Sunday, February 24, 1991 is not a day that jumps into the mind as a memorable one.
The Silence of the Lambs had dominated the box office that weekend, topping the lists for the second time in what would prove to be a five-week run as the top movie in the country. More importantly, the US launched ground war offenses into Iraq after six weeks of bombing, a battle which would end by the next weekend with the allied forces victorious.
But for the crowd of 12,080 gathered at the Seattle Center Colisseum that evening, it was an auspicious event, a foreshadowing of greatness in many ways, for that night, unbeknownst to anyone, was to be the first of many nights in which Shawn Kemp would take his place in the starting lineup matched up with Karl Malone.
Kemp had begun the season on the bench, and in Seattle’s first clash with Utah, a thrilling 97-96 loss at the Salt Palace, Kemp would only play 17 minutes as Michael Cage, Xavier McDaniel and Derrick McKey received the lion’s share of the forward and center minutes.
That all changed on December 7th, though, when the Sonics dealt the X-Man to Phoenix for veteran supersub Eddie Johnson. That evening in Orlando, while Johnson and McDaniel were packing their bags and journeying to their new homes, Kemp was inserted in the starting lineup, a position he would not relinquish (with the exception of a small spell in 91-92) for the better part of seven years.
It is said that the true judge of a great player is how he matches up against another great player, and there was no greater power forward in the NBA in the early 1990s than Karl Malone. Averaging close to 30 points a game and a double-digit rebounding total every night out, Malone was a fierce opponent for any player, let alone a youngster who just got the thumbs-up to drink legally less than two months before (insert alcoholism pun here).
Despite the overwhelming differences in the two teams’ records (Utah at 35-17, Seattle at a middling 24-28), the Sonics prevailed 103-91, thanks in no small part to a young Shawn Kemp’s 22 points. Still, even a true devotee of the green and gold would have to admit that Malone won the battle, even if he lost the war, as the Mailman finished with 29 points, 7 boards, and 5 assists.
Six years, and many battles, later, the two would match up again in late February, the final time Shawn Kemp and Karl Malone would face one another as members of the Sonics and Jazz, respectively. Again, Malone would win the battle, but Kemp won the war, as Malone’s 32-point night and Kemp’s 3-point (!) evening were overshadowed by a 2-point Sonic win in Salt Lake City.
In the intervening years, the two would match up no fewer than 25 times during regular season play, and another 17 times during post-season play, including, of course, the classic seven-game Western Conference Finals in 1997. In the next few days, we’ll take a closer look at how these two titans fared against one another, but for today, I’ll provide a small glimpse at their total numbers.
Regular Season Wins
Kemp 12, Malone 13
Kemp 8, Malone 9
PPG, Regular Season
Kemp 14.6, Malone 26.6
Kemp 16.6, Malone 26.8
Rebounds, Regular Season
Kemp 9.1, Malone 10.7
Kemp 9.6, Malone 10.8
TS%, Regular Season
Kemp 55%, Malone 57%
Kemp 62%, Malone 54%
You can tell that Malone dominates the raw numbers, a not unexpected occurrence considering the way he dominated the league for so long. But this study will delve a little deeper than the raw points and rebounds by which players are usually judged – and I believe, they’ll show that while the Mailman has the illusion of being far greater than Kemp, if you look closely at the numbers, and if you focus on the 10 biggest games of their careers in head-to-head competition, you might come away with a different impression altogether.