Carter’s 2000 victory opened up a “Pandora’s box” of creative possibilities. Jordan Southerland, a 26-year-old professional dunker from Marietta, Ga., adds that Carter’s performance pushed the boundaries of what could be done in the air.
“It looked fake, but it looked so poetic,” Southerland says of Carter’s famous reverse-360 windmill. “It looked like ballet on a basketball court, the way he spun.”
Southerland explains that Carter brought a “new level of creativity, of flair” to dunking and made it look “so smooth and easy.” At the beginning of Southerland’s professional dunking career, he would watch a Vince Carter top-100 dunk reel before every one of his own contests. He wanted to do everything that Carter did, but by only jumping off one foot and not two.
As professional dunkers continued to watch Carter’s highlights, clips of their own successes started to become more widespread. Increases in YouTube and Instagram popularity allowed fans to see their dunks more regularly. It also connected professional dunkers to potential employers and even each other. Plus, social media additionally served as launching pad for more dunk ideas. The current wave of star professional dunkers largely grew up in the social media era, hitting their athletic peaks at a time where videos of their slams could be shared more easily than ever before.
“Social media is everything when it comes to the dunking industry,” says 22-year-old Isaiah Rivera, considered by some to currently be the best professional dunker in the world.
As the profession started becoming more mainstream, Millan began working with participants in the NBA’s annual contest. He initially coached players privately, helping Terrence Ross, Aaron Gordon and Donovan Mitchell take either first or second place during All-Star weekend. In the 2017 slam dunk contest, Millan also worked with Glen Robinson III and flew the then 19-year-old Rivera to Indianapolis to show Robinson just what was possible. Rivera says that he raised the idea of Robinson’s opening “Tetris” dunk with the forward, before demonstrating a slam that entailed jumping over two people, one holding the other. After showing Robinson, the Pacers wing then tried it in practice. Together the trio agreed it would be play a key part in what turned out to be a victorious performance.
For the second straight year, Millan is officially working for the NBA, offering his services to the events’ participants. He says that this Saturday night will feature four or five dunks that have never been done before.
Intentionally or not, Carter helped launch a profession. Millan says he still gets goosebumps thinking about his 16 birthday. He remembers how pissed off he was when he missed the initial TV replay of Carter’s windmill because he ran out of his house in a wave of excitement. Millan adds that not a week goes by when he doesn’t rewatch the event. He of course knows Kenny Smith’s broadcast commentary by heart.
To Millan and those in the industry he’s been instrumental in crafting, perceptions of what could be possible were altered on Feb. 12, 2000.
“That night didn’t just change the dunk world,” Millan says. “That night birthed the dunk world.”