by Adam Figman / @afigman
This past Saturday in the Toyota Center, immediately before an entertaining night of dribbling, shooting and dunking, NBA commissioner David Stern addressed reporters and spoke on a variety of pressing news items, with an important one standing well above the rest: the issue of whether the Sacramento Kings will soon be moving north to Seattle. As the press conference took place, a man both emotionally and financially invested in the matter sat with a reporter at a restaurant just a short walk from the downtown Houston arena and talked about, well, a lot—highlights of his playing career, his current business endeavors, the re-release of his signature kicks and plenty more.
Nowadays, Shawn Kemp resides in Seattle and runs a restaurant situated a few blocks away from Key Arena, a building fans once packed to watch the high-flying Kemp and his SuperSonics take on the likes of Jordan’s Bulls, Stockton/Malone’s Jazz, Ewing’s Knicks, Barkley’s Suns and a host of other popular squads during the early-to-mid 90s. With the Reebok Kamikaze II Mids—the sneaker Kemp wore during the ’96 All-Star Game—in stores once again, the 6-10 former power forward sipped a frozen strawberry margarita and expounded on both the past and the present.
(Also: On Page 2, check out a Q+A with Pacers swingman Gerald Green, who slipped on the Kamikazes for the 2013 Dunk Contest, and on Page 3 read our interview with Kings guard Isaiah Thomas, who rocked those same sneaks during the 2013 Rising Stars Challenge.)
SLAM: So let’s start with the Kamikaze II re-release.
Shawn Kemp: Yeah. It’s been good for me. I think it’s good for Reebok. The relationship has always been good. Good people to work with. Good athletes to work with from the start. We started off in the 90s doing the Above the Rim campaign, so ever since then it’s been great quality. We’ve been working with a lot of guys, from Dennis Rodman to Dominique Wilkins to Shaq. The relationship has been good.
SLAM: How’d you initially wind up with Reebok?
SK: Initially I came into the League wearing Nikes, and you find out very quickly…I always wanted to appeal to the streets, appeal to younger people. So that was really my reason to go from Nike to Reebok. Reebok kind of gave me the edge a little bit with having street credibility. That means a lot. I’m from the streets, so you want that. You want that relationship with younger people.
SLAM: Was the Kamikaze your first Reebok sneaker?
SK: Nah, I came into Reebok doing the Above the Rim campaign, so I did a lot of Above the Rim stuff. The Kamikaze 1 was my first [signature] shoe with Reebok. It’s funny—I just got done playing a basketball game and I actually wore the Kamikaze 1s today. It’s different.
SLAM: It’s cool that you still wear them.
SK: Yeah, you gotta. Who you are is who you are. So you want to stick with it and make it grow.
SLAM: When you were little were you a big sneakerhead?
SK: Absolutely, I was definitely a shoe kid. We looked at it in a different fashion back then—we didn’t look at it like it was just… now shoes are so much money. They cost more. Guys are making $300 pairs of shoes, which is OK, but everyone can’t afford $300 pairs of shoes. The one good thing about working with Reebok back in the day—my shoe now is 100 bucks. One good thing is we had one of the lowest [priced] signature shoes at the time, during my playing career. That’s what made me smile. I was able to talk to kids and let them know I wasn’t in it for financial reasons—I was in it for quality.
SLAM: Did you have a say in the Kamikaze’s design?
SK: Absolutely. The way that we did it is I had sign of approval, but I had such a good relationship with Reebok, they always showed me the designs early on. We agreed to everything step by step. That’s why it worked so well back then, and it still works together now, because we put time in it. I didn’t accept the first shoe, and they went back and really got creative with it.
SLAM: What was wrong with the first one?
SK: The first design wasn’t as crazy and didn’t have as many designs, and—
SLAM: You wanted to stand out.
SK: Exactly. I really did, man. So I told them to go back because the shoe was too basic [laughs]. I told Reebok the shoe was way too basic, and they came back and they showed me the Kamikaze 1 less than a month later, and I was like, [points] that’s the one right there.
