Why would I ever watch sports anime when I can just watch sports in real life?
Immediatedly after learning that sports animes exist, this is probably a newcomer's most common reaction. Indeed, the argument is a sound one - why waste time on unrealistic, cheesy, and above all lengthy animes when the actual sports that they mimic are often so dreadfully boring?
The answer, of course, is that what makes sports animes so good is not their mimicry of reality, but their enhancement of it. For one, the characters of a sports anime show are always much more likeable than the fluid injecting, pill pushing athletes of modern day society. Secondly, boring, one-sided games can take up as little air time as possible, while the exciting, awesomely close matches can be drawn out for as long as the suspense will hold. Finally, the players' skills at the sport can exceed well beyond the realm of what is humanly possible. As a result of all of these factors, at its best sports anime can easily surpass anything that the original sport has to offer.
Unfortunately, the genre also suffers from a good deal of weaknesses. Most importantly, unlike in real life, the story can never be truly random. Oftentimes it is possible to "outsmart" the anime and be able to predict how a match will eventually turn out. The moment this happens, practically all suspense is lost. Also, oftentimes the pacing of the show is slowed down well beyond what is enjoyable. In some sports animes, episodes upon episodes cover only a tiny part of the overarching storyline. As a result of these two potential pitfalls, sports anime almost always walks a thin line between unsurpassed excitement and absolute tedium.
Slam Dunk is the quintessential example of a sports anime in the way that it clearly reflects both the incredible strengths and the overwhelming weaknesses of the genre. On one side, you have likeable characters engaged in what is frequently a terrifically captivating storyline. However, on the other hand, the show is oftentimes critically damaged by its painfully lethargic pacing and its extremely formulaic nature. Figuring out that every single game is decided in the last 30 seconds doesn't take very long, and once this realization occurs a lot of the fun is taken out of the beginnings of the game; after all, none of what happens in the first 35 minutes will ever end up mattering anyway.
Also, unlike some of the newer sports animes out there, the show is certainly not helped by its animation or sound; both aspects are noticably outdated. Animation-wise, the unique character designs are pretty much the only positive quality; everything else is decidedly mediocre. The sound suffers terribly from the obnoxious voice acting of Sakuragi and the impressively awful music.
Is this anime worth watching? That's a difficult question to answer. While at its best the anime is riveting, at its worst the storyline becomes far too prosaic to be enjoyable. The anime is certainly not good enough to convert any new fans; however, as someone who was already fairly fond of the sports genre, I enjoyed the show enough to watch through the entire 101 episode series.
Essentially, if you haven't yet been acquainted to sports anime, you should first check out Hajime no Ippo, which is undeniably the best the genre has to offer. However, if you've already blazed through animes like Hikaru no Go, Initial D, and Prince of Tennis, you'll probably enjoy this one as well; just don't expect anything spectacular.