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It's not important that you believe in God, but be grateful Chris Kaman does.
If he didn't? Well, imagine a wiry, attention-deficit/hyperactivity-disordered, 7-foot, 265-pound man fascinated by guns and knives and driving ultrafast, trying to navigate the idle time/disposable cash/array of temptations obstacle course laid out for NBA players. In LA -- or Sin City, as Kaman calls it -- of all places.
The question is posed to the posse Kaman shuttles from Michigan to his five-bedroom house in Redondo Beach to insure that question will never have to be answered. They're all sitting on the sweeping staircase just inside the front door of his crib, a cascade of rolling eyes, shaking heads and nervous laughter. "He might be dead," says his 18-year-old sister, Jessica. "I'm serious."
Worse, he might not be the only one.
"The first time we met, he was standing in the doorway with a knife," whispers Ben Chamberlain, friend and full-time housekeeper. "Chris was like 9. I was 13, but I was afraid of him."
Kaman overhears this and yells, "Are you guys telling about how I tried to stab Ben?"
Ben: "I didn't say that!"
Kaman: "Yeah, but I did try to stab you!"
Christopher Zane Kaman is both feared and beloved, a one-man reality show pitting good vs. evil. Good is winning, but evil gets in just enough licks to make it interesting. Kaman prefers to keep this part of his life private, because he doesn't want to come off as holier than thou, which might discourage you from becoming a true believer.
Not that he has time to proselytize.
That would require slowing down, and even as he has been nursing a sprained left ankle that has discolored his leg halfway up his shin and halfway down his foot, he hasn't stopped moving. The injury limited his court time to four games in November, preventing Kaman from fully enjoying the Clippers' 9-6 start. That doesn't sound like much, but hey, this is a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 1997.
* * *
AFTER A while, there's a honk on the street, and Kaman dashes (bum ankle and all) to the door to find Jessica in the truck he bought her. He notices an unfamiliar car behind hers. "Are you bringing boys over to my house?" he yells. Before she can answer, Kaman adds, "I'm telling Dad!"
A minute later, he's retrieving a basketball at the request of a photographer. "Whatever you do, don't dribble it!" he warns. Someone asks why, which in Kaman's ear sounds like "Show me."
"Watch," he says, bouncing the ball in the narrow foyer at the bottom of the stairs. Tank, his rottweiler, bursts out of the bedroom and leaps at the ball, jaws snapping. Kaman's eyes are wide as he keeps a shoulder-high dribble going to coax more frantic leaps from the 60-pound canine. "He'll start growling in a second," he says.
But when it's Kaman's turn to ponder where he'd be without his faith, he spins away as if from a defender on the block. "It's not a valid question," he says. "I've never had to worry about that. That's negative."
What seems like an innocent inquiry may not be for Kaman, who has reason to be careful about what he lets into his head. The middle child of Leroy and Pam Kaman's three kids was found to have severe attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder at 2, which explains why he could never shake the impulse to do or say whatever came to mind. Most of it was relatively harmless. At 4, he locked out the babysitter and fried up a dish of potato chips and ketchup while she tried to get back in. As a teen, he booby-trapped the entire backyard with fishing line. When his parents didn't know where he was, they'd look up at the neighborhood rooftops. Chris liked to sit and tear off shingles.
"I didn't think of myself as dangerous," he says. "I always felt my thoughts were harmless, but I look back now and think I was crazy." His older brother Mike, who also had symptoms of ADHD, takes part of the blame. "He'd do anything we dared him to," he says.
Kaman's antics didn't go over well at Tri-unity Christian, the small private school in Grand Rapids, Mich., he attended from kindergarten through high school. If he wasn't being forced to sit next to the teacher, he was being sent to the principal's office. Mark Keeler, one of Tri-unity's basketball coaches, practically had to hold down Kaman in the huddle. "He'd go back out on the court, and I'd know he hadn't heard a word," Keeler says.
Kaman, 22, grew to 7feet by the end of his junior year. But Ritalin had killed his appetite, leaving him Manute Bol-thin. Kaman was always the tallest man on the court, and yet Tri-unity won its two Class D state titles before and after his tenure. "I got frustrated with him a lot," Keeler says. "Most plays for him had to be a lob."
A late-night talk with his brother in his junior year prompted Kaman to think about his future. Mike, then a children's pastor at Gaylord (Mich.) Community Church, sensed Chris needed direction. "He was getting in trouble because he couldn't sit still," Mike says. "Working with hyperactive and ADD kids, I know that's their biggest problem. If you overcome that, they're like guided missiles. They chase their dreams with all the passion in the world."
Kaman's dream, as far away as it seemed, was the NBA. So he began to channel his excess energy toward improving his game. He gave up his meds for his senior year so he could begin to bulk up. Still, only two unflashy local programs recruited him, Division III Hope College and eventual winner Central Michigan.
For all the misery created by its bad wiring, Kaman's brain also offered a tantalizing gift that blossomed in college: ambidexterity. Bowling, batting or shooting 20-foot jumpers, Kaman can do it with either hand. "As far as athletic ability, he is truly a balanced individual," says Clippers assistant Kim Hughes. In three years, Kaman turned that ability into lottery status. After averaging 10.7 ppg over his first two seasons, Kaman doubled that in his junior year, putting up 22.4 a night. The breakout swayed the Clippers to make Kaman the sixth pick of the 2003 draft. Then again, they almost didn't stick around long enough to notice him. The first time GM Elgin Baylor went to see Kaman play, he nearly left the gym before the tip-off. Baylor was turned off by Kaman's bouncy, splay-footed gait. "I couldn't believe he was a good basketball player," he says. "With that goofy walk, you'd never know he could run the floor the way he does."
