Tuesday January 19th, 2010

Chris Kaman doesn't expect to be an All-Star. "I'm not a very fan-popular player," said the 7-foot Clippers center. "My style is very old-school, back-to-the-basket, slow, methodical."

Here's one way you can raise your profile, I told him. Grow your hair long, the way you used to wear it. Ben Wallace, Johnny Damon, Troy Polamalu -- many players have done the same thing to raise their profile.

"Johnny Damon, he looked like a wild man," said Kaman, as he rubbed at his dirty-blond scalp. "As you can see, my hair's pretty thin on the top. If I grow it long, it's terrible. I look like Hulk Hogan."

That's exactly the look that would put you on television.

"The hair's not coming back, man," said Kaman. "I can't do nothing about it."

The only way Kaman knows to become famous is by practicing. That's why he built his own gym last summer. "I didn't build it myself, but I was there while it was being built," he said, to correct any misunderstanding. "I wasn't working in steel."

However it happened to go up, the new gym did the trick. This season Kaman is averaging 20.4 points -- first among NBA centers -- to go with his 9.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. In my opinion, he belongs on the All-Star team for the first time in his seven-year career with Los Angeles.

But Kaman didn't want to dwell on the possibility of an All-Star breakthrough. "I don't ever count my chickens before the eggs hatch," he said. "I'm not that kind of guy. I don't like crying over spilt milk either."

He does believe, however, that a rolling stone gathers no moss. Or so I infer, because after resting his foot for two months last offseason to recover from plantar fasciitis, he couldn't wait to play in his new gym.

"The court got there at 7 a.m. and then they had to put it together and everything," said Kaman, who spends his summers in suburban Grand Rapids, Mich. "They got it done at like 4 in the afternoon, and I was right in there. I was so excited, I started shooting right away."

As detailed in this video, the wall features a 150-foot mural of fiery warplane battles in honor of his grandfather, Otto.

"It's got a big 'K' in the middle of the floor and says 'Kaman Court' on the baseline, and I've got portable hoops that retract," said Kaman. The workers continued their work on the adjacent locker room and weight room while Kaman tended to his own work, which, in 2006, resulted in the five-year, $52 million contract that made this grand indulgence possible.

"It was so cool, like, this is my gym," he said. "Then the next morning I got up and worked out, it was a full workout. I was so sore the next day. I shouldn't have worked so hard, but I was excited, like a little kid in a candy store."

In this particular gym, the early bird gets 20 and 10, or close to it. From Monday through Friday starting in late June he was in his gym every morning, making the most of his investment.

Some people find it hard to work out of the house, I mentioned.

"Distractions," he said, nodding. "We have TVs in the gym too, but I'm disciplined. I want to use the skills, the gifts I've been given. Some days I'm tired, but you try to not be so weak mentally. You just keep pushing yourself."

The big goal was to develop his jump shot, for which Kaman has long held deep feelings of ambivalence. This dates back to his boyhood in Michigan when he didn't want to be a center. "I didn't -- until I realized I could make an awful lot of money being a center," he said. "But before, when I was younger, I always wanted to be a guard. I always was dribbling, and my coach was like, 'Don't dribble the ball!' Even Mike [Dunleavy, the Clippers coach] says, 'Don't dribble the ball,' and I've got to get that out of my head. But now I realize what I'm good at, and I just try to focus on what I'm supposed to be doing."

As a center, he figured he was supposed to be playing close to the basket. Dunleavy implored him to mix things up, to occasionally step out for a midrange jumper -- without dribbling excessively, of course -- but the message didn't sink in. "Really, it's all about his head," said Dunleavy. "He's always been able to do these things, and we've been trying to pull it out of him and getting him to do it while making good decisions. His mindset has always been to get closer to the basket: How do I get in closer to get layups and dunks?"

But why limit yourself to layups and dunks? That was Dunleavy's question. "You can go left or right and score, and you can make a 17-footer," Dunleavy would say. "You can make that shot. So if they don't play you, shoot it. If they do play you then drive hard, and if he stops you then spin back and you'll score it the other way. You can do that with your left hand or your right hand better than almost anybody in the league.

"You," the coach would tell Kaman, "should be unstoppable."

The gym has helped Kaman to approach the nirvana of unstoppability. The inspiration of the war mural. The confidence that comes from ignoring the distraction of the TV screens.

"I'd do it all in the morning and get it over with," Kaman said. "Lift first, then do my conditioning, and then do my shooting. That way I'm shooting when I'm tired; it simulates somewhat the end of a game. I'd do that every day and then give myself Saturday and Sunday off, give my body that two-day rest, then go back at it."

He returned to Los Angeles in September with newfound confidence. During training camp he developed a new rapport with guard Baron Davis, with whom Kaman had struggled as both dealt with injuries during the previous season. Davis began to develop the pick and pop with Kaman.

The next phase of establishing a frontcourt partnership with rookie power forward Blake Griffin must wait until next season, as the No. 1 pick will undergo season-ending kneecap surgery on Wednesday. In the meantime, Kaman has a nice thing going with 35-year-old Marcus Camby, who feeds Kaman from the high post while dominating the boards and blocking shots at the other end. Kaman's importance was underlined by his recent absence for four games because of a sore back. The Clippers lost all four games to fall back to 17-22 before Kaman recovered to score 22 points in a home win Monday against the horrid New Jersey Nets.

"I'm not here to please other people, I'm here to play basketball and help my team win," he said when I returned to the possibility of an All-Star appearance. "My coach was old-school. It was all about positioning and footwork and pump-shot and step-through. It was not about jumping over the top of somebody back then. That's who taught me. I learned from him, that's how it happened to be and I wouldn't change it."

He explained that his alma mater, Tri-Unity Christian High School in Wyoming, Mich., shares its court with the church. When the church occupied the gym for a community event, the basketball team needed a place to play. Now, Kaman can invite coach Mark Keeler and his players to come over to his place when they have nowhere else to go.

Of course, he doesn't charge them for the court time. "My high school coach is a great guy," explained Kaman. "This guy basically taught me how to play basketball."

That education paid ultimately for this gym. Now that he is learning to take the next step -- which happens to be a step back, at Dunleavy's urging -- Kaman may find himself playing next month in a football stadium in Dallas.

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