Short Man Syndrome: The Advantage of Being Short in the NBA Dunk Contest

By Neil Curran

Spud Webb over Dominique Wilkins. Jordan from the free throw line. Dwight Howard as Superman. The NBA Slam Dunk Contest is a place where legends are both made and made greater. It’s the appeal of the act itself: the dunk has always been the metric by which athletes can distinguish themselves from other gym rats. Throw down your first dunk and you are suddenly transformed into the guy we all want on our team at the local gym.

The dunk contest favors the tall, the athletic, and the guys with “hops.” In the NBA, the average height for the 2007-2008 season was roughly 6’7.” The average height for the competitors of the Dunk Contest is 6’6,” while the average American male is a pedestrian 5’9.5.” If you’re anything like me, you dream of throwing down every night only to wake up disappointed when you can barely get a few inches off the ground. Occasionally though, someone upsets the norm and the “average” American throws down. The dream is realized and the spectacle of an “average” man jamming draws everyone in.

People look forward to the dunk contest just to dream. In the past few years, the spotlight has been on the little guy, the shortest man in the NBA, Nate Robinson (5’9”) versus Dwight Howard (6’11”). Robinson is the defending champion this year and has had some spectacular dunks, slams made even greater by his appearing as America’s David battling the NBA’s goliaths. Looking at this year’s lineup of Gerald Wallace (6’7”), Shannon Brown (6’4”), DeMar DeRozan (6’7”), and Nate Robinson, fans are getting a sampling of relatively short dunkers compared to years past. In fact, this year’s competition has the shortest lineup since the 3rd contest in 1986, when Spud Webb (5’7”) won.  Had Eric Gordon (6’3”) won the dunk-off last night, this year’s competitors would have been the shortest of all time.

Is there something to this? Are the shorter guys more likely to win? Consider this: the average height of the winner is 76.8 inches. The average of the runner-up is 78.1. 3rd and 4th average 78.6 and 78.8, respectively. The better the finish, the shorter the average height.  More advanced analysis also reveals that something is up. A (logistic) model that predicted whether a dunker would win based on his height was statistically significant: for each additional inch of height, the odds of that dunker’s winning the competition decrease by a factor of 1.14. A t-test that compared the heights of the winners and the runners-up revealed that those differences were significant as well.

Looking back on all the winners, the magic number seems to be 6’5”: that’s their average height, one inch below the total competitors’ average. In the last 25 contests, 15 winners have been shorter than at least two of their opponents. The big men are at a disadvantage. Dwight Howard raised the rim 2 feet (20%) to account for the 14 inch difference between Robinson and himself (16.86%). The only problem—it still looked too easy. America loves to see the underdog; in the case of the dunk contest, it wants the short guy to sky above his vertically gifted peers.

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