Quirk Study

Clippers center Chris Kaman is often reduced to his eccentricities and his hair, er, style, but there's more to his story--and to his $52 million game
November 27, 2006

Chris Kaman, theLos Angeles Clippers' center, draws a map of the route to his South Bay housethat is oddly to scale, the squiggles on the notebook paper replicating thoseof the Pacific Coast Highway. "That was a good map," he'll say later.But the most remarkable thing about his sketch--and you don't notice it untilyou're checking it for signposts en route--is that he didn't simply indicate atraffic signal at the corner of PCH and Torrance Boulevard. He actually drewthe light standard, a row of three blinking bulbs.

Such unexpected flourishes of personality and filigrees of behavior have moreor less defined Kaman since the Clippers made him the sixth pick in the 2003NBA draft out of Central Michigan. Because, really, nothing else can. If wetried otherwise: He's 7 feet and 260 pounds, can move like a deer, has anunfortunate haircut ("Hairstyle," he corrects), loves to shoot things(often from rooftops) and is likely to send lip-flapping teammate Sam Cassellto the moon one of these days. But after Kaman established himself by averagingnearly a double double (11.9 points and 9.6 rebounds) last season--promptingnotoriously tight-fisted owner Donald Sterling to sign him to a five-year, $52million extension--there is more urgency to describe him. Especially now thatthe Clippers, who won their first playoff series in 30 years last May, havebecome a meaningful franchise, competing with the Lakers for fans andacclaim.

Despite all that,most attempts to sum up Kaman return to the word flake. "Well, he is aflake," says his coach, Mike Dunleavy. Kaman is totally transparent,without guile or agenda. He says whatever is on his mind and does whatever hewants. To visit him in the master bedroom of his house, where five leatherrecliners and a plasma TV wait for him and his entourage--which includes hisbrother, Mike, and three childhood friends--is to go on a kind of play date."Do you want to see my knife collection?" he asks at one point."Here are my remote-control cars. Do you want to see my closet?" (It'sfilled with 1,600 DVDs and his replica Rambo III knife.) But to be childlike inthe NBA is to be misunderstood (unless you're Shaq). So when Kaman explainsthat the bobblehead in his locker of teammate Elton Brand will be used fortarget practice, he raises some concern.

"I might takea box of them back to Michigan," he says, looking ahead to the off-season,when he plans to hole up in the carriage house on the property that he boughtin 2004 for his parents, Leroy and Pam. "I don't know if I could actuallyshoot an ear off. But can you imagine them all in a row, bobbing on thoselittle springs?" As long as you're not Brand, it does sound fun.

There has been atendency to explain Kaman's quirks in terms of hisattention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In a predraft workout three years agoDunleavy was annoyed when Kaman didn't respond to instructions. "Did I misson this kid?" he wondered. Then, after balling up his jacket and shuckinghis shoes, Dunleavy went onto the court and showed him post moves--and Kamanresponded. "He's not the only kid on this team with problems focusing,"says L.A. assistant coach Kim Hughes.

By the time herson was 18 months old, Pam says, "I knew something was different. He wasconstantly moving, always out of control." At 2 1/2 Chris started takingRitalin for his ADHD, and when he reached kindergarten, he began attendingTri-unity Christian, a small, private school in Wyoming, Mich., at which he gotindividual attention and extra nurturing. But he still had zilch impulsecontrol and a lot of ingenuity. "We lost a lot of babysitters," Pamsays.

She reluctantlyconfesses that at one point she told her pastor that she couldn't handle Chrisand might have to place him for adoption. It might have been after the toddlerwhacked his sleeping father with his Etch-a-Sketch, bloodying his nose. Orafter the four-year-old locked his babysitter out of the house and begancooking a pot of Pringles and ketchup. "Maybe it was after he pulled theshingles off the neighbor's roof," she says. "I just don'tremember."

Kaman was both anindifferent student and an unlikely basketball prospect at Tri-unity Christian.He sprouted from 6'3" as a freshman to 6'11" as junior, but he was soskinny that few major colleges were interested in him. He stopped taking hismedication for good at age 17 and believes that helped him pack on 18 pounds.Prodded by his coach, Mark Keeler, Kaman buckled down in the classroom andsurprised even himself. "I got an A in algebra," he says, which helpedimprove his grade point average from a 1.6 to a 2.6. "I said, 'How am Iunderstanding this stuff?'"

