O’Neal, one of the all-time NBA greats and part of TNT’s “Inside the NBA” team, was greeted with enormous applause as he made his way into the gym, located 15 miles south of Houston.
After briefly interrupting the 3-point competition, O’Neal walked past a rack of basketballs and promptly missed all five of his spur-of-the-moment 3-point attempts.
As a player, O’Neal wasn’t known for his shooting, but for his power game so it was fitting that O’Neal was one of the judges for the slam dunk contest. O’Neal engaged the crowd throughout and also kept the competitors involved.
“He was the hardest judge, like he kept giving me a hard time,” said Troy Baxter, of Oldsmar (Fla.) Christian. “But I beat them.”
Indeed, Baxter bested the field of eight of the nation’s top dunkers, using a simple strategy.
“Just coming in and doing dunks that I knew how to do and that I have been doing for the longest and not trying new dunks,” said Baxter, a 6-8 South Florida signee who is ranked No. 90 in the ESPN 100.
In the final round, Baxter’s windmill dunk earned a perfect score of 40, beating Elijah Pemberton of Cheshire (Conn.) Academy. Pemberton was invited to the event after winning the #DreamFearlessly Fan Vote.
“I threw it up and windmilled it, and it really was an easy dunk,” Baxter said. “That’s one of my easiest dunks. I’ve been doing that dunk for a long time, since middle school. So it’s nothing to me. It’s second nature.”
If needed for the final, Baxter had a dunk that he was thinking of using.
“It definitely would have been the between the legs, reverse it,” Baxter said. “That’s one dunk I didn’t do. I’m kind of mad I didn’t do that … but I won.”
The only other competitor to get a perfect score was Mark Vital from Advanced Prep International (Dallas). The Baylor signee earned his 40 in the first round.
O’Neal was joined on the judging panel by Michigan State star and national Player of the Year Denzel Valentine, Houston Texans defensive lineman Devon Still and American Family Insurance CFO Dan Kelly.
The event will air on CBS on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET
“It means a lot,” Baxter said of winning. “I have a lot of family and friends that will be watching it back home and I just wanted to show off for them.”