If you were a basketball fan growing up in the 1990s, it was perhaps the best time to watch the NBA.
Some of the best players in history played during this time: Michael Jordan, Shaq, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Gary Payton and Reggie Miller.
Oh yeah, and a guy from a high school in Indiana who decided he was going to slam his way to superstardom and become one of the most exciting highlight reels basketball has ever seen.
That fine specimen was Shawn Kemp.
Growing up in California in the 1980s and '90s, my main basketball influences were Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Vlade Divac and some Clippers like Danny Manning and Ron Harper. This was during the Larry Brown era for the Clippers when they were actually better in the standings than the Lakers.
Yeah, hell had frozen over.
One Saturday morning, as I prepared to start my weekly ritual of watching WWF wrestling, I noticed that NBA Inside Stuff was on. Hosted by the always entertaining Ahmad Rashad, the show featured some of the best plays and dunks of the week. They were showing some highlights of a Sonics game against the Warriors, and showed this huge guy dunking like he had just swung onto a jungle gym.
That guy was Shawn Kemp.
It was also around this time that the game NBA Jam hit the arcades. One day, during a church trip to the roller rink, after constantly falling on my butt the whole day, I noticed that they had some new games in the arcade: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons Arcade Game, Mortal Kombat, WWF WrestleFest, and NBA Jam.
Even though each game you played was a buck, NBA Jam was a dollar well spent. Since Shawn Kemp was my new favorite, I had to select the Sonics, despite the fact his teammate was Benoit Benjamin.
Yes, Benoit Benjamin.
No Gary Payton. Not a chance of Derrick McKey. No hint of Nate McMillan. They had decided to omit those fine choices and pick a guy who had been mediocre for most of his NBA career. Oh well, I pretty much let Shawn Kemp dunk the whole game, and he even broke the glass in the 4th quarter.
It was epic.
Then, the Sega Genesis version of the game came out. They modified the roster to include the newly acquired Detlef Schrempf, so when you played as the Sonics you got a nice mix of dunks and rebounding (Kemp) combined with three-point greatness (Mr. Schrempf). It was a nice little salsa of basketball goodness.
I love basketball. And salsa. Preferrably with mango.
Despite knowing that the Sonics were one of the Lakers' most hated opponents, it didn't matter. It was like sleeping with the enemy. But what could I do? The Lakers weren't presenting that exciting of a basketball product at the time, and the Seattle Supersonics were one of the best teams in the NBA, led by Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf and the wildly entertaining Shawn Kemp.
Nicknamed "The Reign Man" by former Sonics play-by-play guy Kevin Calabro, Kemp was almost like a mix of basketball player and musical conductor. When he went up for a dunk, it was like hearing "Fur Elise" by Beethoven. Kemp and the basketball rim made beautiful music together.
He was the Blake Griffin of his time.
Every time I watched the Sonics on TV (and they were on NBA on NBC a lot at that time), the song "Can't Fight This Feeling" by REO Speedwagon always went through my head. I was in love with the brand of basketball the Sonics played.
In 1992-93, while the Lakers were enjoying life at the golf course, the Supersonics were battling the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. Despite a great year from Kemp (17.8 scoring average, 10.7 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks per game), the Sonics fell to Charles Barkley and the Suns in 7 games.
1993-94 proved to be another big year for Kemp, who averaged 18.1 points per game, 2.1 blocks and 10.8 rebounds as the Sonics finished 63-19, which was the best record in the NBA. Many experts picked the Sonics to win the championship, given their outstanding offense and defense. To go along with Kemp's production, the team was also helped by Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf, Kendall Gill and Sam Perkins.
These Sonics were good. Damn good.
1994 Seattle Supersonics Stats
Then, Denver happened.
The 1993-94 Denver Nuggets were an eighth seed in the Western Conference. They were a good team, but nowhere near the caliber of, say, the Sonics, Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets or Utah Jazz. They were surrounded by outstanding talent, like Dikembe Mutombo (11.8 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game), Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (the artist formerly known as Chris Jackson; 18 points per game and 4.5 assists a contest) and the always underrated LaPhonso Ellis (15.4 PPG and 8.6 rebounds). The Nuggets finished 42-40, 21 games back of the top seed Supersonics.
This series was supposed to be a cake walk.
And for the first two games, it seemed that way, with the Sonics winning Game 1 by 24 points. In Game 2, Kemp and Payton were able to defensively shut down Denver, winning 97-87. It looked like Seattle would be going onto the next round without any hiccup whatsoever.
