Ever since KICKS 3 (summer 2000), each issue of the annual sneaker mag—KICKS 10 not included—has contained two or three new inductions into the KICKS Hall of Fame, where footwear legends past and present are honored. This may not be fresh material for those of you who’ve been copping the mag since before the new millennium hit, but for the younger heads, we’re posting the entire HOF online over the course of the next few weeks. (It’ll be archived under the KICKS tab above.) Enjoy, and don’t forget: KICKS 14 is on sale now! —Ed.
by Chris O’Leary / @olearychris
Blake Griffin notwithstanding, fans tend not to get overly excited by big men with disgustingly raw athleticism; you know, the guys who seem hell bent on catching the reverse image of their jersey number in the backboard’s plexiglass before they humiliate the player unfortunate enough to get caught under them. There’s a mid-’90s reason for that seen-it-all-before yawn, and it goes by the name of Shawn “The Reignman” Kemp.
Like the off-kilter fade on the top of his head, for the better part of his 14-year NBA career, Kemp tilted fans’ perspectives on what a 6-10 power forward should and could do on the basketball court. A one-man rendition of 48 minutes of hell, his game was grace, wrapped tightly in a finely tuned frame full of fury. Kemp swallowed up rebounds and swatted shots with flair and oomph. As for his dunks, there may not be enough space here to give them proper credit.
A Shawn Kemp dunk was the stuff that a generation of kids tried to emulate on the Nerf rims that hung on their bedroom doors. It’s what programmers pixalized when they were creating video games like NBA Jam. Kemp dunks were charismatic, game-changing, crowd-swaying, jersey-selling bursts of lightning.
In rainy Seattle, thanks to those aerial assaults and the rest of his game, Kemp found a home. In the League’s first post-Jordan era, Kemp lobbied to be its most entertaining player, crowning countless opponents with vicious dunks of memorable titles (see: “The Lister Blister”).
There were the dunks. And then there were the kicks.
The Kemp-Reebok marriage was one that produced more than just the Kamikaze I and II shoes that were released in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Reebok laced Kemp up with his own signature line, creating three models of The Reignman. Kemp wore the three different sneakers between the ‘97 Playoffs with Seattle and his three-year stay in Cleveland that ended at the turn of the 21st century.
As cool as the signature Reignmans were, Kemp will be best remembered in the Kamikaze. Never have a player’s kicks encapsulated the essence of a man the way that the Kamikaze did Kemp.
Pair Kevin Harlan up with a Reignman YouTube video and the announcer would go hoarse, volleying between praise for Kemp’s disregard for human life and his ability to go up high and down hard. In the seasons that Kemp wore the Kamikazes, he was at his physical peak, springing skyward with his personal safety secondary. He landed on a trio of All-NBA Second-Teams during those years and brought the Sonics to the ‘96 Finals. There, Gary Payton and Kemp took Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to six games…and that was kind of it.
As full out as the Reignman went on the court, he went just as hard off of it. By the time his final season in Seattle rolled around, he was fighting off rumors about his lifestyle just as hard as he was fighting off double- and triple-teams. Between his time in Cleveland, Portland and Orlando, the All-Star appearances dried up, his weight ballooned and reports of numerous children across the US surfaced. There would be no emergency pull chute here, no miracle recovery for the NBA to see. Kemp left the League after the ’03 season, never again to soar like he did in the ‘90s.
As a shoe, the duo of Kamikazes suited Kemp. The zigzagging patterns screamed to Reebok’s outspoken MO at that point (for further evidence, see Glenn Robinson’s The Rail, or Shaq’s Shaqnosis, both from the same season). Catching flack for grabbing his crotch while celebrating dunks in the 1994 World Championships, Kemp was a little loud himself.
Kemp’s mission in the NBA was simple: take the ball to the hole, and fly through whoever was in his way to do it. He was a force on the court and couldn’t stop himself from being one away from it. Kemp lived Reebok’s ‘90s slogan of “Life is short. Play hard.” a little too literally. It was a short window for Shawn Kemp and his shoes. But what a view we had while they were airborne.