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Kimble Vows to Bounce Back : Former Loyola Star Chases NBA Dream Despite Failures

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bo Kimble still believes.

The feeling he has now is not so very different from the adrenaline-primed determination that carried him and his Loyola Marymount teammates on that spine-tingling NCAA tournament run after Hank Gathers had collapsed on the court and died in 1990.

His belief is dogged and passionate--and probably a little irrational.

Kimble still believes he can play in the NBA.

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It has been little more than four years since the Clippers made Kimble a lottery pick by taking him eighth in the NBA draft. It was a decision that ranks among the worst of the Clippers’ bad ones.

At 28, Kimble’s career is a shambles. What remained of his five-year, $7.25-million contract was bought out by the New York Knicks last year after he had appeared in only nine games the season before.

He was even sent packing by a French team in December when his struggling Lyon club made personnel changes. His name has become synonymous with a wasted pick--a player who might bomb is “another Bo Kimble.”

Even a 68-point game last month in the summer pro league at UC Irvine didn’t convince many scouts that he will ever make it in the NBA.

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“People don’t think he can play,” said one scout who wants to see Kimble make it but doubts he will.

“I’m not going to give up,” Kimble said. “For a long time.”

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Kimble has always had an amiable confidence about him, but now that assurance seems more than a little deluded. He is one of the few who believes his failure has been merely a question of circumstance and opportunity--and the misfortune of being a Clipper.

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“A lot of guys who I’ve played against and who I’ve dominated throughout my career, I see them playing,” he said. “It’s really hard for me because I know I should be out there also. Guys like Lionel Simmons, Pooh Richardson, these are guys who are friends of mine, but guys I used to get the best of throughout my career. So it’s frustrating to see them playing and know that I belong out there and not to have that opportunity.”

NBA scouts say there’s a reason: The abilities that made him the NCAA scoring champion with a 35.3-point average in 1990 have not translated to the NBA.

Some question his quickness. Most question his defense. Others question his strength or ballhandling, or wonder what position he really should play, shooting guard or small forward. Still others think the Loyola system that made him famous created a player who can’t adjust to the NBA game.

Even the one thing that always seemed rock-solid-certain about Kimble came into question once he reached the NBA: his outside shot. At Loyola, he rained down jumpers from beyond the pro three-point line, shooting 41% from three-point range his senior season, and 53% overall. His first year in the NBA, he made 29% of his three-point shots and a wretched 38% overall.

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Kimble understands this is an important summer, and his goal was clear: He needed numbers. Numbers got him attention in Loyola’s prolific scoring game, and he needed them again.

Desperate to catch some scout’s eye, he called clear-out after clear-out to take his man one on one. He got his numbers, averaging 35 points and shooting 57%, 35% from three-point range. Still, not many are convinced.

“He looks like the same Bo Kimble to me,” said Frank Hamblen, assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks, after watching Kimble play. “Defense is not a priority in his game. He has a selfish game, a shooter’s mentality. But maybe he’s just playing to his game, because he can really shoot the ball with great range.

“He’s a guy I think really needs to learn the structure part of basketball instead of up and down and let it go. I don’t think he benefits by playing in the L.A. summer league per se, unless he gets with a coach who’s going to have some structure. This is like he played in college, up and down, up and down.”

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Though he drove the lane with ease against lax summer defense, not many are convinced he can do it regularly in the NBA, where the guards are quicker and Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo wait in the lane.

Kimble laughs.

“I’ve never had a problem getting to the basket,” he said. “I’ve just had a problem getting on the court to get to the basket. I’m not deterred at all, though. I’m hoping that before the later years I do get a true opportunity because I have a lot to show people.”

He might have to show them in the CBA first. The Rapid City Thrillers recently traded for his rights, gambling they can sign him, even though Kimble would prefer the NBA or Europe.

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“Players like Bo are really what the CBA is good for,” said Eric Musselman, coach and general manager of the Thrillers and the son of Bill Musselman, the former Minnesota Timberwolves’ coach. “I think especially with expansion, Toronto and Vancouver coming in, the CBA is a good route. A lot of times players in this league can build their confidence up, and playing here becomes a short-term thing to help them get back to the NBA. . . . I know this: If he plays in our league, he’ll be back in the NBA.”

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It’s easy to forget that Kimble’s NBA career began well. With Ron Harper out with a knee injury, Kimble started 22 of his first 23 games as a pro.

John Hammond, a former Clipper assistant coach who is now an assistant and director of scouting for the Detroit Pistons, remembers the excitement surrounding Kimble’s arrival.

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“It was amazing,” he said. “We’d go around during the exhibition season and they would introduce Charles Smith, Danny Manning, Ken Norman. Then they’d announce Bo, and he got a standing ovation everywhere we went.”