It's funny how things change.
The series moved back to Denver, where the Nuggets were able to shut down the Sonics 110-93. Ditto for Game 4, as the Nuggets surged to an overtime victory, 94-85. No matter what they tried, George Karl and company could not stop Mutombo and his unbelievable defensive play.
The stage was set for a fifth and deciding game in Seattle. Even though the Sonics looked good in the opening stages, Denver came back and made it a ballgame. Eventually, the game went into overtime, where the Nuggets did the impossible, beating the Sonics in five games.
It was the first time an eighth seed had beaten a first seed in the playoffs. And it hurt, like a gut punch.
Despite the loss, Kemp kept on truckin', making another All-Star appearance in 1994-95, averaging over 18 points per game, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per contest. Despite having a great regular season, the Sonics were bounced from the first round again, this time by Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and the upstart Los Angeles Lakers.
People started to wonder: Could Shawn Kemp win the big game for the Supersonics?
1995-96 represented a new era for Sonics basketball. They changed their logo, their jerseys (still one of the best jerseys ever), and with the new look came a fresh new perspective for this franchise accustomed to losing in the playoffs. Kemp made sure the Sonics were bound for greater things, as he led Seattle to a 64-18 record and the second best record in the NBA behind the Chicago Bulls, who had become the greatest team in history with a 72-10 record.
In the playoffs, the Sonics dispatched Mitch Richmond and the Sacramento Kings in the first round, swept the defending champion Houston Rockets in the next round, then prepared to meet the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals.
The Jazz had a roster filled with quality talent: Karl Malone, a 14-time All-Star and two-time NBA MVP who not only brought incredible scoring punch, but was also a major defensive presence as well, averaging just under 10 rebounds a game during the 1995-96 season; and John Stockton, an assists master who averaged 10.8 during the 1996 playoffs. His knack for passing the ball, mixed in with being a master of steals, helped him become one of the greatest point guards of all time. Helping the Jazz in the two guard position was the always reliable Jeff Hornacek. He was the Robin to Malone and Stockton's Batman, providing excellent defensive pressure and was a fantastic 3-point shooter, scorching the Sonics for eight consecutive three-pointers during a November 1994 game.
Early on in the series, it looked like Kemp and the Supersonics had everything in hand, leading 3 games to 1. Then, Malone and Utah bounced back and beat the Sonics in Seattle, 98-95. In Game 6, the Jazz dropped a bomb on Kemp and company, winning by 35 points, 118-83. It was Seattle's worst loss in their playoff history, and it got the reporters and fans wondering, "Is this team good enough to make the next step?"
Game 7 was Judgement Day.
Despite 22 points apiece from Stockton and Malone, the Sonics were just a smidge better on this day. Kemp had 26 points and 14 rebounds, and was helped by Gary Payton with 21 points and 5 assists as the Sonics exorcised their playoff demons and beat the Jazz 90-86.
The Sonics were ready to party like it was 1979.
Standing at the gates of a championship parade were the Chicago Bulls, who were undoubtedly the greatest basketball team in the history of the galaxy. When Jesus constructed his idea of the perfect basketball team, it consisted of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper.
The Bulls had set the all-time record for wins in a season with 72, breaking the mark set by the 1971-72 Lakers. At one point in the season, the Bulls were 30-3. The team was an amazing recipe of scoring, passing and tough rebounding. The 1980s Lakers and Celtics were really good teams, but these Bulls were just fantastic.
Chicago pretty much stormed through the Eastern Conference playoffs, blitzing the Heat in three games, the Knicks in five, and the defending Eastern Conference champions Orlando Magic in four games. It also proved to be the swan song for Shaquille O'Neal in Orlando, opting to sign a huge contract with the Los Angeles Lakers in the offseason.
The stage was set. It would be Air Jordan against the Reign Man.
In the series, Kemp was really good, averaging 23.3 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks as the Sonics gave the Bulls everything they had, and then some. The Bulls built up a three games to none lead in the series, beating Seattle rather convincingly in Games 1 and 3 of the series. Looking to not just roll over and die, Seattle knew they had to bounce back in a hurry.
The Sonics stormed back to win the next two games in Seattle, including a convincing win in Game 4, beating the Bulls 107-86. Kemp had another solid performance, scoring 25 points and grabbing 11 rebounds as the Sonics lived to fight another day. Seattle won again in Game 5, led by a terrific performance by Gary Payton, who scored 23 and nabbed 9 rebounds and 6 assists as the Sonics looked to give the Bulls all they could handle.
