October 17, 2011
While we were trying to figure out something new to say about the NBA's ongoing lockout, Trey Kerby at TBJ found something interesting about the NBA's last lockout, from 1998. It relates to the current one, and it should hopefully serve as a warning to each of the NBA players locked out from their teams. Not just in regards to this (hopefully, just) truncated season, but their careers in general. The story is about Cleveland Cavaliers forward Shawn Kemp, and how he got so fat between this game, and the start of the 1999 season nine months later. No pregnancy jokes, please.
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.'"
Now, the history.
Kemp's real issues started when his Seattle SuperSonics re-signed Gary Payton to a deserved contract during the 1996 offseason, while taking a chance on defensive-minded big man Jim McIlvaine during the same month. McIlvaine had led the NBA in blocks per minute in Washington the year before, and he seemed like a perfect fit alongside Kemp and a SuperSonics team that had plenty of firepower to make up for McIlvaine's offensive shortcomings.
Kemp, instead of relishing the chance to improve upon his team's 64-win season from the campaign prior, sulked. Unable to re-negotiate his relatively lacking contract due to the terms of the year-old collective bargaining agreement, he pouted his way through the next season before forcing a three-team deal that sent him to Cleveland in September of 1997. Kemp, to his credit, excelled with the Cavaliers that year, working with four rookies in the rotation to help lead Cleveland to the playoffs and the NBA's best defense (that's pace-adjusted, mind you) under coach Fratello.
For Kemp to assume that the NBA would lose the entire 1998-99 season? That's tough to swallow, so to speak, because few really thought the season would be lost. There was rhetoric, to be sure, but take it from someone who was writing about the lockout back then -- far more expect the 2011-12 season to be canceled than expected 1998-99 to go bye-bye.
And it's not as if Kemp hadn't taken in criticism for his weight months before the season got underway in February. His appearance in a December charity game (and the subsequent pictures that showed up in ESPN the Magazine soon after) had Cleveland fans writing off the 1999 campaign months before it started.
Though they needn't. As Kevin Pelton pointed out on Twitter on Monday, Kemp actually came through with a fine season in 1999, utilizing an improved jump shot and his typically good touch. It was Zydrunas Ilgauskas'(notes) injury (Big Z managed just five games that year) that sunk the Cavs. Faced with an increased offensive load the next season without Ilgauskas, Kemp's turnovers spiked as he hit his 30s, and his effectiveness decreased.
It's not as if the Cavs didn't try to, pardon the turn of phrase, reshape their former All-Star. Then-GM Wayne Embry had this to say:
"With the money we were paying him, we had every reason to expect him to stay in shape. It was not as if he could not afford to hire people to help him do that.
"The Cleveland Clinic nutritionist put him on a diet, but Shawn did not have the discipline to adhere to it. We even offered to have a chef go to his house and prepare meals for him. ... I told Shawn the same thing I told Mel Turpin years ago, 'I don't want anyone playing for me that weighs more than me.' That did not work either."
Kemp had signed a massive contract extension following his trade to Cleveland, and Embry's correct -- the Cavs weren't obligated to hire a nutritionist or personal chef on top of the money they were already paying him for his hopeful 20 and 10 a night.
And at some point, you have to stop blaming Jim McIlvaine for everything. Especially when you don't play with the guy anymore.
No, this was on Kemp. It wasn't on McIlvaine or George Karl or Wally Walker or the lockout or bad advice he may have gotten on a lost season. Shawn may have held it together during the shortened 1999 season, but everything beyond that was a massive failure. He waddled his way to Portland in 2000, but had to leave the team towards the end of his first season as he struggled with a cocaine addiction. A stint with Orlando and failed workouts in front of several other teams followed, and that potential was never realized.
Shawn Kemp wasn't a blubbering mess during the shortened lockout season. He played quite well and nearly led the Cavaliers back to the playoffs. And his weight gain may not have been the beginning of his basketball end, because the 1996 offseason may have had more to do with his frustration than anything else.
It didn't help, though. Keep that in mind as you consider the tiramisu during this lockout, NBA'ers.