Being viewed as too moralistic can be as problematic for an NBA hopeful as a checkered past. In Kaman's case, some teams thought twice about choosing the big man because they were concerned about whether he'd fit in an NBA locker room. But the Clippers have had no issues with their teammate. For Kaman, on the other hand, the NBA life is a daily issue. "I try to live the way the Bible tells me," he says. "I like my teammates as people, I just can't see myself doing what they do. The hardest part is staying positive when people are talking about the wrong stuff, stuff I don't need to hear. Bad company robs good spirit. Who do you hang out with, what do you do?"
That's no concern in the confines of his home, which is why Kaman rarely strays from it. His strategy for keeping bad influences at bay is to limit his exposure to them, and to engage in nothing that allows him to think beyond the task at hand.
So the LA nightlife is off-limits. He doesn't go out to eat, to avoid the possibility of being tempted by a pretty waitress. For Kaman, looking is sinning.
His live-in, three-man Christian posse from Grand Rapids helps Kaman remain true to The Word. He met all of them at Tri-unity Christian or at his church, the nondenominational Resurrection Life. Chamberlain, who on this particular day is sporting a post-9/11 "Michigan Is Praying for New York" T-shirt, runs the show. Jeremy Scully, having earned a degree from a culinary school in Pittsburgh, is the chef. Ben's younger brother, Caleb, Kaman's best friend since grade school, is the electronics whiz. These guys, right down to the pet rottweiler, are their own version of HBO's Entourage (a show none of them has seen) ... well, without the naked models, casual sex, Jell-O shots and spontaneous trips to Vegas. Basically, they're looking to be saved, not laid.
"We don't leave the house unless we have to," Ben says. "And Chris hates to be home alone."
Jeremy: "Don't say that. People will think we're house rats."
Ben: "We are!"
* * *
THE LEGACY of faith in a higher power runs deep in the Kaman clan. A great-great-grandfather started Michigan's First Assembly of God Church. Legend has it that a great-aunt was raised from certain smallpox death as a baby by family prayer. Chris' mom prayed with her three children every night as they grew up.
Ben sends two or three Bible verses a day to his buddy's BlackBerry, but that's not what keeps Kaman on the straight-and-narrow. His posse knows that is accomplished only by keeping their big friend active. The ankle sprain made this a more complicated challenge. Halo 2, acquired the minute it was available, worked for a bit. But after 40 hours of almost nonstop play, Kaman had mastered it. So the men of the house raised the stakes, concocting a real-life version of the game.
After turning out the lights and opening the sliding glass doors, they grab air guns and plastic BBs, don masks and split into two-man assault teams. Late-night screams have prompted neighbors to complain about "the noisy parties."
"As if we'd ever have one of those," Scully says.
Left adrift in Grand Rapids last summer, Chris and Mike decided to build the tree fort they'd always dreamed of as kids. There they were at 4 a.m., dropping 14-foot poles on the 25-acre spread Kaman bought for his folks. In three weeks they had a house on stilts, complete with sliding-glass door and electricity. Next summer's plan is to enter a car on Michigan's demolition derby circuit. It won't be the '72 black Chevelle with the engine Kaman boosted to 700 horsepower.
The Redondo Beach house bears the brunt of his perpetual motion these days. When Kaman decided he needed a 700-pound safe to store his knife collection, he installed it himself. But lugging it on a dolly up the outside marble staircase did a number on the steps. Then, shortly after hearing Kaman begin to cut a hole in a closet wall, Ben heard spraying water just seconds before Kaman sprinted past him in search of the shut-off valve.
The BBs have done damage as well. Small divots pock the walls and every picture. The one of Ali standing over Sonny Liston at the top of the stairs wears the scars of a particularly heavy ambush. Kaman is inspecting one divot when his eye is drawn to a red mark about six feet up the wall. "I think that's from my shoe," he says. "He's levelheaded in choices of morality," Mike says. "He's just crazy when it comes to fun."
Know who Elton Brand is reminded of when he thinks of Kaman? "Ron Artest, my teammate in AAU," he says. "It might not be the right timing to say that, but it's true. They're nice guys who walk to the beat of their own drum. Chris' faith is just part of the package. He gets some slap about it in the locker room, especially about not chasing girls, but I definitely respect him for it."
His faith is an issue for no one besides Kaman. Marko Jaric, a renowned playboy who tools around in a $240,000 Aston Martin, considers him a friend. The last thing Kaman wants is for people to think he believes he's superior. That would be un-Christianlike. And you won't find a cross hanging from his neck or him giving thanks to Jesus in interviews. He used to wear WWJD wristbands, but he turned them inside out, and he stopped wearing them because they kept breaking or getting ripped off in games.
"If I say, 'Jesus Christ!' he'll punch me," says Hughes. "But then he'll turn around and use the F-word in front of a woman. He's a paradox."
Kaman shakes his shaggy head. "My mouth is my biggest problem," he says. "Sometimes I don't control what I say. Thing is, I don't really consider myself a religious person. I just want to be a good person who loves God. The main reason is, when life is over, where do you go? I want my soul to go to a good place where I can live forever."
For now, he's content to live in the hills above LA, cloaked by his posse. On his bedroom wall, facing his four-poster bed, hangs a framed photo of a lighthouse surrounded by stormy ocean, a massive wave poised to swallow its base. A tiny figure, the lighthouse keeper, stands in the hollow of all that water seemingly unaware of his impending doom. Kaman studies the picture for a moment, then picks up a car magazine.