There was a point last July 4, Chris Kaman says now, where he realized that maybe, just maybe taking a blowtorch to a string of wicks hooked up to $6,000 worth of fireworks wasn't such a great idea.
"It nearly blew my face off," the Clippers center said. "Really, it burned the whole side of my face. And I couldn't hear. I thought I'd lost my hearing. But I didn't."
The scene (without the part where his face is blown off) was captured on video and has become somewhat of a YouTube sensation as has Kaman's flirtation with a .50 caliber rifle (shooting up a 1988 Ford Taurus he bought for $50 from his dad's friend who owns a junkyard), and his expertise hitting a six-inch target with a high-tech crossbow used to hunt deer.
"I've always been fascinated with weapons, guns, knives," he said. "Got it from my father, I guess. We grew up hunting, fishing everything in the outdoors."
Which raises the question: How is such an outdoors guy excelling in an indoor sport?
"Well," Kaman answers blankly, "It helps to be seven feet tall."
That it does. It also helps to have honed a pretty wicked shot, something he said he worked on extensively over the summer and something he credits for being named to the NBA Western Conference All-Star team, with the game scheduled Sunday in Dallas. He wasn't initially picked and was miffed that Pau Gasol was, but then was added when Portland's Brandon Roy was injured, and further infuriated purists by saying, "I guess I'm half an All-Star."
Kaman has always been one of the more distinctive players in the NBA, but nobody really has taken notice until now, when he will (hopefully, he says) get a few minutes on his sports' grandest stage. He was always the odd-looking, floppy-haired tall guy who really didn't fit in or cause pause for notice. When Shaquille O'Neal was asked several years ago what he thought of Chris Kaman, Shaq answered, "I don't know, I've never been to the Kaman islands." The response created droves of laughter among Kaman's then teammates but was understandably irritating to Kaman. And, true to Shaq's personality, when reminded recently of his comment, he burst into hysterics, proud of how witty he had been.
But Kaman, who has cut his hair military short, has begun to assert himself on the court. Had his team had a better record, he reasons, he would have become a "full All-Star" by averaging 20 points and nine rebounds heading into the second half of the season. And he says he may have been a better player before this if he had not been incorrectly diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder as a child. Three years ago, doctors discovered that the Ritalin he was taking, was actually making things worse. He stopped using it and became more focused and sharp.
"There was a time I had trouble remembering plays," he said. "Now I'm really honed in."
A day after the "half an All-Star" remark, Kaman was back spewing politically correct quotes that he was honored, excited, etc. He had planned to spend the weekend with his girlfriend "up north," but is now bringing her south, to Dallas.
Even though there is a girlfriend in the picture (she's a special education teacher in Manhattan Beach whom he met while attending Central Michigan University), he continues to live with the same three guys he brought with him to Los Angeles his rookie year, although he admits, he doesn't spend as much time with them because of the girlfriend.
He went back home this summer and built a gym on his parents' property near Grand Rapids, Mich., because, "they're out of shape," and hired a personal trainer for his mom.
"Now she and her girlfriends get together and workout," he said. "She's doing great. Now I've got to work on my dad."
To liven up the decor inside the gym, he commissioned artist Shane Grammer to paint a mural alongside three walls to honor his grandfather, who fought in World War II.
"It's got the beaches of Normandy, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Arlington National Cemetery," Kaman said. "And we hung my grandfather's dog tags on it. It looks really awesome."
As for shooting up the Taurus with a huge rifle and bullets that cost $4 a piece, Kaman shrugs and says, "We made sure everything was legit. It's legal in Michigan. We made sure we had enough space, checked with the county, all that. It all fell into my love of weapons and my friends hadn't shot a rifle like that."
He continues to be faith driven, although it may seem odd to some that a devout Christian loves to blow things up. To that he just shrugs. He and his brother were brought up as boys as in "boys will be boys." But he does admit he may re-think this year's fireworks display. But don't count on it.
Shelley Smith is an ESPN correspondent based in Los Angeles.