Michael Jordan. “I’m Back”. MVP. 72-10. Best.Team.Ever.
The NBA in 1996 was unquestionably all about Jordan’s return from his baseball suspension hiatus and the Bulls’ record-breaking (for now… right Steph?) season. Now imagine being a 13-year-old junior high kid, living in small-town Illinois, and being literally the only kid in school rooting *against* Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and the Bulls in the NBA Finals. Not a fun place to put yourself, but that’s exactly where I was.
Such was the allure to a young, impressionable sports fan of Shawn Kemp, the Seattle SuperSonics’ athletic marvel dominating the mid-90’s Western Conference. Easily drawn to other flashy, athletic players in other sports like the Eagles’ Randall Cunningham, I was powerless to resist falling in love with Kemp.
Kemp entered the league in 1989 as an extremely raw 20 year old, having never played a minute of college ball. It took a few years for the full game to come around, but those hops… those hops played immediately. Combined with a youthful aggression Kemp, who seemed intent on dunking on every big man he faced and blocking shots 10 rows deep, was a new breed of 6’10” animal paving the way for Kevin Garnett, Amare Stoudemire, and now Blake Griffin. I respectfully ask you to take 5 minutes out of your life to watch this clip and ask yourself how 13-year old NBA fan me could have rooted for anyone else:
Now, In the pre-Youtube, hell… pre-internet era and not having cable, following Kemp from Illinois basically meant reading Sports Illustrated features and getting up early on Saturday mornings to watch NBA Inside Stuff, eagerly waiting for Ahmad Rashad to play some SuperSonics’ highlights just to get a glimpse of who Kemp posterized this week and seeing just how close he could get to actually dunking like he could while I played NBA Jam on the Genesis.
Reebok released Kemp’s signature shoe, the Kamikaze, for the 1994-95 season with a unique styling that was just as aggressive as Kemp was on the court. Kemp rocked the shoe throughout his third straight All-Star game campaign, but another great regular season for the Sonics wasn’t enough, as they were upset in the 1st round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
Everything came together in the ’95-96 season, with Kemp and partner-in-crime Gary Payton following up a dominant 64-win regular season by finally conquering their playoff demons and reaching the NBA Finals. Things came together off the court also as Reebok released the iconic Kamikaze II, similarly-styled to the I but more refined just like Kemp’s all-around game.
As everyone knows, the Bulls capped off their magical season and won the Finals in Jordan’s comeback year, setting off another 3-peat to cement their legacy. However, they were surprisingly pushed to six games in the series by the young SuperSonics (if only they had put The Glove on Jordan earlier!) who looked to have a dynasty in the making themselves. But just as Reebok’s Kamikaze line would flame out like a shooting star, replaced in 1997 by the ill-fated Reignman line, Kemp and the Sonics would never make another deep playoff run again before Kemp was unceremoniously traded to Cleveland in 1998.
At the age of 13, you’re youthful enough to be 100% emotionally invested in sports and naïve enough to not understand or not care about anything beyond the court (contract disputes, multiple out of wedlock kids, etc). This is how a white junior high kid from a town of 900 playing guard ends up wearing #40, a sweatband under one knee and, of course, the Kamikaze IIs (guilty…). And when your all-time favorite athlete enjoys his peak season while rocking one of the most iconic kicks to come out of the 1990s, and arguing daily with your entire junior high school, friend & foe alike, whether the underdog SuperSonics had a chance vs. the almighty Jordan, well…. we’ll always have ’96.