ClipperBlog contributor Krai Charuwatsuntorn checks in and provides some insight on what Chris Kaman’s All-Star selection means for the franchise.
In a season rapidly spiraling out of control, Chris Kaman’s selection to the 2010 All-Star team should be cause for celebration for a franchise badly in need of a bright spot. At the very least, Kaman’s accomplishments this season should remind the team that it was not so long ago that they were playing with some confidence and a sense of purpose. But Kaman’s late addition to the All-Star squad has brought up another painful reminder for the long suffering franchise. Since their relocation to Los Angeles in 1984, the Clippers have sent only five players to the All-Star game: Norm Nixon (whom the Clippers got from the Lakers for Byron Scott, since they had to clear the log jam at point guard for a guy named Earvin Johnson), Marques Johnson, Danny Manning, Elton Brand, and now Chris Kaman.
It can be argued that the Clippers lengthy record of futility plays a crucial role in denying their players a spot on the league’s All-Star team. But the fact of the matter is, in all those long dark years of losing, there were not many players on the roster who were deserving of an All-Star bid. Though they were rewarded with top ten picks almost every year, the Clippers were unable to find that rare superstar that can turn around the fortunes of a franchise. For many years, Donald T. Sterling’s argument for not signing any of their young players to a long term extension was that none of his players were worthy of a lucrative contract. I remember his complaining to a reporter some years ago about his negative image as the worst owner in all of pro sports. It wasn’t true, he pleaded, if he only had a player of sublime talent, he would reward him with a contract that greatness deserves. Of course, every young player on draft night glimmered with potential that they might be the one to finally turn the franchise around. But for the Clippers it was not to be. And time after time, the Clippers’ high draft picks turned to dust.
In 1987, the Clippers selected a sweet shooting 6-7 guard from Georgetown named Reggie Williams with the fourth overall pick. Reggie had shown poise way beyond his years. As a freshman, he scored 19 points and grabbed seven boards to help Patrick Ewing and Georgetown win the NCAA Championship in 1984. Three years later, he led a young Georgetown team back to the big dance, leading the team in points, rebounds, steals, and blocked shots. Coach John Thompson called that team, “Reggie and the Miracles.” So in a draft headlined by David Robinson, the Clippers passed on Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller, Kevin Johnson, Mark Jackson, and Kenny Smith to select a seemingly can’t miss prospect. Of course, as soon as the sweet shooting guard nicknamed “Silk” joined the Clippers squad, his silky shooting touch evaporated. On a seemingly talented team with a young Big Benoit Benjamin, rebounding phenom Michael Cage, mercurial scorer Quintin Daley, and veteran point guard Larry Drew, the Clippers of 1987 finished the season with a dismal 17 wins and their prized rookie Reggie Williams shot 35% from the field. It would never get much better for poor Reggie Williams’ Clippers career, and after his rookie contract was up in 1989, the Clippers let him go. He finished his last year with us the same as his rookie year, shooting an abysmal 36% for the season. Many years later, after his retirement from the league, I came across an interview with Reggie Williams. It was an unremarkable interview except for one comment he made about the Clippers. No question, he said, the Clippers franchise, their coaches, and lack of a coherent system ruined his career. He left the team demoralized and his confidence gone. And though he would bounce around the league for several more years and was able to cobble a good season with Denver, he would never fulfill the bright promise that had glimmered so brilliantly upon draft night, that led us to forsake all those future Hall of Famers from that illustrious 1987 draft class.
It would be easy to dismiss Reggie Williams’ comment as simply seething bitterness of a man who fell short of his own expectations. After all, it is easy to cast blame on a franchise as hapless as the Clippers, renowned for their ineptitude and mismanagement. And there have been countless other young, incandescent talent like Pistol Pete Maravich who burned brilliantly through the gloom of their terrible teams, their own sublime skills towering above the paucity of their teammates. That Reggie Williams lack the singular greatness of a star like Pistol Pete is without question. But a nagging question remains. What if the Clippers had selected someone like Scottie Pippen instead? A player of great potential but someone who needed time and a stable environment to hone their skills. Would Pippen grow to become the player that we know, if he were thrown into the boiling cauldron of that dysfunctional Clippers squad? Or would he finish his rookie contract with his pride battered, looking to catch on with another team, trying to salvage some ember of potential that had once seemed so bright.