SLAM: What was the reaction like when you first wore it?
SK: My teammates were like, “Are you serious? They already know who you are, but are you seriously going to wear those?” But they grew on them. After I played one game in it, they were loving it. They were asking for a pair.
SLAM: It looks like a shoe designed specifically for a big dunker.
SK: It does, but I think that with the style of basketball that I play, where I was all over the court, it fit my style very well. Just to be different out there. And I think as a player in a team sport, you look to be creative, and you look to be different. The way you feel is how you play. If you feel good and you’re shoes are good, I think it helps your game.
SLAM: Before I came here I went on YouTube and watched the Top 10 Shawn Kemp Dunks of All-Time. You have a favorite?
SK: No, I don’t have a favorite, but I wanna tell you this, man: I enjoyed it. I really did. And I don’t mean this in any bad way possible, but I just enjoy dunking on big guys. So anybody that was my size or taller than me—especially guys that were much taller than me—I started melting at the mouth when I saw them. If I could see somebody was bigger than me, it was just like… it was personal. I had to do it [laughs].
SLAM: I always wondered if guys occasionally plan ahead for which opponents they’re going to dunk on.
SK: It’s always during the game, during the course of the game. But I will admit to this, man: there were a few games when I did some signature dunks, when before the game I knew I was gonna do them. One would be the Lister Blister. [Points with his index fingers.] Yeah, with the fingers.
SLAM: You knew you were gonna do the pointing?
SK: Well they were trying to be really physical in that game with me, like throwing me on the ground. They didn’t want me to get any dunks or anything, trying to frustrate me. So one of the things you do when they start to frustrate you is you attack them and do something different. It kind of shocks them. The first one was the Rattling Gatling.
SLAM: I actually saw Chris Gatling at a party the other night. I was going to tell him that I’d be interviewing you today and see if he wanted to comment on that dunk, but thought better of it.
SK: [Laughs] Yeah, the Rattling Gatling, that was the one that opened it up. And then that’s when I was able to do the Lister Blister.
SLAM: To this day I can’t think of one other instance where a guy slapped hands with a dude who just dunked on him.
SK: Well you’d probably be suspended these days if you try it.
SLAM: It is easier to get suspended now, but still, that was a sign of sportsmanship.
SK: It is. I always wanted to [dunk on people] in such a way where I made my statement, but didn’t cross the line of embarrassing a guy or disrespecting him. I wanted to do it during the course of the game, and make it friendly, but necessary.
SLAM: Well, you got pretty close to that line with the Lister Blister.
SK: Yeah. All those guys—any of the guys that were on All-Star, I would just choose them.
SLAM: Has anyone you dunked on ever held a grudge? I imagine Alton Lister would…
SK: His wife didn’t like when I did it. She told me afterward she didn’t appreciate it.
SLAM: What did she say?
SK: “It was a contract year for him. This was the Playoffs. He played in Seattle with you guys a year ago. Why would you do that to him in a contract year?!” But hey, man, it’s all for the love of the game. But I don’t hold any grudges with any players, and I don’t think any players [do with me]. Like I said, I always tried to do in such a fashion that I didn’t disrespect them. It was all for fun. The things I did were definitely for fun. I only pointed at Lister. But with some of the other guys I did some things—it was all for fun.
SLAM: Any other favorite dunks?
SK: Yeah, I mean…the Michael Jordan one, I love that one. Oh my God, with the tongue sticking out right above his head? That’s forever. So that was great. The first year I got with Reebok it went so well, the second year that I came back with Reebok, they just asked me to dunk on everyone.
SLAM: They asked you to?
SK: Yeah, they were like, “Look, don’t even pick out teams, just go ahead and dunk on everybody.”
SLAM: That’s a tough request.
SK: Yeah, but it went well. I was very fortunate just to be able to come out with the energy to do that for so long. That’s what it’s about. You have to push yourself to be creative. I think some guys these days, they don’t put enough of themselves into the game. And also, the biggest difference is this: I played with a smile on my face. The difference with these guys today is they play with a tough, macho face, and it’s tough for the fans to recognize that. So if you’re able to play with a smile on your face, it goes a long way.
