(This article was originally published in 2013.)
Watching Zach Randolph struggle on a Sunday afternoon during the 2013 NBA playoffs versus Tim Duncan and the graybeards that are the San Antonio Spurs, it just felt like a process. No, not the process of the systematic Spurs, their coach plodding on the sidelines, the players in steady rhythm and the fans applauding like a bloodthirsty mob, just waiting for more. No, this process was more about finding out who the king of the block was. A clash of styles on just how the game should be played from the power forward position. A battle of wills between two of the best in the business.
And it all reminded me of 1993. Shawn Kemp vs. Charles Barkley.
Shawn Kemp was my guy. He was the first basketball player I can remember definitively stating to the world that he was not only my favorite player, but that he was the best in the business at his job. That job was being a tremendous power forward, and that man was figuring out a way to play the game like no other.
That athleticism, the court savvy, the histrionics after those dunks and blocks, the brotherhood that formed between Kemp and Gary Payton, and a city in the Pacific Northwest that was invested in the one known as the Reign Man. At the age of 23, Kemp was taking the responsibility of being a leader of his own team, the Seattle Supersonics, and with that responsibility also came the assignment of taking aim at all of the big men that reigned supreme in the West.Stretch 4. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
It was the new landscape of the Western Conference in the early 90's. With Magic Johnson now retired and the Portland Trail Blazers beginning their fall from grace, this new Wild West featured a multitude of big men that we would all come to love. Karl Malone. David Robinson. Dikembe Mutombo. Hakeem Olajuwon. They all reigned supreme. Of course, that's until a new sheriff came into town, all because of "The Decision" he made to leave Philadelphia.
"Charles decided he wasn't going to be a good teammate in Philly anymore. He didn't think the team would win, was discouraged, thought his whole career was going to be winless and just forced his way out of town, which stars can do." -- Pat Williams, general manager of the 1993 Philadelphia 76ers (via USA Today Sports)
Most people realize now that LeBron James' decision was a necessary one. After going through the wars, seeing his team virtually regress in his seven seasons as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, that change was necessary. What we don't realize is that superstars in their primes have met this crossroads and been stubborn (see Kevin Garnett's prime years in Minnesota) or have decided that it's time to make a decision.
Charles Barkley gave Philadelphia eight glorious years after joining the NBA as a 290-pound rookie from Auburn. The Round Mound of Rebound was the best power forward in the Eastern Conference, the only person not afraid of the great Michael Jordan and yet was the guy whose lack of winning (probably) led him astray with fights at the bar and spitting on fans.
Sensing his own team's regression, Barkley made a power move, and with it came the formation of the Big Three in the desert. Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle would transform the Phoenix Suns from perennial pretenders to championship contenders. It would be Barkley that would dethrone MJ for the 1993 MVP. It would be the Suns who would claim the #1 seed in the 1993 NBA Western Conference playoffs, and it would be the decision that would ultimately pay off for the best power forward in basketball.
Charles Barkley and Shawn Kemp battled for seven games in the '93 West Finals. The Suns and the Sonics traded blows as 9-year-old kids like myself just begged to stay up a little longer to watch them play. Watching Kemp go head up with Barkley, then 29 and in his prime, reminds me of when my homie Cedric, a freshman in college, was trying to talk to this fine woman, we'll call her Constance, who just so happened to be a senior.
Cedric really had no business even trying to talk to this woman. She had a car, she was in a sorority and need I remind you that she was fine. Ced, on the other hand, just turned 18 a few weeks ago, had no car, had no real idea on how to talk to women, but was just an ambitious, smart dude that threw caution to the wind. And then something crazy happened ... she started giving him some rhythm! He was out there dancing with her at the parties, taking her on ice cream dates (she drove though) and was caking with her until the midnight hour. Look at my homie Ced do work!
Then Lamar happened.
Lamar, the senior, the man with a dope ride, a fraternity man, double-majored in this and that, destined for a great job in corporate America and just looking for a fine woman to keep on his elbow. Once Lamar decided that Constance was going to be his, the game was over. Fancy dates, actual conversations about life after college and also being the guy that Ced was four years ago gave Lamar the experience necessary to close the deal.
Many will remember Barkley's epic 44-point and 24-rebound performance in Game 7 of the West Finals (a game that saw the Suns go 57-of-64 from the free throw line), a game that doesn't get nearly the respect it deserves, but folks also forget the 43-point, 15-rebound performance in a much closer Game 5 as the Suns squeaked out a 6-point win versus Seattle.
That win gave the Suns a 3-2 series lead and helped them regain the home-court advantage after Kemp's Sonics stole Game 2. Kemp struggled early versus Barkley, but later in the series Kemp began to find his way, including a 33-point effort in the Game 5 loss. Kemp never backed down, and he learned plenty along the way. That experience would help him years later as the Sonics would finally break through and make the Finals in '96.
But it wasn't time for Kemp yet, not in '93. An in-his-prime Barkley was pulling all the stops, and he was determined to make sure his Suns would go to the Finals. Yes, his desired destiny would ultimately be deterred by some guy named Michael Jordan. He just didn't know it yet. Barkley had to do everything he could to get himself to that moment, from making his decision, to making a sacrifice, to going through the wars. Barkley wasn't going to lose on that day.
*Just an interesting footnote if you made it this far. "Constance" never married Lamar, although I would've bet on it years ago. Nope, she re-upped and got her another dude, a pro football player who ended up playing almost 10 years in the NFL. They had four kids and lived a happy life.
**Another interesting footnote. I may or may not have been the person known as "Ced."
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”