If it weren't for YouTube, Shawn Kemp would still be that dude who got fat during the 1998-1999 lockout and fathered a bunch of kids out of wedlock. As Kelly Dwyer has pointed out, Kemp was actually pretty good once play started 1999; plenty of other athletes have dozens of illegitimate mouths to feed. However, the combination of the two made Kemp into an unfortunate cliche, an object lesson in everything that can go wrong with an NBA star.
Then, five years ago, Kemp mixes started popping up on YouTube. They were culled from NBA-TV rebroadcasts, VHS highlight tapes from the early 1990s, home recordings saved for years, and naturally, whatever other Kemp-ologists had already posted. They were linked to like the dunks were breaking news, reminding older folks how great Kemp had been, and showing a younger generation the man behind the punch line.
That's how Shawn Kemp, Prodigal Son of the New Jack Nineties, was rehabilitated. Kemp, before the fall, was a national freakin' treasure, and deserves to be remembered that way—not to mention, a member of the forgotten powerhouse Sonics team, and with Gary Payton, part of the most mesmerizing alley-oop tandem ever.
As much as we like to mock athletes, we would probably rather revel in their most stunning accomplishments. Kemp, within a matter of months, saw his reputation undergo an abrupt shift, all because of a fairly new video hosting platform and some very dedicated fans. It was synergy at its best; Kemp's career was one of the first that enterprising fans went after for wholesale excavation, developing a whole new use for YouTube and changing the role it could play in athletes' brands. Punchlines had been much easier to transmit than video footage. YouTube changed that equation.
So, who today is most likely to get the Shawn Kemp treatment a few years down the road? My vote is for Vince Carter, whose disappointing career has only a handful of the competitive peaks that Kemp braved. Carter essentially trailed off sometime in New Jersey, and had to deal with frequent accusations—often warranted—of spinelessness, laziness and general refusal to perform up to his full potential. But those first few years with Toronto, and then every once in a blue moon, he was a one-of-a-kind aerial artist—a high-flying, inventive swingman who regularly made fans fall out of their seats, or off of their couches.
When Carter retires, which will be soon, there will be some flustered post-mortems. Eventually, though, we'll all turn to the tape. Here's where it gets tricky, though. Kemp had been a legitimately great player; the highlights served only the jumpstart that recognition. Carter's legacy will likely never be resolved. Hopefully, though, once his playing days are over, he can at last find peace. Vince himself seems like he will be just fine, but what this really means is that we can oooh and aaah over his best moves without a scintilla of guilt or rancor. It won't make him into the Next Jordan, or even an admirable athlete, but YouTube in this case provides a haven.
For present-day players, YouTube can be something of a hindrance, or at least a mixed blessing. Every night, every dunk will appear on YouTube, almost as soon as it's executed. As compared with the detective work required to, say, put together Phi Slama Jama Clyde Drexler mixes, today YouTube's community makes it too easy to see—and glorify—it all.
A guy like Will Bynum, who is a decent player and frequently emphatic dunker, can be elevated into a full-blown cult hero. That's the reason anybody remembers Smush Parker at this point.
Before YouTube, the standard for dunks was John Starks in the playoffs. These days, it's something as random as Corey Brewer jamming on Derek Fisher.
For bigger stars, there may be some liability there. Blake Griffin has every one of his dunks immortalized, prematurely. He's played one season, and yet the number of extended play mixes devoted to him far exceeds that of many Hall of Famers. It's not fair, but it's also not all that good for Griffin. Sure, it made him super-famous overnight, in ways that traditional media would never have allowed (especially for a Clippers player). But it also sets a verdict on him, and defines him as a player, well before it's time to do so. Griffin is known for his dunks, but there's a lot more than that to his game. Will these mixes, and clips, evolve, or are they premature records?
It seems crazy to say so, but it's possible that Blake Griffin, whose young career has been helped by YouTube like no one else, might now have more to lose from it than to gain.