But despite some high-scoring games, by December, inconsistency and a spiraling shooting percentage had cost Kimble his starting job. Harper returned and Kimble’s playing time dwindled to single-digits, when he played.

His confidence crisis deepened, and he never recovered.

“With the Clippers, I was told not to play the way I played at Loyola Marymount,” he said. “Not to shoot a lot of jumpers. They put emphasis on that. Therefore I was caught into hesitating on shots I knew I could make.

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“I’m used to unity, and there was no unity on the Clippers. I’m used to playing as a team and being together. But NBA basketball is quite different than anything I’ve experienced. I didn’t have the support of the coach (Mike Schuler). If you’re drafted to be the scorer and the shooter, and your coach is telling you, ‘You’re not at Loyola. Don’t shoot this shot, don’t shoot this shot.’ Well, then you start to wonder. I kind of lost my identity of who I really was. If I can’t shoot and score, do what I do best, well, then what do you want me to do?”

Hammond spent a lot of time with Kimble after practices, and found himself amazed at Kimble’s shooting ability, then equally amazed that he couldn’t seem to show the same touch in games.

“He still has put on some of the most amazing shooting performances I’ve seen, not in a game, but just shooting around,” Hammond said. “He’d shoot 25 three-pointers, NBA range, and make 20. He’d shoot 25 again, make 21. He’d do that consistently, but then he’d get in a game, and he didn’t do it.”

In 1992, Kimble was traded to the Knicks, a throw-in in the trade that brought Mark Jackson to L.A. He was an unneeded fifth guard, and he spent most of the season on the bench or injured.

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“Knowing the things I know now, I wouldn’t have wanted to play for the Clippers,” Kimble said. “It doesn’t represent what true NBA basketball is about. When I went to the Knicks, I personally feel I went from worst-class to first-class.”

Paul Westhead, Kimble’s coach at Loyola, said he is still “a little puzzled” over Kimble’s difficulties.

“I thought he was the kind of player who would always find a way to score,” said Westhead, now at George Mason University after an unsuccessful stint with the Denver Nuggets. “Whether that meant he’d be a standstill jump shooter or a guy who’d take it to the basket or somewhere in between, I didn’t know. But I thought he was a very creative offensive player.

“I knew there’d be hurdles to overcome (adjusting to the NBA), but I thought he had a confidence about him that he would do fine. . . . I thought his outside shot would have been good enough to carry him.”

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It wasn’t.

“Early on, I was surprised at his reluctance to shoot the ball,” said Westhead, who was coaching Denver at the time. “All at once he became a passer. He’d get the ball and reverse it. That wasn’t Bo. Bo gets the ball and says, ‘I’m going to score.’ That was a sign he wasn’t comfortable with his game or the game.

“Then it becomes easy to track. Once your minutes go down, if you’re a shooter you start playing tight. If you’re not making shots, your minutes keep going down, and unfortunately what happens to a player is he begins to second-guess his shot and he goes spinning downward.”

More than one scout thinks Loyola’s system hurt Kimble’s pro career--pointing out that it didn’t work in Denver.

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“He might have been the all-time guy who was in the right place at the right time,” one said. “Maybe the Loyola system, which made him what he is and got him his money, also put him in the position he is in. The way Loyola played wasn’t about defense. It wasn’t about doing the little things. It was just about outrunning everybody and outscoring everybody. There was no such thing as a bad shot for Bo Kimble at Loyola. In the NBA, there is.”

Even Kimble says “the system” made stars out of some marginal players, but he does not mean to include himself. He remains convinced he has the talent to make it.

“The players know I belong out there,” he said. “The people who watch the game, they don’t understand. All they see is Bo Kimble, great shooter, great scorer, not playing. So they think a variety of things. But the players, among ourselves, we know who has the talent to contribute.”

The way Kimble has always carried himself means there are a lot of people in his corner.

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“Even I got caught up in (Loyola’s story),” Hammond said. “He was so possessed, the way he played, the way he carried himself. I mean, he was on ‘The Today Show’ and all those others. I said, ‘What a person. This guy really believes.’ ”

He still believes, but the odds are lengthening, especially at 28.

“It looks like it hasn’t worked for him,” Westhead said. “It could have, perhaps, with good luck and confidence, gone the other way. If Bo Kimble were a starting guard in the NBA, nobody would have been surprised.

“But the NBA is a tough league. There are always new players coming up each year. They get the biggest contracts and there isn’t a lot of room left. If you don’t make it in the first couple of years of your contract, there are a lot of replacements stockpiled behind you.

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“Bo, I think, is a very resilient and tough-minded guy, especially when the odds are against him. He’s the kind of guy, if you push him, he’ll play better. The question now is, is anybody listening? For his sake, I really hope so.

“All it takes is one team that has a need. I think that’s the harder part. I don’t think it’s a cracked Bo Kimble who can’t get his game together. I think he can and will. . . . I hope for him that he does.”


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