The 90’s era of the NBA is an era that stands apart from all other decades throughout the history of basketball. It is defined not only by the greatest player of all-time but it also seemed as if every player in the league had a certain swagger about them. The play was hard-nosed, the players were tough, the jerseys were cool, and the haircuts were even cooler. This 10 year span has a certain nostalgia about it which makes it fun to look back at. Players fade out of memory over time as with everything else in this world but it is my job to bring some of these 90’s players back to the forefront of your memory with this new feature called Forgotten 90’s Player of the Week.
Almost every player that has ever stepped foot onto an NBA court has/had the ability to dunk a ball. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But how many guys throughout the history of the league could REALLY dunk the ball? I’m talking about putting the defender on a poster, jumping so high that only gravity can stop the slam from happening. I’m referring to the guys who could fire up an entire building with one hard cut to the basket that ends in a ferocious finish. These types of players only come along once in an every great while. This week’s feature was definitely one of those special players that could ignite a crowd with a single leap. I’m talking about the “Reign Man” Shawn Kemp.
Kemp didn’t take the traditional route to get to the NBA as he never played in a single college game nor did he get drafted straight out of high school. He committed to the University of Kentucky after being named a McDonald’s All-American in high school. But he didn’t get the minimum SAT score that was necessary to qualify to play at the NCAA level. Nonetheless, he enrolled at Kentucky for the first semester but he then ran into some trouble involving stolen merchandise being pawned. He left the University after the fall semester before ever being eligible to play and enrolled at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas. He didn’t play a single minute of college basketball his freshman year because of academic reasons but was now able to enter the 1989 NBA Draft.
The Seattle Supersonics were willing to take a risk on the former McDonald’s All-American and drafted Kemp with the 17th overall pick. He was seen as a project at just 19 years old, but his athleticism alone was enough of a reason to take a chance. He was the youngest player in the league during his rookie season and he was mostly utilized as a sparkplug off the bench. He was then inserted into the starting lineup for most of his second season and averaged 15 points per game. He was starting to come into his own as well as earning some national attention for his monstrous finishes at the rim.
The Sonics were also becoming a Western Conference threat with Kemp and a young Gary Payton leading the way. The fast pace tempo that they employed made the team one of the most exciting in the league. If The Glove and the Reign Man got on the fast break, then it was time to get your popcorn ready because the show was about to start. Kemp made his first All-Star game appearance in the 1993 season and helped the Sonics to the Western Conference Finals. But Seattle lost in a thrilling seven game series to Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns.
He was entering his prime and the whole league was starting to take major notice. Kemp was becoming such a spectacle that if you got dunked on by him, then you became instantly known. Sorry Alton Lister but you know that last sentence was directed right at you.
The Sonics fell short in the Western Conference Playoffs for the next two years as the Houston Rockets brought home the hardware. But it would be the 1995-96 season that would forever put Kemp on the map. He made his fourth straight All-Star game while once again leading the team in points and rebounds. Seattle was cruising through the regular season with Payton, Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins, and Sam Perkins as their core players. They set the franchise record for most wins in a regular season after finishing 64-18. Unfortunately, most of their success was widely unappreciated as the Bulls won an NBA record 70 games the very same year.
Flying over the rim was what Kemp was known for and flying under the radar was what the Sonics were accustomed to. Seattle entered the first two rounds of the playoffs and easily disposed of the Kings and the defending champion Rockets while only losing one time. They toppled the Jazz in a back and forth seven game series and the matchup was now set. Chicago and Seattle were headed for a collision in the 1996 NBA Finals that had all of the makings for a classic. The Sonics came out of the gate looking overmatched as they lost the first three games of the series. Despite the early deficit, Kemp was putting on a clinic every game down in the post. He averaged over 23 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 55% from the floor during the series. Seattle came back to take games four and five, each by double digit margins. But in the end, there was no denying the Bulls as they finished the series off in six games.
Kemp came out the next year and was voted into his fifth straight All-Star game while continuing to lead the team in points and rebounds. Unfortunately, Seattle fell short and was ousted by Houston in the Western Conference Semifinals. The following offseason Kemp requested his contract to be restructured, as he had previously signed a long term deal before the swift rise across the league in player’s salary. But Sonics management refused to comply with his request. The contract situation reached a boiling point when the franchise signed career backup center Jim McIlvaine to a 5 year/$35 million contract. (McIlvaine signed as a free agent after averaging 2 points per game with Washington in his first two years in the league. Isiah Thomas wouldn’t even have made that signing.)
Kemp threatened to sit out the 1997 season, which resulted in the Sonics trading him in a blockbuster deal that involved him being sent to Cleveland. The rest of the trade included Terrell Brandon going to Milwaukee and Vin Baker coming to Seattle. A change of scenery was the only option that was left available to Kemp but the move would prove to be career altering.
The explosiveness that once made him great was all of the sudden no longer there. He added some extra weight during the offseason and appeared to be a step slower as a Cavalier. However, he was still able to make his sixth consecutive All-Star Team and while putting up his usual averages in the box score. His first year in Cleveland would be the last real glimpse of what he once was, as his weight issues really began to catch up to him. During the lockout of 1999, his weight was rumored to balloon up to 300 pounds. He still managed to play effectively in the shortened season and actually averaged a career high in points per game. His points were coming mostly on post ups and free throw attempts rather than his previous methods of pick and rolls and hard cuts to the hoop. He spent one more season in Cleveland and was used as the team’s center instead of his usual power forward position. In the summer of 2000, he was in a trade that moved him to the Portland Trailblazers.
He spent two miserable years in Portland that were overshadowed by numerous drug and alcohol problems. He then signed a contract to play in Orlando as their starting center. But more problems arose after the season and Kemp was unable to find a home for his talents. He was out of the league at the young age of 33. The Reign Man’s reign had come to a screeching halt.
Kemp wasn’t able to end his career on his own terms and that is always one of the hardest things for an aging athlete to deal with. His post career isn’t near as glamorous as his playing days, which could be an entire feature on its own. So I’ll leave that part of the story alone as this is a piece made for praise rather than one that is meant to focus on a man’s personal demons.
While with the Sonics, he was one of the most dynamic big men to ever play the game. He and Payton revolutionized the alley-oop and should receive some credit for the way fast breaks are run in the NBA today. He had the ability to take off from seemingly anywhere on the floor and hammer it down on top of an unlucky defender. Thank god for YouTube, if only for the reason that we can re-watch old Kemp highlights. He defined a decade of basketball with his brash style and put true fear in the heart of opposing defenses. So go outside, lower your rim, dust off your old #40 jersey and throw one down in the lane in honor of the Reign Man, Shawn Kemp.