If I had to name one player that personified the shifting of the NBA in the ’90s from an old man’s game to the hip-hop generation, that choice is easy. The man is generally forgotten and easily dismissed by the casual NBA fan. Most don’t remember him, but if you grew up and loved NBA basketball in the 1990s, you’re looking at the picture above and nodding slowly, with a small smile possibly coming across your face. Long before Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, or Vince Carter was “The Reign Man” Shawn Kemp. Just watch this dunk from 1994’s Rock N Jock Basketball on MTV. Was MJ there? No. Bird? Not a chance. Magic? No way. Even Pippen, Malone, Barkley? Nope. Shawn Kemp. He was cool. He was young. He was special to that MTV generation. Shawn Kemp was the man.
Most people don’t think about Shawn Kemp’s game. He’s one of the forgotten superstars in the entire NBA. Seattle still adores him as evidenced by this video at a Sonics rally 6 months ago as they were announcing plans for a new arena. For newer NBA fans, just looking at his numbers, you would think Kemp was nothing special. His career averages are 14 and 8 rebounds. They were severely damaged by his final seasons in Portland and Orlando, which is almost tragic watching him. But if you watched Shawn Kemp at his apex, you’d understand why he was so beloved in the ’90s. He personified that generation – “in your face,” attitude, defiance. Shawn Kemp was all of that. He just went out of his way to dunk on you. Fans today think Blake Griffin is just a ridiculous dunker – and he is – but I kind of laugh when I see some of his dunks, such as the one on Mozgov, and think, “He didn’t even touch the rim. That’s not a dunk.” If Shawn Kemp were doing that dunk, he would’ve ripped the rim down. For evidence see: Lister, Alton. It’s the most violent dunk I have ever seen. Kemp was good about performing violent dunks. He just made opponents look ridiculous. Blake’s a great dunker, but Shawn Kemp was so much better in my opinion. The thing about Blake is we don’t have an in-game dunker in the NBA remotely close to him and that makes him so much more impressive. I grew up watching Kemp and Dominique before him. His dunks are nothing like ‘Nique or Kemp.
As for Shawn Kemp’s skills, he was a ferocious dunker with a sweet mid-range shot. He routinely shot over 50% from the field during his time in Seattle and shot closer to 60%. Just imagine Carlos Boozer dunking like Blake Griffin. That was what you were getting from Shawn Kemp every night. He literally was Blake Griffin with a jumpshot. He also was a terrific rebounder and a nice defender. Kemp made 6 All-Star appearances and was All-NBA Second Team 3 times – which is impressive seeing that he played in the same era as Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Larry Johnson, Dominique Wilkins, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, Chris Webber – all at their peaks and All-NBA is selected by guards, forwards, centers and not just small forwards or power forwards, but all forwards. Kemp was one of the best four forwards in the game for 3 years.
Then Seattle decided, for whatever reason, to give Jim McIlvaine, who averaged 2.9 points and 2.3 rebounds the year prior, a 7-year $33 million dollar contract after Shawn Kemp led them to a franchise record 64 wins the season before and to the NBA Finals, where quietly they gave the Bulls all they could handle. Obviously, this ticked off their franchise guy and he demanded a trade. They traded him to Cleveland and the magic was soon to end. Once one of the best players in the entire NBA, Kemp began to struggle. He wasn’t the same. I don’t know if he was upset at Seattle and it crushed him or if he missed Gary Payton or if he just loved Seattle and his heart stayed there, but he wasn’t the same guy in Cleveland. His numbers were good – 18 pts, 9 rebounds his first year, 20.5 pts and 9 rebounds his second year, then almost 18 points and almost 9 rebounds his last year, but his weight ballooned up and he became a shell of his former self. From there, he was traded to Portland, where it was just sad to watch him. He played a crucial role on those “Jail Blazer” teams of the late ’90s and early 2000s, though he only averaged 6.5 pts and nearly 4 rebounds a game in 16 minutes off of the bench. He was now up at over 300 pounds and was primarily living off of that jump shot that was so good in Seattle. He just didn’t have that explosiveness.
From there he struggled to find a team for him, eventually signing with the Orlando Magic where averaged nearly 7 points and 6 rebounds. He wasn’t even close to his apex. He was still serviceable and could play, but he wasn’t the Shawn Kemp that was such a force in the mid ’90s. I remember rooting for him on Orlando. T-Mac was at his peak and I kept thinking, “Man, if Shawn Kemp could pull it together and drop a few pounds…what if?” It never happened. There were always rumors about him working out and getting back in shape, he wasn’t doing drugs anymore, he hired a chef, he was trying to make a comeback, but they never materialized. I even suggested as recently as 2008 that the Bulls pursue Shawn Kemp and bring him in as a post threat. Why not? You know the ceiling and with how well Garnett, Kobe, Pierce, Kidd, and Duncan have all played in their late 30s, why not take a chance on Kemp?
He’s 43 now. His career is long since over, not having played an NBA game in 10 years (only 33 years old). In 2008, he did make a comeback, playing 3 preseason games in Italy, but eventually parted ways. He’s a highlight of him warming up and watch him drill that midrange jumper. He still had the game. He could still do it. But I still can’t help but look at him and feel sorrow.
I have no idea what his ultimate legacy will be. Is Kemp a hall of famer? I can’t definitively say yes. He didn’t win a championship, he had 6 All-Star appearances, only 3 All-NBA Second Team appearances, a Gold medal at the World Championships – not the Olympics – in 1994. It’s hard to say that is a Hall of Fame resume. He scored over 15,000 points and grabbed close to 9,000 rebounds for his career, but is that enough? Is it enough that he was a dynamic player that changed the culture of the game? Is it enough that he was one of the greatest in-game dunkers in NBA history? I’m not sure. As I said, I can’t definitively say yes, he is Hall of Fame worthy. I’d like to believe he is. I absolutely know he could have been. I hope that he doesn’t fall into the same category as guys like Len Bias, Vin Baker, Vince Carter, and Greg Oden. With those guys, you always wonder, “What if?” What if Len Bias didn’t try cocaine on draft night? Would he have been MJ’s rival for the next decade? Would he have been better than MJ? What if Vin Baker wasn’t an alcoholic and was able to focus on basketball? He had a ridiculous skill-set. Couldn’t he have been a top 15 power forward of all-time? What if Vince Carter wasn’t afraid of contact and didn’t shoot so many threes? What if he had that competitive edge? Would he have been one of the most popular and best players ever? What if Greg Oden could’ve remained healthy? Could he have been a force?
What if Seattle doesn’t stupidly sign Jim McIlvaine and ran the Sonics back in 1997-1998 and they don’t crush Shawn Kemp? Does he remain “The Reign Man” and build upon his impressive resume? Does he make a second NBA Finals appearance? Does he win one in 1999? Does Seattle become the next powerhouse in the NBA by 2000 and send Shaq/Kobe packing? Does Shawn Kemp win an MVP and become one of the 3 greatest power forwards of all-time at that point (behind Duncan and Barkley and narrowly ahead of Malone, if Kemp has a ring/MVP)? What if he never struggles with his weight or drugs? Does he maintain that freakish athleticism just a little bit longer? He left the NBA at age 33. What if…what if?
To me, it’s too depressing to look back at the “what ifs” in Shawn Kemp’s career. Instead, I’ll just keep watching this YouTube video and remember the awesome, transcendent freak of nature that was “The Reign Man” Shawn Kemp.