You cannot tell the story of Michael Jordan without dedicating a chapter to how he popularized the dunk. Interestingly, because dunks were not officially tracked until after Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls, MJ’s Basketball-Reference page shows him having a measly 41 career dunks — all of which were as a member of the Washington Wizards (2001-03), and none of which were particularly memorable.
Thankfully, there are countless highlight reels of Air Jordan’s dunks, and in anticipation of the first episode of ESPN'S Jordan documentary series “The Last Dance" (Sunday, 9 p.m. ET), I’ve compiled 23 of No. 23’s greatest jams. The following list is numbered but not ranked in any particular order. If I had to rank my three favorites, however, I’d go with No. 22, No. 20 and No. 1.
See if you agree with me ...
DUNKS PRECEDED BY GREAT MOVES
23. Splits pick-and-roll, dunks on Armen Gilliam (26-second mark)
If there’s one thing Michael Jordan enjoyed, it was dunking on the Charlotte Hornets — some might even say he “owned” them. The interesting thing about this dunk during the 1989-90 season is that Jordan aggressively split a pick-and-roll in a move that you don’t see much in highlights from that era — it looks more like something you’d see from Russell Westbrook. The move was followed by a hop-step and hammer on Gilliam, who thought about taking a charge but bailed once he saw it was too late.
22. In-and-out dribble and slam on Cavs (3:14 mark)
Oh. My. God. That was an unbelievable display of athleticism, grace and power all in one play. The transition from a smooth, concise in-and-out dribble to a monster jam over a shot blocker is something only the likes of Kobe Bryant or Vince Carter could replicate years later. Be sure to watch this highlight with the sound on — the commentators’ reactions are excellent. “Where!?! Where did he get the energy on that one?”
21. Transition dunk vs. Heat (3:10 mark)
This slam in 1992 was like the dunking version of Steph Curry’s crazy dribbling sequence through the entire Clippers defense in 2015. Jordan got a steal at the opposite free throw line and proceeded to dribble all over the place, engaging basically every Heat defender along the way, then threw down a huge dunk.
20. In and out dribble and dunk on Tripucka’s head (3:47 mark)
Told you the Hornets got it bad from MJ. Here we get another breathtakingly effective in-and-out dribble, followed by one hell of a disrespectful dunk in 1989. While not as difficult as his dunk from No. 22 above, it’s equally impressive because of how badly he embarrassed the two defenders who tried to stop him on a fast break. Rex Chapman got frozen into the floor on the move, and Kelly Tripucka got dunked into oblivion.
19. Dunk on Jerrod Mustaf (1:48 mark)
Mustaf, a rookie on the Knicks, played only four seasons in the league, but Jordan more or less ended his career with this dunk during the 1990-91 season. Perhaps the coolest aspect of it was that Jordan got cocky with his dribble, momentarily lost control of the ball, regained it and then got to the basket with a mean crossover dribble before dunking Mustaf into the next dimension.
18. Fast break dunk on 76ers David Wingate (47-second mark)
Like so many of his dunks on this list, Jordan starts off with a nice defensive play, running through a passing lane for the steal and then takes off from the edge of the paint to jam one on Wingate in 1987. Poor Wingate jumps about as high as he can to block the dunk...only to start his descent when his hand reaches Jordan’s elbow.
17. Dunk over Terry Tyler (3:46 mark)
This one happened in MJ’s rookie season, in 1984-85, against a Pistons team that would one day be his most formidable foe. Much like Windgate in No. 18, Terry Tyler simply could not elevate anywhere close to the height necessary to contest this dunk...and paid the price as this play will exist in perpetuity in YouTube.
16. Dunk on Cavaliers Bob Sura (1:14 mark)
The only thing worse than trying to jump with Jordan was trying to draw a charge on a Jordan dunk attempt and then realizing you’re too late. That’s what happened to Sura here in 1997, as he added insult to injury by changing his mind again at the last second and trying to jump. For his indecisiveness, he caught a forearm to the neck and ended up on the back of a milk carton.
People forget that Woolridge was MJ’s running mate in Chicago for the 1984-85 and 1985-86 seasons. (He averaged 21.9 points during those two seasons for the Bulls.) Unfortunately for Woolridge, Jordan wasn’t feeling sentimental when he made this backdoor cut and crammed a one-handed tomahawk jam on his former teammate’s dome in 1990.
This All-Star Game dunk contest moment in 1988 makes this list for myriad reasons. There was Jordan’s showmanship leading up to the dunk — he knows he needs a 48 to beat Dominique Wilkins, and he’s playing to the Chicago crowd, letting the excitement build, as he slowly plots his foul-line dunk. There’s obviously the distance he travels through the air and ferocity with which he finishes the dunk. And there’s also the synchronicity of his single-pump with the ball and his double-leg kick in mid-air — it’s absolute poetry in motion and looks like he’s actually walking on air.
