THE PERFORMANCE of Shawn Kemp against the Bulls in the NBA Finals can be traced to Chicago. The Midwesterner worked out daily last summer in the Windy City, and that effort shows in his improved game that is peaking in the playoffs.
The fury began in the scorching humidity of Chicago last summer. People died during that heat wave. Still, Shawn Kemp was undaunted.
Every day he woke up and braved the suffocating heat to run . . . away from his demons, and to his dreams. During his daily jaunts, he carried the burden of two straight Seattle SuperSonic flameouts. But he kept on running, right through the ensuing season and postseason.
And now the burden has melted, much like everything else did during Kemp's summer of discontent in Chicago.
"You have to challenge yourself," Kemp said. "And things will happen from there."
Kemp challenged himself the other night and came up with a monster game - 25 points, 11 rebounds - during the Sonics' 107-86 victory over the Chicago Bulls in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Now he faces an even bigger trick: To pull another game out of his hat at KeyArena tonight and send the series back to Chicago.
There, one way or another, his quest would conclude exactly where it began. And there, another will begin anew. The outlook, however, would be different.
"I might not have been able to say I would have a fun summer if it hadn't been for making the Finals," Kemp said. "Making it to the Finals makes you hungry. If you win, it makes you hungry for another. If you lose, it makes you hungry to get another chance."
There's no mistaking, Shawn Kemp's appetite has been voracious. During the past week, he has shown the world that he belongs, maybe not up with Michael Jordan, but up in the same NBA stratosphere. In the Finals, he has made a mockery of the league's most ballyhooed defense, riddling it for an average of 25 points.
During the most hyped part of any NBA season, the grandest of finales, Kemp has been remarkably in control. Once considered loose and extraneous, he has been tight, decisive and powerful. According to his foil for the series, Luc Longley, Kemp has been the most consistent of the Sonics.
"He's a flamboyant player, but that comes with his athleticism and talent," Longley said. "He has shown a strong mentality. He knows how to focus and concentrate. He figures things out."
What Kemp seems finally to have figured out is that professional basketball does indeed reward simplicity, that two points the hard way is two points nonetheless.
Bull Coach Phil Jackson says, for example, that his team must limit Kemp's full-court dashes at the hoop. "Those layups are killers," Jackson said.
The book on Kemp was an overwritten one. Foul-prone. Turnover-prone. Will use five moves when one will suffice. Will grab crotch in celebration.
That latter gesture, trotted out on the world stage during his stint with Dream Team II, labeled Kemp as one of the NBA's bad boys. His was a guilt by association. The true rotten apples of that team were the likes of Derrick Coleman and Dominique Wilkins; Don Nelson's coaching staff had fallen in love with Kemp's approach and work ethic.
Still, when it came time to name the third incarnation of the NBA's national team, destined to represent this summer in Atlanta, Kemp was left off the list.
"I really don't know what the criteria was for picking the Olympic team," Jordan said yesterday. "But to leave Kemp out, I really don't understand the measuring stick. One of the reasons I chose not to perform was to give people like Shawn an opportunity to play. Everybody has their own dreams. Why they didn't pick him, I don't know."
Kemp went into a funk, on and off the court, following the Olympic snub. At the time, he felt mislabeled and misunderstood. Now, he refuses to lament the timing of the selection.
"I'd already filled out my application," Kemp said, being figurative. "I'd played for Dream Team II. There was nothing more I could have done."
Except what he has done the past six weeks. Kemp had stumbled into the playoffs, having been suspended for the first game after an altercation with Denver's Tom Hammonds in the regular-season finale. The Sonics won their first-round opener against Sacramento without him. With him in Game 2, they lost, fueling talk that maybe the Sonics were better off without their standout forward.
"I guess we were all disappointed," teammate Sam Perkins said. "We wanted to come out as a unit. For everything we talked about that was positive, there was that one thing we didn't like. You want a star player like Shawn with you.
"We did regroup without him. But now we have him all the time, like we need him."
When the postseason began, Kemp seemed destined for a role as glorified decoy. He drew the double- and triple-teams of the Kings and kicked the ball out to the Sonic shooters. He did likewise in the next round and in the conference finals, occupying Houston super center Hakeem Olajuwon and Utah Dream Teamer Karl Malone.
Still, in the final game of each series, Kemp delivered. He had a game-high 26 points, hit 10 of 11 free throws and snared a game-high 14 rebounds in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals; scored 32 points and grabbed 15 rebounds during decisive Game 4 of the Rocket series, and netted 23 points in Game 4 of a first-round engagement with the Kings.
"Shawn can be used as a decoy, but that's a limitation that's self- inflicted," teammate Frank Brickowski said. "When you have an All-Star, your bread and butter, you have to put him out there. If the other team chooses to try taking him out, he has to adjust.
"But Shawn will not be denied. He has proven that over the course of time. He is hungry enough to get his points, whether he's double- or triple-teamed. He finds a way."
Little by little, Kemp has found ways against the Bulls.
One night, it's shooting his jumper; another, it's playing with foul trouble. Wednesday, he put a shuddering spin move on Dennis Rodman, threw down a thundering dunk and had to hang on the rim to collect himself. The most surprising aspect of the play, he later said, was that he wasn't called for traveling.
This one way will be harder to find. The Sonics are down 3-1 and were down 3-0. No team has rallied from either deficit in the Finals, much less against a team with history and two home games on its side.
Next year, maybe it will be a different story. But he will worry about next year when it's time.
"I will come out with a vengeance," Kemp said, looking ahead, "the same vengeance I came out with this year."
And the same vengeance that burns like the sidewalks of Chicago during the heat wave of 1995.