Jan. 31, 2006
From intramural games to starting a game on a Division I team in the West Coast Conference. It's a story that's a couple scenes short of a made-for-TV movie. That's because we don't know the ending. Or do we?
While Kobe Bryant's 81 point explosion was awe-inspiring, I am much more touched by Joey Kaempf reaching double figures for the Santa Clara Broncos. The spirit of Horatio Alger lives on at the Mission Campus. With each three-pointer he lets fly, a part of the general population flies with him, where most of us only go in our dreams.
In September of '05, playing college basketball was the furthest thing from Kaempf's mind. He was coming home from London after a stint through an educational program called FIE (Fund for the Improvement of Education). It was time to hit the books and move on with life. There still would be basketball during the summer in Portland in his backyard full court and, of course, intramurals at SCU.
You could say that Kaempf sort of tried out for the basketball team in the fall. There were five students vying for a roster spot and the coaching staff rounded up five intramural players to play against them. One of those players was Kaempf, whom assistant Sam Scuilli describes as "an intramural legend who'd been around for years but never tried out for the team."
"I had a class at the same time as the tryouts and almost didn't do it," says Kaempf. "A friend of mine talked me into doing it and I didn't think I played that well. Then Coach Scuilli asks if I want be on the team. I didn't know what to do because I was carrying 22 units and planned to graduate early."
Joey met with Dick Davey to talk about the possibilities and Coach gave him a weekend to think it over. He would have never forgiven himself for not taking the shot. But first he needed to talk to his parents.
"Without them, this never would have happened," explains Kaempf. "From the first moment I told them about what I wanted to do they were so supportive. This has always been a dream of mine and they made it happen for me."
The dream of playing college ball seemed to end at Willamette College, where Kaempf's bad back would allow him to play about three minutes in two games before calling it a season. The same back would hamper Kaempf through his senior year of high school when he teamed with current Bronco Scott Dougherty to lead Jesuit High to the state title game. He had left Santa Clara during his sophomore year of '03 to take his shot and was able to return to the South Bay in December of the same year.
"The reason I went to Willamette in the first place was to play basketball," says Kaempf. "And if I couldn't do it, then would rather have been a student at Santa Clara."
Although Kaempf was a star at the intramural level, shooting threes over some Joe in a finance class compares little with playing in Spokane this week against Adam Morrison.
"Pickup ball and intramurals is a way to stay in the game but the shape you need to be in to play D-1 is so much different. I think that's why I struggled early and am just now starting to get in the kind of shape I need to be in to play."
There had been glimpses but things came into place in San Diego when Kaempf nailed 4-of-5 threes to score 13 points off the bench. The minutes would increase, leading to a start against USD at the Leavey Center. Playing small forward because of injuries, Kaempf scored 11 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished three assists with two steals in 34 minutes.
"He might be our best shooter right now and he is one of the smarter players in our program," says an impressed Dick Davey. "We have been real fortunate to have him in our program and would love to have him back. He's been a quiet leader for us and is starting to get the hang of things."
The usual role for a walk-on player would be that of the 30-30 man: Enter a game when leading by 30 or down by 30. That hasn't been the case but it wouldn't have made any difference in Kaempf's approach.
"The way I looked at it was that it would be a great experience just being a part of college program and ANY playing time would be a bonus," explained Kaempf. "With that said, I have confidence in what I can do and want to be out there because I think I can help the team. I so glad they gave me a chance. I still need to get a lot better at everything and know I can shoot it better."
This could be the end of the story with Kaempf someday sitting in a rocking chair, grandchildren on his lap, talking about a dream coming true. Fade to black with the credits rolling and we could leave the theater with a tear trickling down our face. But that's not the ending Kaempf sees.
"A better ending would be for us to win a bunch of games down the stretch, get hot and make the NCAA tournament. Just like the Super Bowl with Pittsburgh getting hot at the right time. They might not have had the best complete season but played their best when it counted."
Academically, Kaempf is just about finished but is a junior in terms of eligibility. It just a hunch but I feel there would be a spot available for him if logistics would be worked out. A lot of things would have to fall into place for that to happen and it doesn't, Kaempf has enjoyed the ride.
"It's been an experience of a lifetime and I'd do it again if I could."