The question was simple, tossed out in one of the rooms along the southern hallway of Haas Pavilion. It was Jan. 12 and roughly a dozen reporters, sprawled across a directionless mass of chairs, peppered questions about Cal’s 57-50 win over Colorado.
Do you feel like you stopped struggling tonight?
Forward Harper Kamp sat in front of a large, Cal logo-printed canvas, his eyes flickering. His sharp jaw, cleanly shaven, seemed to tighten just slightly. Less than a half hour ago, he had scored 14 points against the Buffaloes, his largest effort in over seven weeks during a season that saw him — at that point — average only 8.8 points per game. The query was pointed toward an offensive emergence, but it carried the implication that if Kamp wasn’t scoring, he wasn’t contributing at full capacity.
But as ugly as the effort had been — 31 percent shooting in the first half — the Bears earned their 12th home win in as many tries. Wasn’t winning all that mattered?
“Offensively, you could say I have been having struggles,” he admitted. “I just had to focus and help the team any way I could. I don’t have an unlimited amount of games left.”
The question begets more questions: Has Harper Kamp, the team’s leading scorer for most of his junior year, really been struggling? If so, has he regressed in his senior season, one delayed an entire year by major knee surgery? If not, does he feel slighted?
Head coach Mike Montgomery calls Kamp and senior guard Jorge Gutierrez the “heart and soul” of the team. True freshman forward David Kravish says Kamp is “the smartest player I’ve ever played with.”
These descriptions can be difficult to reconcile with what shows up on paper, because nothing about Kamp stands out on paper. Since last season, his stats have dipped slightly almost across the board: 32.9 minutes down to 28.5; 14.2 points down to 10.3; 5.5 rebounds to 5.0. He ranks fourth on the team in all three categories.
Kamp and Gutierrez are the de facto faces of the Cal men’s basketball team this year, their faces plastered awkwardly over promotional materials. Still, the 6-foot-7, 245-pound Kamp is far from a big man on campus; even Franklin, his 50-pound English bulldog, gets more love than he does.
His Rivals.com scouting report from 2005 reads: “Limited athletically, Kamp relies on a heady and skilled approach to the game. Very good at using his body to get position, Kamp can score the ball with either hand around the basket. He also has a nice touch on his mid-range jumper and passes the ball well out of the high post.”
They are words that, two knee surgeries later, could have been written today.
Kamps understands that his game isn’t built for accruing glamor stats. There is no easy way of recording how many opposing possessions are wasted by taking a timely charge, or how many shots are altered because of a quick rotation as a help defender. And it is Cal’s defense — ranked third in the Pac-12 — that has molded the team’s identity and helped it become the conference’s safest pick for a March Madness bid.
Does it get frustrating that he isn’t always acknowledged, when what he thought was a good game isn’t perceived as one? Perhaps, but Kamp isn’t the type to play for perception.
“When you put weight in certain statistics over others, it’s not always gonna show the whole picture,” Kamp says. “Sometimes it does. Sometimes they don’t lie. (But) sometimes you just have to know that you made good plays.”
He hasn’t been fully satisfied with his performance this season, but shrugs off any suggestion that he hasn’t scored enough. He simply says he hasn’t taken advantage of opportunities to make plays, something that can be attributed to the fact that: A) Kamp is being used more with his back to the basket this year, a role he was less familiar with, and that, B) Kamp has consciously planned his workout regimen toward peaking later in the season.
Montgomery thought that last year, he wore Kamp down over the course of the season partially out of necessity, grinding away the cartilage behind his patella. Kamp’s right knee is essentially arthritic, and surgery after his sophomore year knocked him out of uniform for the 2009-10 season. That was the year the Bears ended up winning their first conference title in 50 years.
He still received a championship ring, something he says is still important to him despite not having looked at it in ages. He was part of the team, uniform or not, and every discrete part contributes to the whole.
So where does he keep it?
“I don’t even know. It’s in a drawer somewhere.”
When Cal clinched a share of the title with a sold-out victory over Arizona State, confetti rained down inside Haas Pavilion. He tried to soak in the moment, even if it wasn’t one that he could fully celebrate for himself.
The Bears are currently tied with Washington for first place in the conference, but three teams — including Thursday’s opponent, Oregon — are only one game back. Not a day goes by that Kamp doesn’t think of slipping on another ring, but he doesn’t dare imagine what that might feel like. For now, he simply watches film, studying the opposition and trying to prepare as he’s always done. There is pleasure in this process.
“I see basketball as being a beautiful game,” he says. “Just the way it’s played, when it’s played right and when it’s played together, when you have a team that has good chemistry and when people move intuitively with each other … You can do things that you didn’t think you could do.”
Kamp has only two home games left in his career, and he understands that one phase of his life is coming to an end. Older than the rest of the team, the players that were here when he arrived in Berkeley have all left.
“That time I spent with them, it’s gone now,” he says. “They’re in different places … I try to spend as much time with (my current teammates) as I can. Especially knowing I’m not going to be around any longer, they keep me up.”
I mention this sounds a little like dying. He laughs.
“In a sense, I guess, philosophically or whatever, you have to act like that. You have to live every day like it’s your last. Play every game like it’s your last.”