To win a dunk contest staged amid a pandemic, Anfernee Simons saved a socially distanced kiss of the rim for last.
The 6-foot-3 guard put his eyes above the hoop and smooched his lips together while flushing the ball with his right hand on his third and final leap of Sunday’s competition to become the first Portland Trail Blazer to win the league’s dunk contest.
His mouth never met the rim as initially intended, pulling his head away inches from his target. Simons considered wearing a mouthpiece until a model custom designed for him in recent days didn’t fit his mouth.
“I was like, I'm just going to emphasize the smooch face so people know that I'm right there next to the rim and I'm trying to kiss it,” Simons said.
It was enough to win the kiss of approval from a five-judge panel whose 3-2 vote crowned Simons champion over New York’s Obi Toppin in the final. Indiana’s Cassius Stanley, the Los Angeles product whose first dunk wowed social media — the judges, less so — didn’t make it out of the two-dunk first round.
“I didn't even think I would be here honestly,” said Simons, who cradled his golden trophy and beamed throughout a videoconference. “It's just crazy. A week ago, two weeks ago if you would have told me I would have been in the dunk contest and I would have won it, I would have looked at you crazy. Like, really?”
As he prepared for the contest, Simons sought advice from teammate Derrick Jones Jr., a previous dunk-contest champion, and between jumps Sunday he walked over to the sideline to talk with All-Star teammate Damian Lillard and Chicago's Zach LaVine, another past champion.
“I was just going to him saying, was that worthy?” Simons said. “Because he's a guy that is arguably a part of the greatest dunk contest of all time, so he knows when he sees a great dunk.”
Simons needed to ask, too, because with only a few hundred friends, family members and team and league personnel inside the arena, there was little crowd reaction from which to gauge receptions to his dunks. Instead of sitting at a dais on the court itself, judges sat on an elevated platform behind a hoop, separated from one another by clear plastic partitions.
“I think just the fact that I made the dunk contest got me pretty hyped up,” Simons said. “When I was nervous, I think I jumped higher, so I think it helped me out a lot.”
Like his last dunk, the 21-year-old Simons opened the competition emphasizing his vertical leap by asking an arena worker to place a ball on a holder near the top of the backboard’s square, roughly 11 ½ feet above the court, before grabbing it with two hands and dunking on the regulation rim on his way down. The idea, he said, came from Portland assistant Dale Osbourne.
Simons then clinched a place in the final with his second dunk by paying homage to Tracy McGrady, the former Orlando Magic star whom Simons credited for helping him fall in love with basketball while growing up in Florida. Wearing a Toronto Raptors-era McGrady jersey, Simons finished a 360-degree slam that was awarded by judges a score of 49 out of a possible 50 points.
“I had a chance to meet him a couple times when I was younger but I was too scared to meet him,” Simons said. “Hopefully one day, I'll get to meet him.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.