(Author’s note: this project is part of a COVID-19 fundraiser to support NBA arena workers who are being impacted by the League’s suspension. If you’d like to contribute, please visit https://gumroad.com/l/KHuQH for information on how to donate. Every penny gathered by the author and illustrator from this collaboration will go directly towards paying unemployed workers for the duration of this crisis. If you would like to work with us, please reach out to me on Twitter @agchazaro. Let’s give back to the game that us given us so much.)
I. Elkhart, Indiana, is somewhere
you’ve never been but this won’t stop you from knowing: that a house of hoops can be magicked from the mud of one boy’s hunger; that reigning begins in the clouds but must eventually fall back to the earth; that there is no basketball without glory and no glory without bloodsweat. Listen: this is genesis, birth place of windmill and tomahawk thunderslam. Here, gravity
is inverted by a skywalking rimbreaker. Advice: protect your dome from aerial damage. Take cover.
II. Must’ve been 96
when I first soaked up game: a Seattle Sonics super squad I’d wanted so badly to beat Jordan’s Bulls. For most fans, Jordan was the untouchable one, buzzer beating soul snatcher. I preferred a lesser- known truth: whereas some wanted Jordan’s silk, I rocked with granite; whereas some recited Jordan’s gospel, I memorized a rebellion. Give me the antithesis of perfection. Give me whatever is rugged and graceless in these unholy eyes. Give me Shawn Kemp.
III. Pause. Rewind. Let’s make this a mixtape
that begins some time before the ’96 NBA Finals showdown between a God and underdog. Let’s sing the history of how our man became the Reignman in only his third season. Because I’ve been told that it rains like bible verses up North, and I’ve heard of storms that can last entire seasons. I envision a monsoon in spring of green and yellow fabrics flying down court. I’m talking Gary Payton gunning alley-oops, dudes like Kendall Gill and Nate McMillan draining J’s from outerspace with big man Sam Perkins putting work inside the paint. And who could forget our favorite 90s white boy All-Star, Detlef Schrempf? Team was stacked like city bricks with all sorts of skill sets flexing game up and down the Western Conference. And who better to captain this running fury? And why not wreck havoc on every defense around the League? And who else would toss a tornado into sunshine? I’ll tell you: no one besides the Reignman who could bring his type of ugly to a pretty place like L.A. and fuck shit up with his boys.
IV. Except it wasn’t only L.A.
It was Oakland. It was Portland. It was Phoenix. It was Utah. It was Dallas. It was San Antonio. It was Houston. It was Indianapolis. It was Milwaukee. It was New York City. It was Philadelphia. It was Charlotte. It was Atlanta. It was anywhere you could get away with murder-by-dunking.
V. While on the subject of dunk-murders —
Shawn Kemp outstretches his left palm to cradle an outlet pass; he’s wide open at the elbow of the 3-point arc but takes off dribbling with his right hand down the empty lane; defenders get out of his way because he’s fucking Shawn Kemp; except Alton Lister, the tallest human on the court, who steps in between Kemp’s momentum and the elevated hoop; and Kemp rises like he’s climbing invisible steps, but imagine that these steps are more like an escalator rising into an alter-dimension — let’s call this a stratospheric paradox — and remember there is still a 7’0” body blocking Kemp’s entrance into this divine moment; so, the Reignman decides to put his nuts on top of the aforementioned 7-footer’s forehead by spreading his legs wide and extending himself for flight above regulation altitudes until he is no longer man but legend.*
*Kemp follows this by laughing at Lister while pointing both index fingers at his opponent who was knocked onto his back by the force of the dunk and remained soulless for the remainder of his existence.
VI. Dikembe Mutombo can get it, too.
Weak-ass Denver Nuggets could never really compete with the best of them. I mean, I’m traveling out of context here, but those 2006–2008 teams with Melo, Iverson, Kenyon Martin, Nene, a young J.R. Smith, The Camby Man, Chauncey Billups, and hell, even Chris “Birdman” Andersen never appeared together in the NBA Finals? For real? Those ‘90s Nuggets were just as much under-achieving shit-sippers. You had ballers like Mutumbo, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, LaPhonso Ellis, Rodney Rogers, Dale Ellis, a baby-faced Jalen Rose and rookie Antonio McDyess yet couldn’t make any noise in the post-season? Shameful. In my expert basketball opinion, that group fully deserved the Shawn Kemp treatment: testicles to the face, rim-rattling power moves, and tearing down whatever pride remained in that mile-high city. No one was safe. Not even the “No, No, No” Hall of Fame shot-blocker himself.