Thinking about Kaman, Reggie Williams, and the draft class of 1987 calls to mind an article I read awhile back in the Atlantic Monthly about genetics and child rearing by David Dobbs. The article outlines a hypothesis that challenges some basic assumptions about nature vs nurture, and replaces it with a more complex “gene-environment” interaction. The biological psychiatrists and developmental pediatricians behind the study classify children into two main camps, depending on what type of genes they carry. First there are the Dandelion children, who carries resilient genes; these are the “normal” or “healthy” children who thrive in most environments, even detrimental ones, and who would one day grow up to become the stabilizing mortars of human society. Then, there are the Orchid children, who carries the “risk” genes (like the ones which cause ADHD), which may cause problems or become destructive in certain unfavorable contexts, but who, under the right nurturing environment, can blossom spectacularly and surpass their Dandelion peers; for those same “risk” genes can drive them toward bigger gambles and greater rewards. The researchers believe that this explains one mystery of natural selection, why “detrimental” genes have survived throughout human evolution. As David Dobbs puts it, “This is a transformative, even startling view of human frailty and strength. For more than a decade, proponents of the vulnerability hypothesis have argued that certain gene variants underlie some of humankind’s most grievous problems: despair, alienation, cruelties both petty and epic. The orchid hypothesis accepts that proposition. But it adds, tantalizingly, that these same troublesome genes play a critical role in our species’ astounding success.”
To continue this line of thought, within that Reggie Williams draft class of 1987, the Clippers also selected Ken Norman with the 19th pick. Though they went through the crucible of that disastrous 1987 campaign together, Ken Norman went on to achieve some degree of success with the Clippers and stayed with the team for six seasons, becoming a key contributor in those Larry Brown playoff teams, while the more heralded Reggie Williams was quickly discarded and forgotten. The simple explanation might just be that Ken Norman had an NBA game and body, while the willowy Reggie Williams did not. But a more intriguing explanation might be that Ken Norman survived that dysfunctional Clippers squad of 1987, precisely because he was not as highly regarded; because he was a solid, if unspectacular player who was able to find a way to be productive in a destructive environment. Reggie Williams, on the other hand, wilted on a team filled with teammates who looked to pad their stats, and when he tried to force his own shots, he failed miserably. Whether Reggie Williams would have gone on to a more illustrious career if he were drafted by a more disciplined team, no one will ever know. His NBA career certainly fell far short of the heights to which he had aspired, to the great disappointment of the Clippers organization, and to himself most of all.
In contrast, Chris Kaman seems to be a rare success story for the franchise in terms of player development. Kaman’s various vitamins deficiencies, ADHD, and peculiar idiosyncrasies are all well documented. That it took him seven seasons to finally make the All-Star team is a testament to his own resilience and the tenacity of the coaching staff to not let him fail, despite his many inclinations to do so. There have been many frustrating seasons in Kaman’s career, when it seems that he would never amount to more than a journeyman center, and the flashes of brilliance displayed in his rookie year were merely a mirage. Whether he is actually more than that now is inconsequential, because he has achieved something that only four other players have accomplished in Los Angeles Clippers history, and for that, he should be proud. Despite all of Dunleavy’s flaws as a coach or GM, he deserves some credit for the stable and nurturing environment which allowed Kaman to overcome his many deficiencies and reach this pinnacle. I can’t help but think of what would happen to Kaman if he were drafted onto that team in 1987. He would have been thrown to the wolves in his rookie year under Gene Shue, then suffer under Don Casey the following year and a half, and if he had somehow survived those abysmal locker rooms and the Clippers picked up his option year, he would have ended up with Mike Schuler. Kaman would have had three coaches in four seasons, each one bringing in a new philosophy and a new voice, none of them achieving much success. For someone of Kaman’s learning impediments, screwball temperament, and lack of focus, this is probably a recipe for disaster.
There have been many players in the league who have somehow carved out a rewarding career despite their many flaws and limitations. Most often, the stable franchises, with a good coach and a coherent system, are the ones in which players like Bruce Bowen find their niche and thrive. The Clippers, under Dunleavy, had done a good impression of that, to a degree. Certainly, the much maligned Quentin Ross had his most effective minutes under Dunleavy, as did Bobby Simmons, and even Elton Brand; now stuck in the unfriendly confines of Philadelphia, and raging upon the depth of his fall from grace. Dunleavy’s tenure as head coach of the Clippers had some bright and indelible moments, but he left under a sustained and long bleak period marred by injuries and losses, and failed expectations. Though in the end, he was overwhelmingly despised by the fan base, Dunleavy should be allowed to take some solace in Kaman’s selection to the 2010 All-Star game. It might be his last parting gift to a beleaguered franchise, one that took seven years to bloom under his watchful gaze, and one that we, as fans, should not take for granted.