Watching Shawn Kemp in the 1998 NBA Playoffs was like seeing a ghost. Over the course of that season, his first in Cleveland after being shipped out of Seattle, Kemp’s star dimmed considerably. Between his production suffering, his weight gains and Cleveland becoming the J. Cole of NBA teams, slightly boring and monotone, he went from being one of the league’s biggest stars to one of the league’s biggest stars. Whereas he was once playing on NBC every week, Kemp was stuck in a city whose basketball team had one major problem: nobody cared about them. How bad was it in Cleveland at the time? During the 1997 offseason, the same period when they netted Kemp, Cavs fans had to watch as Rick Fox turned them down for four years and $20 million. He went to L.A. for $1 million instead. Then, Cleveland offered Brian Grant $8.6 million. He said no thanks, I’ll go to Portland for less money. During the lockout-shortened season, the Cavs averaged 86 points a game. Mike Fratello was attempting to produce the first NBA team to finish the year with less points than their football counterparts, and no one was enjoying it… least of all people like me who almost forgot Kemp and the Cavs even existed.
Timing is everything, and it just so happens that almost immediately after I argued last week that I’d take Amar’e Stoudemire over the Reign Man – in part because of stuff like this – the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reflected on Kemp’s rapid fall from grace:
Just ask his former Cavaliers teammates who returned for an abbreviated 50-game season and were astonished at the transformation of Kemp’s once-sculpted frame. It was as if their All-Star power forward hadn’t picked up a basketball or put down a fork since the work stoppage had begun.
The Cavs listed him at 6-10, 280 pounds — a 34-pound increase from the previous season — but then-General Manager Wayne Embry later revealed in his autobiography that Kemp reported to camp at 315 pounds.
“He was really very honest about it,” former Cavs coach Mike Fratello recalled. “I said, ‘Shawn, how did this happen?’ He said, ‘Coach, I didn’t think we were coming back.’”
Even before the climax of Kemp’s weight problems, by the start of the 1998 playoffs, it was nearly a year since I had truly watched Kemp play. SportsCenter highlights only tell so much. So do box scores; He was still putting up numbers (those hollow numbers even justified one All-Star season), but doing it on a worse team where it didn’t matter if he took bad shots, forced the issue and forget about rebounding. This was before League Pass, and even though we didn’t know it at the time, this playoff series marked probably the last true Kemp appearance we would see. The lockout that followed screwed everything up.
Even while putting up great numbers against Indiana in those playoff games, Kemp was Earth-bound, over-reliant on the jump shot and sporting facial features that seemed to have gone through Hell in 12 months. He played like he was 35, and looked 45. Still, he was spirited, and very effective. That first round series against Indiana was not his last hurrah as a player, just the last hurrah of Shawn Kemp, the player that mattered.
[Related: Shawn Kemp's '99 Lockout Demons]
Kemp put up big numbers in every game, and even led Cleveland to a Game 3 win, playing 44 minutes and finishing with 31 points. Take away a 29-point blasting in Game 1 by the Pacers and the series’ final three matchups were all pretty close, amazing when you find out the Cavs didn’t score more than 86 in any of the four games. For once in Cleveland, Kemp seemed energized. For once, he looked normal, like the Kemp who had been a rim-rocking terror for nearly a decade. Alas, it was all a mirage, a final farewell to the player so many had learned to love because of his hops.
After three seasons in basketball purgatory, Kemp and the Cavs had gone 101-113, while the man they once dubbed their future franchise cornerstone was playing like a shell of his former self.
To think that all of this – Kemp’s rapid decline, his blistering weight increase, even Cleveland’s playoff appearance – would’ve never happened if no one in the Seattle front office was stupid enough to give Jim McIlvaine a seven-year, $35 million contract (perfect timing to mention the insanity of this). Kemp made less money, and wasn’t able to renegotiate. So he held out of training camp in his final season in Seattle. Then, he sulked his way through a disappointing year. Then the Sonics said peace and sent him away for Vin Baker, all because they paid McIlvaine instead of Kemp.
[Related: Shawn Kemp "The Reign Man" Is Back!]
So over the course of four years, it all fell apart for the Reign Man. One year after making the 1996 Finals, Seattle traded him. One year after that, he showed up to camp rocking a permanent cushy, 50-pound vest. Two years after that, he ended up in Portland as a 10th man.
The effects of the current lockout will be enormous. Let’s hope we don’t have a repeat of what happened to Kemp.
Do you remember anything about Kemp’s time in Cleveland?
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