When the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest is held this February at All-Star Weekend in Indianapolis, the winner of the first contest will likely be in the house. But Darnell Hillman will not be kicking the bottom of the backboard or grabbing $100 off the glass.

At age 74, those days are behind him.

But what is not behind Hillman is the ability to give everyone a Slam-Dunk-Contest history lesson, along with a number of life lessons like the ones he gave to youngsters who attended the Indiana Pacers’ basketball camps over the past several decades.

“This was my gimmick: I would start my presentation by jumping and kicking the bottom of the backboard with my shoe,” Hillman told Legends Magazine in a phone interview. “That got the kids’ attention, and I told the coaches I would be able to take it from there. Once they saw me do that, they were ready to listen.”

Hillman has plenty of stories from the old ABA and the first season after the ABA-NBA merger, and listening to him speak is equal parts educational and inspirational. Hillman was a high jumper at San Jose State when he was in college and was teammates with John Carlos, the track star who became famous along with Tommie Smith for raising their fists in the Black Power salute during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

When Hillman was on the San Jose State track team, Carlos saw him practicing his high jumps with the bar set at 6 feet. Carlos came over, grabbed Hillman by the lapels of his shirt and ordered the 6-foot-9 Hillman to set the bar at 7 feet for every single practice jump.

“I was a pretty tough guy, and here he was grabbing me and getting in my face, so I seized him up,” Hillman said. “I realized he was a world-record holder, and so I humbly said, ’What would you like me to do?’ He said, ‘From now on, that bar gets set at 7 feet every single time you practice.’ He was always looking at me when I practiced.

“In the first meet after he told me that, I cleared 7 feet on my first jump. And I went up to him afterward and told him, ‘I understand what you did. You taught me to set your goals high enough that you have to work for it, but not so high that you cannot achieve it.’”

Hillman grew up in Sacramento when young men his age were being drafted and sent to Vietnam. In 11th grade, he had a great game and the father of one of the opposing players was on the California state draft board. Hillman got drafted into the Armed Services shortly after that game, and he believes it’s because the father wanted to prevent his son from having to play against Hillman again. Hillman was fortunate enough to make the Army basketball team under coach Hal Fisher and was able to stay out of Vietnam by playing hoops in Germany, Yugoslavia and Italy among other places throughout his military-service time.

After the ABA and NBA merged prior to the 1976-77 season, the NBA borrowed a page from the ABA playbook and had its first-ever Slam Dunk Contest in that post-merger season. Hillman began the 1976-77 season with the Pacers and defeated Moses Malone (Houston Rockets), Richard Washington (Kansas City Kings) and Mickey Johnson (Chicago Bulls) in dunk-offs held at halftime of games televised by CBS, then defeated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the semifinals at the All-Star Game on Abdul-Jabbar’s home court in Milwaukee.

The finals didn’t take place until Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Portland, where the Trail Blazers were playing the 76ers, and Hillman had been traded in the interim from the Pacers to the Nets for “Super” John Williamson. As a result, the NBA would not allow him to wear a Pacers jersey or a Nets jersey, so Hillman competed in a white Adidas tank top after warming up with a “Bottle Shoppe” sweatshirt from the liquor store that sponsored his softball team. (ABA alumni, led by ex-Pacer Mel Daniels, later created the Dropping Dimes Foundation and sold replica Bottle Shoppe sweatshirts to raise money for veterans of the league that used a red, white and blue basketball.) Hillman won the contest, and he spent the prize money on a new car – a Pontiac Grand Prix SJS 2-door for his mother, Winona Irene Hillman. Shortly after, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest was discontinued until 1984, when Larry Nance defeated Julius Erving.

The Pacers, much like the San Antonio Spurs, embrace their ABA roots more than the two other ABA teams that were merged into the NBA in 1976, the Denver Nuggets and Nets (who were known as the New York Nets and then the New Jersey Nets prior to relocating to Brooklyn). The most famous ABA Slam Dunk Contest happened in 1976 with Erving defeating David Thompson by taking off from the free-throw line and dunking. However, Erving did not participate in the 1977 contest because the prize was $15,000, and Erving felt it should be higher. Former CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger floated the idea of a winner-take-all contest between Hillman and Erving after the 1977 finals, but it never came to fruition.

Hillman’s leaping ability is legendary, and he reputedly won a wager by plucking a $100 bill off the top of a backboard and putting it in his pocket before his feet hit the floor. His coach with the Pacers, Bobby “Slick” Leonard, often joked that Hillman could pluck a quarter off the top of a backboard and leave two dimes and a nickel in its place.

Hillman first met Erving when the two tried out for the Pan American Games team when Erving was still a student-athlete at UMass. Dr. J made that team along with Paul Westphal and Elmore Smith, and Hillman later played alongside a young Bill Walton on an Armed Forces team that competed in Germany prior to Walton committing to UCLA.

In 1968, Hillman and his teammates practiced at the Presidio base in San Francisco, which was the main treatment center for soldiers returning from Vietnam who lost arms or legs in the war and were beginning their stateside rehab. Those soldiers rehabbed in the gym at the same time the basketball players were practicing, and Hillman recalls a tryout involving 60 players for 15 spots during which Coach Fisher motivated the players by telling them that if they did not make the final 15, some of them were going to end up going to Vietnam where they might lose an arm or leg, or come back in a body bag.

Hillman spent much of 1968 at the Presidio during one of the most turbulent years in American history. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated that year, the Manson murders took place south of San Francisco, and the war in Vietnam was going so poorly that President Lyndon B. Johnson more than doubled the number of American troops being sent to Southeast Asia. Protests over the Vietnam War disrupted the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and led to riots, and Hillman had a front row seat for all of it.

He also recognizes that if it wasn’t for Coach Fisher, he might have had a very different journey.

“He had the same kind of pull that a five-star general would have, and twice he kept me from being sent over to Vietnam,” Hillman said of Fisher.

Film of the 1977 Slam Dunk Contest can still be viewed on YouTube. Back then, the format called for each competitor to attempt five dunks in a row. Hillman made all of his attempts and won the contest, but the event had no sponsor and there was no trophy. The Pacers made up for that years later by having a trophy made for Hillman. To this day, that trophy sits on his kitchen table. He recently retired as the Pacers’ associate director of camps, clinics & alumni relations.

Not all of Hillman’s best dunks took place in contests. He said he was able to get his chest even with the 10-foot rim and put his entire arm through the rim after dunking, with his armpit resting on the rim. The ability to kick the bottom of the backboard came from his high-jumping history, and the technique he used was known as the straddle, which went out of vogue when Dick Fosbury won the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with the “Fosbury Flop” in which the jumper goes backward over the bar. Hillman recalled seeing Fosbury use his signature technique at a practice field, landing in between two Styrofoam landing pads and getting stuck until his fellow jumpers lifted him out of the landing pit.

The tales that Hillman tells are true, and it remains undetermined what role he may have at 2024 All-Star Weekend when the Pacers host the game. It seems like a no-brainer to have him serve as one of the judges during the Slam Dunk Contest. Hopefully, at the very least, Hillman will be a go-to interview for media covering the event and for the Turner Sports crew, which includes TNT’s Reggie Miller – the most famous ex-Pacer of all-time.

Hillman was the NBA’s first Slam Dunk Champion, and here’s hoping that he is not the last member of the ABA generation who can impart the same type of wisdom and goal-setting that he learned from Carlos on the track at San Jose State. If not for Carlos demanding that Hillman set the bar at seven feet instead of six feet, the history books might feature a different name as the first slam-dunk champion and Hillman’s stories would not have been told.