Still, the man who has been Kemp’s teacher for the past four years, Coach Karl, is impressed with his progress and optimistic about his future. “The thing about Shawn is that he has a tremendous upside: he’s not even close to what he’s going to be. His low-post game can be developed a little bit more. He’s gotta learn to play around the double teams and gotta learn how to make the pass, but I think he’s done a great job of fundamentally getting sounder. His shooting percentage is big-time improved. His turnover-to-assist ratio has improved. I don’t care about his sugar, I just care about respecting the fundamentals of the game of basketball. I love behind-the-back and fancy plays when the game allows you to have them. But when you force those things, then it hurts the team and you’re screwing the other players.”
Kemp also realizes his game can improve. “When I first started I was basically an inside player,” he says. “Now, I’ve created a jump shot, and I handle the ball a lot more. They even let me run the point forward, sometimes bringing the ball up, and you know, creating shots for others. In the next couple of years, I really think my game will even improve a lot more.” As Kemp improves over time, he’ll be growing not only as a player, but as a man.
Among black men, basketball is almost always a manhood contest. Sports have historically been a safe place to acquire and show off masculinity, and basketball has always had a special place in that pantheon: In black hands, a basketball is about so much more than a score.
“The question has never been simply scoring on the other guy in the black community,” George says. “It’s never been about a guy who can just hit a set shot. It’s always been: What extra flavor can you put on it? Can you shoot from 30 feet out? What kinda ball fakes can you pull out? Can you embarrass your opponent? I think that’s really what we’re seeing translated in the pros.”
In streetball, style is paramount, but in the pros that translates to winning titles. No amount of stylistic dominance-even that of Dr. J and Jordan-can free you from criticism if you’re titleless. In hood hoops, two points equal less than two nuts, but in the pros real manhood is to be baaaad in the clutch. To take it to the hole in the fourth quarter. To win. This represents nothing less than the life of black men, forever against the wall, in a game where winning is survival. The Right Stuff? White boys ain’t got a clue. We baad because that’s the way we get to be men.
Magic hinted that all this was going on at the All-Star game when he said in the pre-game interview, “There’s a game within a game here ‘cuz the guys wanna know: who is the man of the NBA?” But that consummate winner knows the All-Star game isn’t where men become men. Right now the league is filled with nascent megastars, but in 10 years most will be human highlight films with naked fingers. As Disneyization tumors through the NBA, one question will get louder and clearer in the ears of more stars: can you dominate between commercials?
Or as George says, “Shawn has a really nice commercial, but he’s a guy who needs his team to win the championship to go to the next level.”
The chaos of a pregame shoot-around makes it appear as if everything but concentrating on the game is going on: at mid-court one group of spandex-clad female dancers is surrounding the small patch of court not ruled by shooting, stretching, post-upping, T-shirted basketball players to another group of women who will practice singing the national anthem. Overhead, the Madison Square Garden lighting effects are being tested, and spots for “Blue Chips” run endlessly. On one baseline, cables are being untangled and photographers are setting up, while on the other kids are yelling, “Shawn Kemp! Autograph my shirt! John Starks! Sign my forehead!” And everywhere fans are filling in, including Spike Lee who finds his courtside seat and plops down, attracting as much attention as any player.
Once the game starts, Seattle jumps out to a large lead and stays there until late in the fourth quarter. Kemp is everywhere, running the floor, making steals and igniting breaks like a guard, posting-up and patrolling the big guys, Oakley and Mason. Because Seattle is such a balanced team Kemp is never called upon to dominate. With fellow All-Star Gary Payton at the point, reliable Kendall Gill and Detlef Schremp shooting, bringing up the ball and grabbing a few rebounds, as well as Sam Perkins-whose three-point shooting tonight makes him look like the Dana Barros of big guys-Kemp has a balanced cast of cable guys around him. Still, he does lead at the half, Seattle is ahead by 13 and Kemp has the same.
For 18 minutes of the second half Kemp scores four points, though the Sonics manage to maintain a lead in the double figures. But when the Knicks, thanks to some Starks treys, roar back to within six with three minutes to go, Seattle calls timeout and tries to snap the Knicks’ momentum. After the huddle, Kemp responds by hitting a short, baseline jumper that seals it. Commenting later, Coach Karl says, “That would’ve been a big momentum swing if he didn’t make that hoop.”
True, but it barely gave the momentum back to the Sonics: rarely will you see a quieter prime-time deuce. It was the tentative J of a man not at all certain he could nail the shot all night. He hit it, but his body language added nothing: It was only two points. A few plays later he would find himself open under the basket and slap down a two-handed slam; but again it was as quiet a big dunk as you’ll see. No rim-rocker to silence the crowd and excite the team, just another quick two. Seconds later, when Ewing misses a baseline three with under a minute to go, it’s over, save for the garbage baskets that make the final margin 11.
The winner’s locker room is noticeably brighter, though no noisier. The vibe is lighter, but there’s no laughter. Just showers, dressing and interviews. Reporters converge around Kemp, leaving his neighbor Payton little room to dress, but he hasn’t time for a lot of talk. The bus leaves for the airport in 10 minutes; where a plane will take the Sonics to Atlanta. Tonight, the best team in the west has beaten one of the best in the east, but if there is cause for celebration, there’s no time for champagne: another visitors’ locker room and another 82nd of the regular reason beckons with a bus leaving in five minutes for yet another chapter in a long season where there’s only one locker room worth being in.