Chuck Millan’s Twitter biography reads, “I know more about dunks than you.”
On February 12, 2000, his 16th birthday, Millan watched Vince Carter’s iconic performance, which revived the NBA Slam Dunk Contest after a two-year hiatus and changed Millan’s life. “I definitely watch [that contest] weekly, easily, and sometimes more,” Millan said. “You know how some people get home and they’re like, ‘Ah, I need a drink.’ I’m like, ‘Ah, I need some dunks.’”
Now, it’s Millan’s turn to revitalize the dunk contest, but not as a dunker. He gets paid by the NBA to teach players dunks. Every dunk that you’ll watch on Saturday night was carefully planned by Millan and the contestant on a practice court.
Millan has been enthralled with dunking ever since watching the famous 1988 battle between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins live, which is his first childhood memory. As a teenager, Millan snuck into gyms late at night to practice dunks and began posting videos of he and his friends dunking online. One of them went viral, garnering a million views overnight, and he’s made it his career ever since. He founded Team Flight Brothers, a traveling group of dunkers who performed and competed in contests.
Once Millan became known in the dunking world, he started hearing from NBA players, many of whom met him while participating in high school contests. In 2013, Terrence Ross reached out for advice before the NBA dunk contest then took home the trophy. John Wall got coaching from Millan en route to his win the next year.
In 2015, Millan gave Victor Oladipo the idea to try a 540. “He was like, ‘What do I do to beat Zach LaVine?’ and I was like ‘Nothing, let’s just get a cool dunk.’” The following year, Oladipo connected his teammate Aaron Gordon with Millan, who sent Gordon videos of six dunks that had never been done before in an NBA contest. Millan believed Gordon could pull them off, and Gordon used several of them in what is considered one of the greatest showcases in the history of the event.
Glenn Robinson III had never jumped over a person in his life prior to working with Millan in 2017, but he did just that on three of his four dunks and won the contest. The longshot upset caught the league’s attention. The NBA hired Millan as an official dunk contest coach in 2018, and he’s worked with every winner since. “My guy Chuck, he really helped me out,” Hamidou Diallo said in the press conference after his 2019 win, in which he used Millan’s idea to jump over Shaquille O’Neal.
Millan works alongside Chase Skinkis, who himself couldn’t dunk until he was in his 20s. Skinkis improved his athleticism by reading online forums and executing vertical jump training programs, and eventually made his own dunk videos.
At a dunk contest in 2009, Skinkis introduced himself. Millan was already familiar with Skinkis, because if there’s dunk-related content on the internet, Millan has probably watched it. “[Chuck’s] a dunk encyclopedia,” Skinkis said. “I’m very skilled in terms of the technical side of things … how the body is moving and how the hands are moving and just being very specific in breaking down dunks, so he brought me in to help, and it’s been a great partnership.”
The duo’s pointers range from adjusting the angle of approach to reminding a dunker to maintain good posture so that his head is higher relative to the rim. They know the tricks to pulling off every aerial maneuver. “I tell people to go under the legs, not through them,” Millan said. “These guys are flexible, so if you’re just lifting your leg up as high as you can and just going under your leg, it’s a lot easier. So just little stuff like that.”
They also come up with plans for how to increase anticipation before a dunk or engage the crowd after it. For instance, when Larry Nance Jr. doubled-tapped the ball off the backboard mid-air in 2018, a dunk Skinkis had developed himself, many spectators didn’t realize what he had done because it happened so fast. “That’s one of the things we talked about,” Skinkis said. “Right away I want you to give them the replay signal and make sure the judges are looking at it, and then you get that secondary reaction.’”
Millan’s coaching philosophy is ultimately motivated by his love of dunking. “Chuck’s great about doing what’s best for the dunker, saying ‘it’s not about me, it’s not about what social media’s gonna say about me, it’s about putting this guy in the best position to be the best that he can on that night,’” Skinkis said. “He’s got the right perspective.”
This year’s contest features no big names, but Philadelphia 76ers’ guard Mac McClung is a well-known figure in the dunking scene who brings many of his own ideas to the table, and there are some exceptional athletes in the field. “Jericho [Sims] is an absolute mutant,” Skinkis said. “Jericho jumps pro dunker high, paired with being 6-foot-10.’’
Millan feels “relaxed” about the event because it’s the first time that he’s gotten to practice with every contestant. “Every year there are one or two guys who practice beforehand, and the other two don’t, and it’s pretty easy to see every year who the two guys are,” Millan said. “Everybody in this contest wants to be in it … so they’ve all been working.”
The dunk contest has unquestionably lost some of its allure over the past decade, and social media plays a role. “The pushback is because you’re seeing these high-level dunks that people do on videos on highlight reels where all the misses are cut out,” Skinkis said. “I’ve been to all these pro dunk contests … the best dunkers of the world are there and I see how much they miss.”
Millan is proud of the creativity that recent iterations of the event have showcased. By his count, his clients have done 33 dunks that had never been done previously. He is not oblivious to recent criticism of the event, but as someone for whom the dunk contest meant so much as a kid, his goal is to protect its legacy. “When it was taken away in ‘98 … those were horrible times,” Millan said. “I don’t see it happening again anytime, but that’s something that I’m definitely trying to facilitate not happening.”
One way to ensure it would be attracting stars to compete, which Millan is confident will happen in the coming years. Zion Williamson, according to Millan, wants to participate, and only hasn’t done so because of injuries.
Millan only works about four months of the year on the NBA dunk contest, spending the rest of his time in the professional dunking world and running events such as the Dunk League. “I don’t think my story’s done until dunking is an Olympic sport, and that’s pretty much what the rest of my career is kind of devoted to,” Millan said. “But I just want the dunk contest to go on forever, and hopefully leave a little something behind.”