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Kaman's look that of a winner for L.A.
By Joe Stevens, Staff writer
Donning long blond wigs and fake beards, a handful of fans came to a recent Clipper game calling themselves "The Kamaniacs" and emulating their new hero Chris Kaman. The fans cheered every time Kaman touched the ball and had such an outrageous look to mimic him that it could be reasonable to make this conclusion: Not only has Kaman arrived in the NBA this season, but with hair that hasn't been cut in two years and a scraggly beard in perpetual need of a trim, some fans even view him as a cult figure.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Kaman said. "I'm not in any cult. I don't know anybody that's in any cult."
What he does know, however, is what it takes to average 11.4 points and 9.4 rebounds in the NBA. In his third professional season, Kaman already has emerged as one of the top centers in the league.
He might simply look like an oddball or a throwback to the 1970s or a man not too concerned with grooming. But as he deals with attention deficit disorder and as he yearns to hunt and work on muscle cars, it is obvious that there is much more to the Clipper center than his out-of-the-ordinary appearance.
And if you ask him, his look is not out of the ordinary, and neither is he.
"I'm not like a wild, Ted Nugent psycho," Kaman said. "I'm not crazy. I don't like heavy metal. I don't enjoy drinking. I'm not a big drug guy. I've never done drugs."
Kaman is a 7-footer who has the ability to use both power and finesse to score and defend. When he faces 7-foot-6 Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets tonight at Staples Center, if Houston has the advantage at center, it may not be that significant.
Sure, Yao was voted as the starting center for the Western Conference All-Star team and is among the elite players in the league. But Kaman is an All-Star in the making. At least, that's what his teammate Elton Brand says.
Actually, Brand is upset that Kaman was not selected to the squad this season.
"Kaman … I don't understand. Who's playing better than him right now?" Brand said. "At least he'll have more years to come to be an All-Star, but I really can't name any center, especially in the West, that's playing better than he is."
The Clippers have a lot of reasons why they stand at 30-19, more games above .500 than any other team in Clipper history. Kaman is one of those reasons.
With Brand making the All-Star squad and Kaman among the league's top centers, coach Mike Dunleavy says the duo gives the Clippers the best inside game of any NBA team.
A few statistics support that. Both Brand and Kaman are in the top 10 in field-goal percentage and rebounding. As a team, the Clippers lead the NBA in both rebounding and blocks.
Though Kaman has made huge strides with consistency, compared to his first two seasons, Dunleavy says he's not the least bit surprised.
"I've said all along and everybody from Day 1 when I've said this has looked at me like I'm out of my mind that this guy is like the white Tim Duncan," Dunleavy said. "Not right away. He's not ready for that. But three, four years down the road, I said, that's what I see. He's quick, athletic, very skilled fundamentally. There's nothing that he won't be able to do."
Kaman's success has been far from overnight. He was a work in progress his first two years and a living exhibit of inconsistency. Dunleavy says the center's insatiable work ethic is what has keyed his development.
The 23-year-old from Grand Rapids, Mich., credits his parents for that work ethic. Leroy and Pam Kaman, who have been married 28 years, raised Chris as a Christian and instilled blue-collar, Midwestern values.
Leroy worked 25 years as a city employee in Wyoming, Mich., a suburb of Grand Rapids and had duties that including plowing roads and painting fire hydrants. Pam is a teacher's aide in a kindergarten class.
By applying those values to his basketball game, he's been able to advance past being just another player with potential to a borderline All-Star.
"My whole life, my parents gave me the Christian background," Kaman said. "Smoking, drinking, drugs, all of that was wrong. They raised me the right way."
In Grand Rapids, Kaman picked up hobbies and a style that isn't common in the NBA. While his teammates enjoy hip-hop, he's into country music.
While some players in the NBA wear jewelry and fancy suits, he prefers hooded sweatshirts and says he doesn't own a suit. He prefers working on cars, driving his 1972 Chevy Chevelle and hunting as opposed to going to clubs or doing anything flashy that is common among his pro basketball peers.
