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 – where he became as much a landmark as the Space Needle for his prodigious dunks and all-around dynamic play – 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 protégé 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 – 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.