This dunk in 1992 was so cool because you don’t even see Jordan until he’s cocking the ball back for an emphatic tip slam. It might have been a lane violation, but who cares? Nobody, to my knowledge, had ever pulled off such a perfectly timed tip dunk off a free throw like that. And not many players have done it since...besides Jordan of course.
Although he’d rocked the cradle previously at UNC (to the chagrin of Dean Smith), and would go on to do so on numerous occasions as a pro (sometimes finishing with two-hands instead of one), none was more memorable than Jordan’s dunk in his first game at Madison Square Garden in 1984. Everything about the dunk was perfect, from the takeoff point to the tongue to that graceful yet powerful way in which he finishes.
DUNKS ON ABNORMALLY LARGE HUMANS
While this was by no means his most ferocious dunk, it was still an impressive feat when you consider the fact that the player he dunked over was 7-foot-1 and nicknamed "Tree." MJ’s quickness and efficient footwork were on full display here in 1986 as well — watch how quickly he got from the wing to the rim.
Jordan nearly jumped over the 6-foot-11 Sikma, who was so outmatched athletically on the play that MJ didn't even taunt him after the 1990 dunk.
You won’t see many dunks like this ever again. Why? Because there’s so much more spacing in today’s NBA — a modern player wouldn’t have to be as concise as MJ was with his path to the hoop. Here, Jordan buckled Shannon Anderson with a mean cross-over dribble and then immediately hop-stepped into a huge dunk over the 7-foot-2 Ostertag. Even Jordan took a moment to marvel at this 1998 dunk afterward.
I’m glad we have slow-motion instant replay for dunks like this. In real time, Jordan faked out the entire Miami defense and dunked before you could even blink. In slow motion, you can see the full arm extension and the midair adjustment to take the contact and still finish this 1992 dunk over yet another 6-foot-11 opponent. Masterful.
7. “Is he big enough?”
This famous sequence against the Jazz in 1987 began when Jordan caught an entry pass with the 6-foot-1 John Stockton trying to guard him, turned and dunked. Some heckler from the Utah crowd yelled at Jordan to “pick on someone your own size!” Challenge accepted. On the Bulls next possession, Jordan proceeded to hammer one over the 6-foot-11 Mel Turpin. Then he turned to the heckler and yelled, “Is he big enough?” Legendary.
Somehow Jordan’s epic dunk over Turpin wasn’t even his most impressive posterizing dunk over a Jazz big man. That came when he cranked one on the 7-foot-4 giant Mark Eaton. This dunk is all the more impressive because Eaton once averaged an NBA record 5.6 blocks per game for an entire 82-game season!
Speaking of dunking on humongous people, MJ once dunked on the tallest basketball player in NBA history: Manute Bol. Though he used the rim as a way to shield the 7-foot-7 Bol from altering his dunk attempt, Jordan’s baseline reverse dunk during the 1992-93 season was still impressive for the mere fact that he even attempted one knowing that Bol was lurking.
4. Dunk over Joe Barry Carroll (4:01 mark)
I still can’t tell how Jordan was able to finish this dunk. First, he shed contact from the 6-foot-8 Ben McDonald in midair, continued to elevate and then somehow jammed the ball in the hoop without hitting the back iron by squeezing it through the basketball-sized gap between the side of the backboard and Joe Barry Carroll’s hand. Simply amazing.
This fabled MJ dunk was the culmination of some friendly trash talk (see video) between the shot-blocking extraordinaire Mutombo and Jordan (both shared an agent and Mutombo had always said Jordan would never dunk on him). Well, MJ got the best of Mutombo here in 1997 and topped it off by giving Mutombo his famous finger-wag right back at him after the dunk.
2. Screaming dunk over Alonzo Mourning (2:55 mark)
Jordan enjoyed dunking on all sorts of Georgetown centers (just wait until No. 1). This 1993 dunk over Mourning is easily the most ferocious dunk of Jordan’s NBA career. Seeing him yell as he’s dunking, and then again afterward has me intimidated just watching. I can’t imagine how ‘Zo and his teammates felt.
This is arguably the best in-game dunk ever. It took place in the 1991 playoffs against a team that would later become his main rival in the Eastern Conference, the New York Knicks. The dunk was preceded by an incredibly nifty move to escape a double-team along the baseline. And the punctuating dunk was right on top of a 7-foot, Hall of Fame center who averaged 3.4 blocks per game from 1990-92. Kudos to Ewing for trying, but this is why it was never a good idea to jump with the Jumpman.
*BONUS* HUMANITY-SAVING DUNK
With the fate of the Earth on the line, Jordan came through when it mattered most in 1996, jamming home this preposterous dunk at the buzzer to beat the Monstars. Some might say it’s fake, but I dare those people to watch the 23 dunks above and tell me Jordan couldn’t fly.