In his home in Redondo Beach, three of his friends from back home live with him and act as his chef and assistants.
Grand Rapids is a manufacturing town whose businesses have been hit in recent years by layoffs and cutbacks. In fact, Kaman's high school, Tri-Unity Christian School, had 200 students when he graduated in 2000. Now, the school has 120 students.
One thing that Kaman learned growing up was not to take anything for granted. That's one reason why, even though he signed an $11.2 million contract when the Clippers made him the sixth overall pick in the 2003 NBA, his personality has not changed.
"The nice thing about Chris is that he really does have a kind heart," said Mark Keeler, Kaman's coach at Tri-Unity. "He does care. When he was here, he cared. He cared about his teammates. He cared about his classmates, cared about his teachers. To see what he has accomplished doesn't surprise me at all because of who he is with his character and work ethic."
Part of that caring manifested itself shortly after he signed with his agent, Rob Pelinka. With huge NBA paychecks on the horizon, his agent lent him $50,000, and he turned into some type of strange 7-foot charity.
"I just gave it away to everybody friends, family," Kaman said. "After a week and a half, it was all gone, and my accountant was like, 'What the heck did you do with all of that money?" Right then, he knew I couldn't have a checkbook. So I haven't had a checkbook since. I don't have a credit card either. I just have a bank card, and the most I can spend in a day is $2,000."
Throughout his life, Kaman has battled ADD, a neurological condition that hinders concentration. In high school, the battle was its fiercest.
"I was a troublemaker," he said. "I was ADD. I was out of control. It wasn't criminal stuff, but stupid little things, that I didn't mean to do, but I did."
When Keeler coached Kaman as a junior, he had a stretch in which he just couldn't get through to the center. Kaman was on Ritalin, always feeling tired and losing weight. Eventually, he switched from Ritalin to Adderall, and that made a huge difference.
Ultimately, the switch helped him get on a path to landing a scholarship at Central Michigan.
His mom, Pam, however, wasn't always sure her that would happen.
"He was a handful," Pam said. "I used to wonder would would happen with him. He was difficult as a child, very difficult. I didn't know if he would end up in jail or what. He always had a great heart and good intentions, but he was so impulsive that he did things he shouldn't do."
Chris was diagnosed with ADD at 2, and problems persisted practically from birth. When he was 4, he locked a babysitter out of the house and stayed inside, trying to cook.
"We always wanted Chris to be successful, but didn't know how it would work out," Pam said.
What would he have done, if it hadn't been for basketball?
"I wouldn't have gone to school," he said. "I didn't care about school. It's probably bad to say that. I went to class and did my work, but it wasn't what I liked doing. I'd rather be outside, messing around outside."
At Central Michigan and with the Clippers, he has not taken medication for ADD, but that does not mean the struggle with the disorder is done.
Shortly after Kaman was drafted, Dunleavy wasn't pleased with his progress, but soon had an epiphany.
"At one point, he just wasn't doing great, and I was wondering why we drafted him," Dunleavy said. "I got frustrated, and I took my jacket off and went on the court and started doing things, saying, 'Can you do this? Or what about this?" He kept doing what I was doing, and at that point, I got it."
Dunleavy's discovery that Kaman was a visual learner opened the doors for the coach and his staff to get through to him.
Throughout this season, fans like "The Kamaniacs" could be having their own epiphanies, seeing that Kaman has become more than just another high Clipper draft pick with potential.
It might be easy to make fun of him because of his wild look or offbeat demeanor, but opponents certainly aren't laughing when they face him.
"If you look at how I've played since I got in the league, it's been a steady incline," Kaman said. "It's not like it's been going down. I've been trying to make myself better every year. I think I'm just getting more opportunities, and I'm getting older. It's not like I have a lot of years, but each year, comes more experience, you know?"