The 1997-98 NBA season was still young, and the most inexperienced squad in the entire League, the Cleveland Cavaliers, had the World Champions Chicago Bulls, without Scottie Pippen, coming to town.
Although he could not appear in the season opener in Houston because of a suspension, the Cavs’ big-time summer acquisition, NBA superstar Shawn Kemp shined in the next four games, averaging 25.0 ppg and 9.5 RPG for the 2-3 squad.
On November 11th, 1997, as they were leaving their locker room in the Gund Arena, Kemp and his young but fearless teammates were all pumped up before meeting the 1997 World Champions – Chicago Bulls.
The Cavs’ head coach, Mike Fratello, had instilled a great deal of confidence in the team, which had a roster that featured a total of 4 rookies, two 2nd-year players, two 3rd-year players, and two 4th-year players.
That season, the 28-year-old Reign Man provided a front-court anchor for the 47-35 Cavs squad, and its regular starting five featured three rookies – PG Brevin Knight, SF Cedric Henderson, and C Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
They would act as a unit with a common leading thought’ Defense first, offense second’. That was the collective mindset Fratello worked on instilling since taking over the team before the 1993/94 season. The game vs. the Bulls was just another bit of proof that Fratello’s defensively oriented concept works.
In a slow tempo game, the Cavs challenged every shot and managed to keep the Bulls at just 36.9% shooting from the field while allowing them to hit only 1 out of 7 three-pointers (14.3%)! His Airness Michael Jordan was held back to just 19 points in the game, on 7-17 shooting, while his backcourt partner, ex-Cavaliers star, Ron Harper scored only 1 point in 31 minutes of action!
With the primary task of stopping the Bulls leading scorers, the young but exceptionally aggressive Cavs relied on veterans Shawn Kemp and Wesley Person to carry the offensive load. Kemp scored 21 points on 8-13 shooting from the field, converted 4-5 trips to the charity stripe and grabbed nine rebounds with ease, in only 31 minutes of playing time.
“I gotta be more active regardless. I have to be more active to draw double-teams, to put some points on the board. To be main focus out there. You know, it’s not easy job but I gotta keep focus and realize how to be more aggression on the basketball court” – Shawn Kemp
With his perimeter shots falling in all night long, the Reign Man was just too much to handle for any of the Bulls tough interior defenders – Dennis Rodman, Jason Caffey, Joe Klaine, and Luc Longley. Wesley Person added 17 points for the young Cavs, who scored an incredibly huge 101-80 home win.
“It’s a good win, it’s a good confidence builder but we still gotta ‘big mountain to climb’ on Saturday. We gotta catch ourselves on balance and we gotta keep our focus in. But if feels good to beat them.” – Shawn Kemp
With a bevy of experience and expertise, the 8-year veteran led the team with 18.0 ppg and 9.3 RPG while appearing in 80 regular-season games for the squad that made the postseason but was eventually eliminated by the Eastern Conference finalists – the Indiana Pacers. Kemp stayed in Cleveland for two more years before moving on to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2000.
Basketball Network contributor Murray A. a.k.a. Marjan Crnogaj is the 1980s and 1990s basketball specialist, proud author of the Amazon.com TOP 100 basketball biography ‘Drazen – The Years of the Dragon’.