When Griffey, Bonds and Lofton battled other '90s stars in a dunk contest

All the biggest stars of the 1990s on one basketball court

January 7th, 2024
Illustration by Benjamin Marra

You've probably seen it pop up on your Twitter timeline or in random YouTube searches over the years. Just its mere existence -- the fact it really, actually happened -- brings a smile to your face.

Flashy 1990s graphics flying across the screen. Packed arenas with Dick Vitale Dick-Vitale-ing behind the mic. All-Star athletes from every single sport -- Olympic long-jumper Mike Powell, two-sport legend Bo Jackson and MLB Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. -- trying to out-dunk each other in front of raucous crowds.

"It was fun because you get to see different athletes who aren't all playing basketball," Kenny Lofton told me in a phone call. "You have track, you have football, you have some basketball, I think we had tennis. It was a big thing at the time. It was Foot Locker Slam Fest."

The event, which ran from 1988-1996, originated after discussions between former Foot Locker CEO Howard Sells and other executives in the late 80s. It was seen as a chance to promote the popular retail store as the go-to place for athletes, and their fans, to buy sneakers.

"With sneaker brands emerging as major TV advertisers, athlete endorsements were growing to be much more prominent and effective," Francine Feder, VP of Consumer Connections for North America for Foot Locker, told me over email. "This event was created by Foot Locker to develop an ownership opportunity that reinforced our position as a top player in athletic retail by aligning with the biggest names in sports."

The contest was first hosted at Arizona State and, as years went on and it got bigger, it moved into NBA arenas. Everywhere it moved, it sold out. It aired on ESPN and NBC for millions to see.

"The participation formula was six marquee athletes and six top shelf dunkers," Feder said. "The majority of MLB players that we approached were not dunkers, but we had a lot of success attracting superstar names such as Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson who asked for nothing other than the prize money and room and board. We made sure we had a nice balance representative of different sports."

The first-place winner received $50,000, the runner-up got $25,000 and third won $15,000.

The scenes and sets were bursting with colors and NBA Jam-style art. From the head-to-head matchup graphics ...

To the video game-esque font ...

To the incredible trading cards to commemorate the players involved.

And to attract attention from any and every possible sports fan, organizers invited any and every top-tier athlete in sports. Some, like Olympic high jumper Dwight Stones, felt a bit overwhelmed, with guys like Barry Bonds and Michael Irvin sprinting up and down the court in pickup games the night before.

“Some of the guys were so athletic, and I was like, ‘I’m going to get my a** kicked,’” Stones recalled to Sports Collectors Daily.

Mike Conley Sr., an Olympic gold medalist in the long jump whose son, Mike Jr., currently plays for the Timberwolves, made a name for himself in Slam Fest (maybe even more than the Olympics) when he dunked from the foul line in 1992. He beat fellow track and field star Powell in a matchup of two guys that, well, jumped for a living.

"After I won the first Slam Fest, I got off the plane and someone said, 'Hey, you're Mike Conley, the slam-dunker,'" Conley said at the time. "That's what they know me for. I'm a jumper by trade, but I've had more people ask me for my autograph since I've competed [in the Slam Fest]."

Deion threw down in a beret and chain. A 5-foot-8, 200-pound Barry Sanders was doing double-pump, reverse jams.

The only two MLB players to ever win? Lofton and Delino DeShields. DeShields, father of WNBA star Diamond, knew exactly why I had reached out to him specifically about the Slam Fest days.

"Because I was a champion?" the current Harrisburg Senators manager laughed over the phone.

He remembered the contests fondly more than three decades later.

"It was a lot of great talent," DeShields said. "Prime and Junior, you can go down the list. A lot of really talented athletes. Just to be a part of it was kind of special."

Despite all the competition, DeShields, an All-American basketball player in high school who nearly signed a letter of intent to play college ball at Villanova, felt pretty good signing up for Slam Fest in 1990.

"Coming in, I had no doubt that I was gonna win," the 6-foot-1 former second baseman and outfielder said, recalling that host Vitale even predicted he'd be one to watch for during that night.

And win, he did, beating Jets defensive back Erik McMillan in the finals with an off-the-backboard, 360-degree jam.

Lofton, a perennial All-Star known for having some hops on the baseball field, won one of the closest ever contests in 1996, beating Conley after the long-jump star missed his -- by that point -- signature foul-line dunk.

"I'm the Foot Locker Slam Fest reigning champ," Lofton said. "I won the last one."

The 17-year MLBer had even more high-level basketball experience than DeShields: Lofton played key roles on Arizona Wildcats teams that went to the Sweet 16 and Final Four. Still, he wasn't as confident as DeShields going into Slam Fest.

"It's all about jumping and dunking," Lofton said. "It had nothing to do with if you played on a college team. You just had to be able to jump and dunk and be creative."

Lofton's go-to dunk? The Statue of Liberty. It helped him get a 9.9 from the judges.

"You throw the ball up in the air and you put your hand behind your back," Lofton explained. "Karl Malone and whoever did it at that time."

Both Lofton and DeShields -- who participated in two contests each -- very much enjoyed their time at Slam Fest. Who wouldn't love throwing down rim-shattering dunks in front of screaming crowds? They'd also love for it to make a comeback today (Think Mookie Betts vs. Tyreek Hill in a televised dunk-off).

"It was just very exciting seeing all of these athletes trying to show their jumping abilities," Lofton said. "Seeing guys from different sports pretty much in their prime."

"It was a tremendous event," DeShields agreed. "You have some of the best athletes in the world participating. Everybody outside the NBA was present. That was pretty cool."

Nobody's too sure why the Slam Fest died out after 1996. Maybe Foot Locker didn't want to put it on anymore, maybe it just ran out of steam. Perhaps -- especially with teams today worried about player injury -- it was something that could only exist in an early-1990s vacuum. It seems meant to be watched and reminisced upon years later through fun, I-can't-believe-this-happened videos on the Internet. Maybe it's better that way.

It had its moment, and it was perfect for it.