As a senior Kamanset school records for rebounds (24) and blocks (15) in a game, taking his teamto a 24--2 record and the state quarterfinals. Even so, Central Michigan wasthe only Division I school to come calling--and that was only because thenChippewas coach Jay Smith's car dealer had alerted him to this string bean withleaping ability. "Chris had a bad rap," says Smith, "but I foundthat he listened, excitable as he was. And the more he gets accustomed tothings, the better he gets."

During Kaman'sjunior year in Mount Pleasant he lit up Michigan for 30 points and led his teaminto the second round of the NCAA tournament. Smith enjoyed the fruits ofKaman's progress--he was voted the Mid-American Conference coach of the yeartwice while Kaman played for him--but he mostly enjoyed Kaman. One time Smithswung by the Kaman house in Grand Rapids and found Chris on the roof, firing aBB gun into the garage. ("Don't worry," Kaman told his coach."We're selling the house.") After Duke blew out Central Michigan 86--60in the second round of the 2003 NCAA tournament, despite Kaman's 25 points and10 rebounds, the Chippewas moped all the way back from Salt Lake City. When thebus from the airport finally arrived on campus at 3 a.m., "there was Chris,unloading the bags, pulling everybody's luggage out," says Smith.

As a Clipper,Kaman is nothing if not a team player, getting out of the way for Brand andCassell and, in the case of the team's 6--2 start at week's end, getting out ofthe way altogether. Against smaller teams like the Phoenix Suns, he has beenless of a factor, as Dunleavy has chosen to go small. "It's a long season,though," says Kaman, unworried (if disappointed) by his meager 7.3 pointsand 5.8 boards a game.

His teammateshave found Kaman to be delightful if a bit puzzling, especially when hesuddenly channels a character from one of the comedies in his filmlibrary--say, Uncle Buck or Ron Burgundy. "A lot of people," Brandsays, "don't know what the hell he's doing." Other times, though, theyget sucked into Kaman's world without realizing it. When he began sitting nextto Hughes on the team plane, going over the film of that night's game on hislaptop, Dunleavy worried that other players might think Kaman was getting"special tutoring." But then, gradually, more players began spendingthe trip on their laptops, examining their own play.

Kaman has provedhimself increasingly amenable to instruction, which is one reason Sterlingsigned him for five years. But he remains sensitive to criticism. "[If] youbark at him from across the court," Hughes says, "you get nothing."And even Kaman warns that constant jabbering from his mentors, Cassell andguard Cuttino Mobley, will only go so far. "I haven't snapped yet,"Kaman says, as if in warning. "I love them as teammates, but one of thesetimes...."

Still, you don'treally get to Kaman. He is so insulated from L.A. life--he doesn't drink, partyor otherwise mingle socially--that it's hard to imagine his losing that winninginnocence. He remains quarantined in his own whimsy. Asked if he doesn'toccasionally want to get out and mix it up, he replies, "For what?"Everything he wants is within his considerable reach: His favorite movies arestacked in rows, his trusted companions are on call. The biggest disappointmenthe's had of late was when police made him take his archery range down after hisbrother loosed an arrow onto a neighbor's roof.

Kaman has beenventuring out a bit lately, but on his terms. He bought his parents a 43-footmotor home last year, and the whole gang drove from Michigan to Alaska for afishing trip during the off-season. "A hundred hours going," he says,"and 110 coming back. We stopped at Yellowstone." He cruised down toMexico ("31 hours--I got pulled over twice"), this summer to conductfree basketball clinics for 2,000 children. And the view outside his bedroomwindow--the Pacific Ocean laps the shore just below--has inspired him to beginshopping for a yacht, something he and his crew could board after Clipperspractices, then bob along or maybe sail all the way down the coast. For as longas they want.

He admits it'sonly an idea so far, although it sure sounds like fun. For Kaman, there's noother kind of idea worth having.

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Kaman warns that jabbering from Cassell will only goso far. "I haven't SNAPPED YET," he says. "But one of thesetimes.... "

PHOTOPhotograph by Peter Read MillerSITTINGPRETTY
The guileless Kaman has battled attention deficit disorder to become an insideforce for an NBA title contender.
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH PHOTOLISA BLUMENFELD/GETTY IMAGESLEARNING CURVE
After averaging nearly a double double last season, Kaman has willingly taken abackseat during the team's hot start.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)