SLAM: You were in a couple of Dunk Contests, but never won one.
SK: I never went into the Dunk Contest to win—that was not my goal. It was to make a statement. It was a statement on fashion with the shoes, and it was a statement of who could dunk the ball the hardest. So I knew the little guys were gonna be a little bit more crafty, but I just wanted everyone in the arena to know I could dunk the basketball the hardest. That’s the reason why I went into the Dunk Contest.
SLAM: A lot of people have said Blake Griffin is like the new Shawn Kemp.
SK: Yeah. I’ve watched some of his plays, and it’s definitely—if there’s been any other player since I’ve played, and when I watch him play he definitely reminds me of myself. Not as much power, but definitely has the athleticism [laughs]. Not enough! He’s a little slower, but he’s a great player.
SLAM: Did you ever feel boxed in as a dunker, like people thought you could only dunk and weren’t a good all-around player?
SK: It works for you and it works against you. At first it really did work for me, but what it did do was when I heard those things about just being a dunker, it made me go into the gym. My and my assistant coach Tim Grgurich, sometimes we would stay in the gym just working on my jumpshot, working on my 15-footer. And I think every year you come back in the NBA, you need to bring something different, at least for those first seven-to-eight years. That’s the good thing about having a shoe deal and being with a shoe company that supports you, you have that inner feeling that somebody’s supporting you. It made my game so much easier when I was able to shoot the basketball. Now I just have fun—now it’s just shooting for fun. I don’t do a whole of dunking anymore, but I love to shoot the basketball.
SLAM: You regularly play pick-up at local gyms?
SK: Yeah I play with everyday guys, man. I prefer to play with guys off the street, because that’s kind of where you learn it from.
SLAM: People get surprised to see you?
SK: Yeah. They’re surprised when me and my wife play on the same team. That’s more surprising for them.
SLAM: She can play?
SK: She can play, man! It’s tough to play with her because when we’re losing she makes me put in all the work. She doesn’t mind yelling at me, getting on me [laughs]. She’s like, ‘You better do something!’ I always go into the game and I try to be a team player. And then at the end I’m just like, Man, I’m ready to put some shots down. You gotta make a statement. So at the end I have to let them know that I can really do it, especially if we’re losing. If we’re losing I gotta shoot the ball every time.
SLAM: You must’ve been pretty psyched to hear about the progress made to bring the SuperSonics back.
SK: Yeah man, I’m excited. We’ve been pushing for it.
SLAM: Have you been part of the movement at all?
SK: I have been part of the movement. I own a restaurant right around the corner from where the Sonics used to play at Key Arena, so now they’re gonna get at least two years there, and then they’re gonna move to a different part of town to a new arena. [Potentially, but nothing’s set just yet.—Ed.] It’s gonna be fun. If you look across the NBA, guys like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jamal Crawford, Martell Webster, Spencer Hawes—they might not be All-Stars, but they’re true NBA players. We’ve got a lot of guys from Seattle that truly came up.
SLAM: Why’d you decide to live in Seattle after you retired?
SK: Well my family’s from Seattle, my wife’s from Seattle, and I had bought into a restaurant years ago and I chose to go back to Seattle to run the day-to-day operations on it, to make sure it was successful after the Sonics left. We had to do a whole remodel, a whole change of things. I started doing a lot of radio work. It just kind of fit in with what we were doing. We’ve been working with the community there for so long; we run a college summer league there where college and NBA players can come and play. I always say I’m living a dream, man. I had a chance to do a lot of things when I was young as far as coming into the NBA and working with people there and also with Reebok, and I live my dream now by going out and doing things with the people in [the Seattle] area. It puts a smile on people’s faces, not just mine, so it works both ways.
Hit Page 2 for our Q+A with Pacers swingman Gerald Green and Page 3 for our Q+A with Kings guard Isaiah Thomas.