For those of us admittedly somewhat stuck in the ’90s, Shawn Kemp‘s recent arrival at Rucker Park in Harlem for the finals of the Reebok EBC Entertainer’s Classic was a welcome trip back in time. Kemp was pretty much as everyone remembers him from his SuperSonics days: Larger than life, cracking jokes, wearing a fresh pair of the recently retroed Kamikaze 2s, tossing autographed sneakers to fans, as popular as ever.
Having returned to his adopted home city of Seattle â€“ where he became as much a landmark as the Space Needle for his prodigious dunks and all-around dynamic play â€“ it’s obvious he’s back where he belongs. After bouncing around the past 15 years or so and experiencing his share of personal tribulations, Kemp has become a force for positivity in the community, not to mention a voice of influence in the Emerald City’s quest to bring back professional basketball.
“I’m involved in the community in a lot of different ways up there,” Kemp says, “and that’s what it’s about. That’s what I’ve been doing for years. You’ve really got some great people in Seattle.”
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Kemp has returned to his roots in more ways than one: With Reebok‘s recent emphasis on their Classic line, a brand new generation has thrilled in his legacy, including longtime protÃ©gÃ© Isaiah Thomas of the Kings, who joined him at Rucker to celebrate the release of the “Letter of Intent” Kamikaze 2.
We caught up with Kemp prior to his stint as guest host for the EBC Finals to talk about going toe-to-toe with the Jordan Bulls, his history with Reebok, his slam dunk mastery and the future of basketball in Seattle.
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Dime: I’ve been a fan of your sneakers for a long time, I remember wearing them in high school. I wanted to take it back to the beginning, how’d you first get involved with Reebok?
Shawn Kemp: Oh man. Many years ago, man. I first came into the league wearing Nike, and they had a guy over there already who was doing pretty good selling shoes.
Dime: Little bit, yeah.
SK: Yeah. (Laughs) So I just kind of sought out different companies and interviewed with them, pretty much every shoe company there was at the time. And I chose Reebok simply because of the street edge they had, and how much they did back in the inner cities. When I first got with them, they were doing the “Above the Rim” campaign, so they really stuck true to their word and helped the kids in the inner city and things like that, and that was always most important to me. (Continuing to represent Reebok) is just part of giving back. I’m grateful to be here. Maybe people are happy to see me, but I’m also happy to see them.
Dime: I remember having a pair of the Kamikaze 2s my junior year of high school. So it’s a trip for me to be on the subway and see kids wearing them today. What’s it like for you to see a new generation of kids wearing the Kamikazes?
SK: I know, it’s awesome, and I mean that. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world, and the best feeling is when you see other NBA players wearing it. It kind of really touches my heart a little bit.
Dime: Like Isaiah Thomas…
SK: Yeah, I mean, I’ve known Isaiah for many years, I knew him when he was in high school, I’ve watched him and kind of supported him the whole time, and it’s truly a pleasure that he decided to wear them. And also Jason Terry â€“ guys from the Seattle area, we stick strong together.
Dime: As a guy known for being one of the best dunkers of his generation, are there any in particular that really stick out to you?
SK: I was known for a lot of dunks, but my first big dunk really came here in New York. I had some others back then, but my first major dunk came against the Knicks and Kenny “Sky” Walker. So, you know, New York has a lot of meaning to me.
Dime: I’m 5-7, so obviously, I’m never going to dunk. I was wondering, could you describe what is it like to really dunk on someone? What does that feel like?
SK: Oh man. (Laughs) It’s a great feeling, man. The best feeling is when you dunk on a big guy bigger than you, then you can give him that look. It shrinks him down a bit! You’re not quite 7 foot any more.
Dime: You’re obviously a dunk contest vet. Would you make any improvements to it the way it is now?
SK: I just think the 60-second rule is not precise. When you’re a professional, you’re supposed to be precise. You don’t get second chances. You don’t get second chances to make it into the NBA, you don’t get second chances to do a dunk contest, and I just think that it’s headed in the wrong direction. You shouldn’t get 60 seconds. You get a chance to make your dunk. Because that’s what Dr. J did. That’s what Michael Jordan did. That’s what Shawn Kemp did. And that’s what the rest of the guys should do.
Dime: Your experience going straight from high school to the NBA, is that something you would do again knowing what you know now?
SK: Yeah, for the challenge part of it, I think I would do it. But there is so much I missed out on that I wish I could have experienced and taken with me. When I first started out, I got involved with basketball to go to college. My mom’s idea was for me to get my degree, and I really wanted to. I’m thankful that I went high school to pro, but I’m definitely a player that could have gone to college and done well.
Dime: I’ll never forget watching the 1996 Finals, pretty close to the pinnacle of NBA basketball for me at least in high school. You on that great Sonics team, and of course Michael Jordan and the record-breaking 72-10 Bulls. Can you describe what that was like for you to participate in such a significant series?
SK: Absolutely, we came so close to winning a championship, and that sticks with you for the rest of your life. But you look back and you look at the situation, and Chicago had some great teams. Michael Jordan is a great player and he played with some great guys. We gave it a good run; we had some key injuries to guys, and that affected us. I was able to play well in the series, and that means a lot to me, to play against Michael Jordan and the Bulls and still do well. I’m probably the only player to outscore him in (NBA Finals games). So it still means a lot.
Dime: It looked for a while that NBA basketball was going to come back to Seattle. How would it have felt to see that, but also keeping in mind it would have been taken away from the fans in Sacramento?
SK: I wasn’t crazy about taking anything away from any NBA town. I don’t think that’s what we’re about in Seattle. But we want basketball back really bad. So if we were going about it the right way, I think we would do it.
I think eventually the NBA is going to look at the situation and realize that Seattle is a good market. We put up a pretty good piece of change for a basketball team, and I think that means a lot. We try to showcase how much basketball means to us in Seattle, and I’m thankful for Mr. (John) Hansen, who put the money up and things like that. So I do think basketball will come back in the next two or three years.
Dime: You’re back up there living in Seattle, it almost seems like a full-circle thing for you.
SK: Yeah. Absolutely.
Dime: You bounced around a bit, had some things to deal with in your life, then ended up back where it all began for you in the pros. What does that mean to you?
SK: I went through some life-changing situations, so I’m very grateful. I’ve always had a good foundation, and I really just kind of stuck to my roots — not just selling shoes, but in other businesses also, and just with family. I’ve been married 13 years now, and I’m very thankful for it. I went through some things that were challenging to me, and things have turned around tremendously for me.
Where does Kemp rank among the NBA’s greatest dunkers?
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