VII. “Sky Scrape.” That should be the title
of this. But it’s not. It’s something more like “Mid 90s Kamikaze.” Yup. Those clean Reeboks with black and white zigzags flaring across the sides. Had you looking like wild royalty on any blacktop. Had you feeling like maybe, just maybe, if you prayed hard enough and watched enough late-night ESPN highlights, you might catch flight and grace the rim with fingertips. Just maybe, if you practiced daily, you’d be able to rearrange the tectonic fault lines with a signature Shawn Kemp throw down. It never happened. But in your mind it did. And that’s really all that mattered. Because in real life, kamikaze is a form of suicidal explosion, and who wants to think about that shit? You’d rather close your eyes and imagine the dunk of a lifetime. Yes. You would.
VIII. You’d rather close your eyes
and not think about Icarus. But you can’t avoid it. A perfect comparison: the arrogant boy who makes wings that can lift him above his woeful prison. Father tells him to chill, to lay low before he goes for the moon. Except the moon is a sun, and as an unruly son of a bitch, Icarus takes flight on everyone because he’s no punk. Except, sometimes not being a punk means you are at risk. And sometimes being at risk means you are too close to the heat.
IX. I wish I had some dope segue here
into a Miami Heat story. Something about an Alonzo Mourning brawl or a Timmy Hardaway crossover. I don’t. I mean the heat to be a metaphor. And I mean the metaphor to mean impermanence. And I mean impermanence to mean what it does: the erasure of whatever scriptures have been retold by ancient tongues. But I’m getting too far ahead of the story, for our hero has yet to fall. No, at this point, he is still clinging to the stars. Still toying with the golden orbit of Mars.
X. The golden-era gave you everything:
sneakers, movies like Juice and Selena, rap lyrics and gold chains, Mars Blackmon. If you don’t know Mars, imagine a short dude, à la Spike Lee, who rocks Jordan’s signature kicks. He treats them as good as he treats his women, but maybe even better. Smooth, he never takes them off, even during sex. That’s the type of magic Jordan was pulling back then. That’s the type of juice he could give a kid from Brooklyn. That’s the type of bull Shawn Kemp was looking to take down in ‘96.
XI. Two Cities. Two Prayers.
Two Captains. Two All-Stars. Two movers. Two flyers. Two styles. Two stories. To the Finals. Too much hype? To the rim. Too much contact. Two free throws. Two seconds. One victory, and a long walk back to the locker room.
XII. O.K., I’ll give it to Jordan. Much as I hate on his tongue-out attitude, god damn
he could do it all. If you just sit back and watch those old school highlight films, it’s basically Jordan stealing the ball from some short-shorts wearing scrub, then gracing his way back towards the opposite hoop almost as if he were a novelist, but instead of writing a novel he’d move more like a poet, because he was precise and lyrical and ruthless about his business, not bumbling or wasting anyone’s time, no, he’d get straight to the point, and just when you thought the world’s biggest defenders in the paint could put their bodies and limbs at some beastly angles to block his shot or knock him off rhythm, he’d morph mid-air into some new hieroglyph and bend around the already bent arms and elbows mashing beneath the rim, and he’d flick his wrist, carefully but with minimal effort, just like this, to guide the ball home.
XIII. A favorite photo of mine
in NBA Finals history: Kemp and Jordan beneath the basket. One of these men is in the air while the other is grounded. But let me make this clear: it is Kemp who is taking flight on some Jumpman-logo business while the Jumpman himself can only watch. And one of these ballers is facing the camera while the other has turned his back. But let me make this clear: it is Kemp who we see perfectly in this brief moment and Jordan who we cannot. And if you squint hard enough, you might believe that Jordan actually seemed helpless, and lost.
XIV. I wanted to end what I’m saying
with that photo of Kemp as a remembrance of what went down. I can’t. Those 72-win Bulls prevailed. Victorious. Even the Reignman himself, at the apex of his talents, wasn’t enough to topple the Windy City Mt. Olympus of our 90s basketball universe. And I’m not sure if this ever happened: but I remember opening my bedroom window from the second story of our apartment building that summer night and screaming into the streets below. I’m not sure why I would do something like that other than my little mind could sense tyranny taking hold, the run of three-peats and six-peats, and when tyrants become too powerful, they last far too long.
XV. But we all know nothing
lasts forever. Not Jordan’s jumpers, not Kemp’s rage. From this point forward, both diverged on wildly different careers: one, the penultimate poster boy of basketball greatness, the other, a fallen-from-grace-father with court dates and cocaine addictions after crashing in Cleveland.
XVI. I never said this story would end
happily. In fact, I said that reigning begins in the clouds but must eventually fall back to the earth; that there is no basketball without glory and no glory without sacrifice. Listen, this is burial: where the ground swallows back whatever bodies it held up; where the gravity of the night outweighs the stars of any heaven; where running with feet laced in Kamikazes might end with explosions of the self.