Larry Bird turns 64 years old on Monday. To help celebrate, here’s a story about the night he busted Shawn Kemp’s ass. It’s a reminder that while not all legends are created equal, most good stories can be told in three parts.
Part 1: Warm-ups
For a little background, six-time NBA All Star Shawn Kemp recently made an appearance on the popular “Knuckleheads” podcast. The show, hosted by Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson, features interviews with current and former stars, but no matter the guest, the first question is the same: “When you first made the league, who was the first player to bust your ass?”
“I’m gonna be real with y’all,” Kemp told the guys last week, a smile on his face. “My ass got busted real early in Boston.”
Kemp proceeded to recall a story from his rookie season. Long story short, the Sonics were at the Garden to play the Celtics, when Xavier McDaniel was scratched with a late injury. Kemp was thrown into the starting lineup, and Bird scorched the Earth on him.
“He gave me 50 (points) in three quarters,” Kemp said. “And he talked to me the entire game.”
As a basketball fan, there was only one reasonable reaction to this previously unearthed nugget of Larry Bird folklore: “Where can I watch this game?”
Thanks to YouTube, the answer is right here:
The video picks up a few seconds into the broadcast, with a convenient shot of Bird on the sidelines. At 34, he looks the part, mostly rigid, in his first season after double heel surgery. As Sports Channel’s Mike Gorman welcomes everyone to the game, we catch a wide shot of layup lines. Bold yellow letters light up the screen: SEATTLE SUPERSONICS vs BOSTON CELTICS. It’s time to kick it to Mike and Tommy, but first, out of nowhere, in the lower right half of the screen, one of the Sonics players tears off a casual 360 windmill dunk.
That’s Shawn Kemp, the youngest player in the league, only 17 games into his 14-year career.
Part 2: Tip-off
This is where I’m sad to report the game doesn’t quite live up to the hype. At least in terms of the Kemp/Bird battle. For one, Kemp didn’t actually start. Xavier McDaniel was still in the lineup, although he maybe wished he wasn’t as Larry hit his first three shots of the night. When Kemp finally checked in late in the first quarter, he wasn’t matched up with Bird, but with backup center Joe Kleine. In fact, for the first 47 minutes of basketball, Kemp and the real Larry Bird mostly kept their distance, even if it was still fun to watch them do it.
Halfway through the second quarter, Gorman catches his first glimpse of greatness when Kemp grabs the ball on a break, and stutter-steps Kevin Gamble for an and-one.
“Kemp can fill the lane, huh?” “6’10, 240.” Gorman remarks, as Kemp drains the foul shot. “Buried that free throw like he knew what he was doing.”
Tommy joins the fan club early in the fourth, when Kemp explodes to the hoop on a baseline drive.
“Woah,” says Heinsohn, processing. “Woah! That was a move.”
“Shawn was going to the hoop, huh?” Gorman jokes.
“Uh uh,” Heinsohn says, basically foaming at the mouth.
Meanwhile, Bird was unstoppable, scoring 32 of Boston’s first 65 points. He’s everywhere, doing everything. With 10 minutes left, he even catches Kemp with a baseline jumper — “34 points and counting for Larry!”— but it was hardly in his face. A minute later, Kemp is back on the bench, presumably for good.
That is, until a window of truth broke through this confusing reality.
With a minute left, McDaniel actually got hurt. An errant elbow from teammate Olden Polynice knocked him out of the game. Just like that, Kemp gets the emergency nod. Just like that, for the first time all night, he’s actually guarding Bird. And just like that, as legend will now have it, Larry Bird took Shawn Kemp to school.
On the first possession Larry pulls off a ridiculous move: this running one legged bank shot from the left side. That was good for 38 points, but it was only the first course. On the next possession, with 30 seconds left, Bird takes Kemp right into the post. Bird’s played nearly the whole game at this point, but he’s invigorated pounding the rock to the parquet with his left hand, clearing Kemp out with his right hand, before spinning and launching a fall away to the moon and down through the nylon. It wasn’t 50 points in the third quarter, but his 40th in the fourth.
With nine seconds left, McHale hits a meaningless jumper on an entry pass from Larry to give Bird a triple double: 40 points, 11 rebounds and 10. Kemp finished with five points, and three steals over 13 minutes. Boston won 109-97.
Part 3: Postgame Presser
For a belated reaction, I reached Kemp at his new place of business: Shawn Kemp’s Cannabis. It’s a dispensary that opened this fall in Seattle, and it’s a concept close to his heart and soul. Kemp learned firsthand how cannabis can help with the physical and mental rigors of NBA life. He’s encouraged (and can’t help but laugh) that NBA players will no longer even be tested for marijuana. “I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “Something they should have considered a while back.”
As for the story, Kemp doesn’t really have an explanation for the memory of his first battle with Bird, and it probably doesn’t matter. Pick a reason: It was more than 30 years ago. He was 20 years old. We all edit memories. Reality is rarely as captivating as we remember. Or, as author Hervey Allen once wrote: “Legends are material to be molded, and not facts to be recorded.” Maybe Kemp was just playing the game. Giving the people what they want. Or maybe he’s just got some really good weed. For all the back and forth, and regardless of how long the busting lasted, two things we can say for sure:
1) Larry Bird did, in fact, bust Shawn Kemp’s ass.
2) Shawn Kemp is forever grateful.
“Getting the chance to compete against Larry that night meant everything to me,” Kemp says. “My whole basketball life, in high school, training for the Olympics, I was always so dominant. Then to step onto the court and have someone dominate me? It was a bad feeling, but I needed it. At that time in life, I really did.”
Bird couldn’t be reached for comment, but the man who actually guarded Kemp that night was kind enough to step in.
“I remember young Shawn Kemp,” says Joe Kleine. The 58-year-old now lives in Arkansas where he owns two successful Corky’s Ribs and BBQ franchises. “He was so raw, but he was always working. He wanted to get better.” Kleine played four and a half seasons with the Celtics, three alongside Bird. One thing he remembers about those years, in the shadow of Larry’s finer moments, was the way Bird’s body was failing. “People don’t realize all he went through just to play in those games.”
It’s a fact not lost on the Reign Man.
“I tell people that all the time: I only caught him on the way out the door. If he was still that good, can you imagine what he could do early on?”
He joins the rest of the basketball world in wishing Bird a happy 64th birthday.
“My wish is for him to not just enjoy his birthday, but enjoy his life,” Kemp says. “Larry might not realize it, but he inspired a bunch of guys like me. Hard-working kids who watched him play, the way he played, and just wanted a taste of what he was doing at the highest level.”
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.