Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we spotlight stars of yester-year chosen by a rigorous scientific process we know in-house as “Whoever Nick Feels Like Writing About This Week Unless He Spent Two Hours Watching Sonics Highlights And Got All Worked Up”. This week’s Throwback Thursday: Shawn Kemp.
There’s some irony in the name of Oklahoma City’s (stolen) basketball team. They may be the Thunder, but the most thunderous player that ever played for their franchise, by far, was long gone by the time the Sonics were abducted to the purgatory of that [Sonics-biased insulting expletive redacted] state. His name was Shawn Kemp. His other name was Reign Man. He was the modern basketball rim’s deadliest natural predator.
Throughout the mid 90s, Kemp stalked the paint in Key Arena (and elsewhere), always ready to erupt for a kaiju-force dunk or home run block. His counting stats don’t jump off the page—he never averaged over 20 points or 12 rebounds in Seattle, largely as a function of the slow-it-down style of the 90s—but his on-court impact was immense. The smarts knew it, too, as Kemp made five All-Star teams and three All-NBA teams during his eight years in Seattle.
He was effectively unguardable in his prime, with the strength of a Dawkins-esque center and the speed and hops that would rival modern dunking swings like Gerald Green or Glen Robinson III. He could outrun the plodding hulks that were supposed to stay between him and the rim, and he could bulldoze any smaller player unlucky enough to switch onto him on the perimeter. Even the best defender of his era, Dennis Rodman, was helpless against him. Kemp put up 23.3 points per game on 55% shooting in their 1996 Finals duel*.
*Rodman would get the last laugh, of course, as his team had Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan and Kemp’s… didn’t.
Kemp was probably miscast as the Sonics’ savior (for one thing, Gary Payton was a little better than he was), but he was perfectly suited to being their emotional bellwether; nothing brought Key Arena to life quite the same way as one of his sudden megadunks that were somehow both completely out of nowhere and completely inevitable. Kemp, on offense, was never more than a second or two away from exploding, and this was bad news for every team outside of Seattle. Didn’t hurt that he had a world-class setup man in Payton, but even working alone, Kemp could still erupt against even the tightest coverage.
Yes, everybody remembers the dunks, but what sometimes gets lost in the reverie is this: Kemp, in his Seattle days, was one of the most competitive stars of his day. It’s easy to forget that, given what happened after he left the Sonics (we don’t talk about Cleveland), but during his time in green and yellow, he fought and bled for his team. Maybe some of that was inborn, maybe some of it came from playing with a lunatic like Payton, or maybe he picked it up from even bigger lunatic and early Kemp mentor Xavier McDaniel. Probably some combination of all three, and more, but it doesn’t really matter.
What does matter when we remember the Reign Man’s reign, is that it wasn’t just a stunt show. It was the most competitive stretch of Sonics basketball since the 70s, it was an absolute horror show for the rest of the Western Conference… and, yeah, it was one hell of a stunt show. Kemp was the best of both worlds; psychopathically devoted and competitive (sports) and insanely, impossibly fun to watch (entertainment).
Most franchises are lucky to get a guy who’s one or the other. The Sonics got two guys (Kemp and Payton) that were both. Not hard to see why they’re still one of the most beloved franchises in the NBA, despite not having played a game since 2008.
Kemp and the Sonics may be gone, but the Reign never ends.