Then reality set in.
The Bulls, led by Michael Jordan (aka Basketball Jesus), Pippen, Ron Harper and the unbelievable bench play of Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc, sealed the championship with an 87-75 win. It was a disappointing loss, but also a season filled with pride and optimism. It had fans thinking about a possible championship in 1996-97.
Hello Jim McIlvaine.
The Sonics, realizing they didn't have that one big man to compete with the Hakeems, Shaqs and David Robinsons of the world, decided to generously offer unproven Washington Bullets center Jim McIlvaine a seven-year, $33 million contract. Kemp, feeling like he had been a main reason for the Sonics success, felt slighted, especially since he was looking for a new contract.
In the excellent documentary Sonicsgate, Gary Payton said that Kemp should have just let that one slide.
"You can't fault McIlvaine for anything," said Payton. "They gave him the money. He took the money. I would have taken the money too. I kinda say that Shawn should have just overlooked that, and just said, 'I'm gonna get my money. I'm gonna prove you. We were all stars. We were all going to get our money sometime."
After a solid 1996-97 in which he averaged 18.7 points, 10 rebounds and a block per game, Kemp was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster three-team trade that saw Terrell Brandon and Tyrone Hill go to the Bucks, and Vin Baker go to the Sonics.
Oh, Vin Baker. (Sigh)
Much like his trade partner Baker, Kemp showed signs of being lethargic and gaining weight. He still performed very well, having his best scoring year in 1998-99 when he averaged 20.5 points per game. However, his weight gain continued, and Cleveland GM Wayne Embry revealed that Kemp's weight ballooned up to 315 pounds.
With Kemp not yielding the results he had once produced with Seattle, Cleveland dealt him to the Portland Trail Blazers after the 1999-2000 season. The Blazers were hoping Kemp would help them get over the hump and into the NBA Finals for the first time since 1992. Kemp's production slid even further, and his personal life also skidded due to alcohol and cocaine abuse. After two uneventful years with Portland, Kemp was released.
After he was waived from Portland, Kemp signed with the Orlando Magic. Despite not being the player he once was, he helped the Magic to a 42-40 record and an eighth seed in the playoffs, where they fell to the Detroit Pistons. After the year, Kemp was waived by Orlando.
For the next few years, after not being able to catch on with an NBA team (he had a workout scheduled with the Dallas Mavericks in 2005-06 but Kemp ended up not doing so), he went to Italy, and played for Premiata Montegranaro of the Italian League. After playing three preseason games, Kemp returned to his home in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Ike. He never returned to the team, and his contract was nullified.
Kemp has also had his share of legal troubles. In 2005, Kemp was arrested on charges of possession of cocaine, marijuana and also a semiautomatic pistol. A year later, the former NBA All-Star was arrested again in possession of marijuana. It was definitely a low point in his life. Since that time, Kemp has stayed out of trouble.
One thing Kemp should be proud of is the fact that one of his sons, Shawn Jr., played collegiate ball at the University of Washington. Despite the fact that he was never able to replicate his father's success, Kemp Jr. did have some flashes of brilliance. In a game against Grambling State in December 2014, he had 21 points and 4 boards. On January 4th against Stanford, the younger Kemp had 19 points and 5 rebounds.
The apple didn't fall too far from the tree.
Shawn Kemp was one of the reasons that I became interested in the NBA. Before then, for me, it was just about Los Angeles Dodgers baseball. But the exciting dunks, rebounding and intimidating physical presence made me a fan of "The Reign Man" for life.
When I was 15, my mom bought me my first NBA jersey. And who was it?
You guessed it: Shawn Kemp.
A few days after receiving it, I wore it to school for the first time. My health teacher, Mr. McGregor, thought the jersey was cool, but wondered why I was wearing a Sonics jersey when my loyalties were with the Lakers. Our conversation went like this:
Mr. McGregor: "Nice jersey Jake."
Jake: "Thanks man."
Mr. McGregor: "Sonics? I thought you liked the Lakers?"
Jake: "I do."
Mr. McGregor: "Then why the Sonics? You can't like two Pacific Division teams. That would be like being a 49ers fan but you wore an Emmitt Smith Cowboys jersey."
Jake: "I like Kemp. His dunks are amazing. He's my guy."
Mr. McGregor: "Fair enough. Here's your homework for next week."
Oh yeah, and I still have that worn out Kemp Champion Sonics jersey somewhere in my garage.
That thing is a keeper.