There is a scene in the 2000 movie Almost Famous, a favorite of Lehigh center Tim Kempton, that shows the fictitious rock band Stillwater sitting silently on its dilapidated tour bus as it rolls through a remote corner of the Midwest.
Everyone is angry at everyone else, for reasons that need not be discussed here, when all at once Elton John’s song “Tiny Dancer” begins playing on a boom box.
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The members of the band start singing along — hesitantly at first, then with increasing enthusiasm until finally they’re all belting the song out.
Suddenly, all of them remember why they came together in the first place. Suddenly they all remember it’s not about them, but about the music. That they need to put aside what it is that is dividing them in favor of what bonds them.
In a case of life imitating art, Kempton and his teammates were summoned to the room of assistant coaches Kyle Griffin and Antoni Wyche one night in early January, in a hotel outside Washington, D.C. The Mountain Hawks had just lost 51-50 at Loyola (Md.), on a layup by the Greyhounds’ Andre Walker with 4.5 seconds left. Next up was a game at American.
Kempton recalls Griffin and Wyche telling the players how much they still believed in them, despite the fact that Lehigh was 3-11 at that point. And then one of the assistants began talking about his “complete love” for the game, as Kempton put it.
“That’s when it struck us,” he said. “That’s when we kind of woke up — not saying that we weren’t (awakened) before that, but it definitely kind of changed our perspective on things.”
If this were Hollywood, the Hawks would have immediately gone on a tear culminating in a Patriot League championship. The music would swell. The credits would roll.
Alas, it is not. Lehigh lurched along for a while after that, alternating victories with gut-punch losses (notably a Jan. 31 defeat at Boston University on an off-balance prayer by the Terriers’ John Papale at the buzzer), but on Monday extended its first winning streak of the season to three with an 87-72 victory over Lafayette, a game in which Kempton had 22 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. (The Mountain Hawks’ next game, at league-leader Bucknell, is Wednesday on ASN.)
The Hawks are just 9-14, but their 7-5 league mark leaves them part of a four-way tie for second in the 10-team conference. They still have hope. They still have the dreamers’ dream that they can be, shall we say, almost famous.
It is the sort of thing that buoys every also-ran in every one-bid league this time of year: If they can just get hot, if they can somehow find a way to win their conference tournament, they can crack the NCAA field.
“I was talking to someone about that,” Kempton said, “and they were like, ‘You just have to win three games, right?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what has to happen.’ I mean, if you win a couple games in February, if you’re able to get hot in February and end up winning those last three games, you’re sitting there with a ring in your hand and a pretty happy feeling. That’s what we’ve been thinking about.”
Kempton, a 6-10 junior, has dreams that go beyond that, dreams of playing professionally. He has been able to put them aside and focus on the task at hand – last year he was PL Player of the Year, and this year he’s averaging a career-best 17.4 points, as well as 8.3 rebounds – but they are there, just the same.
“He could play in Europe right now,” said his dad Tim.
The elder Kempton played at Notre Dame and was a professional for 16 seasons, half of those in the NBA. Now a radio analyst for the Phoenix Suns, he said his son was something of a late bloomer, that while he competed in a number of sports growing up (notably football), it wasn’t until the summer after his sophomore year at Brophy Prep in Scottsdale, Ariz., that he fully devoted himself to hoops.
The two of them often worked out together. There was no stereotypical, rite-of-passage one-on-one game where the son finally beat the dad — that too is the stuff of Hollywood — but there was steady progress on the part of the younger Kempton.
And now, it appears, the sky’s the limit.
“He still has to improve a bit to play in the NBA,” the elder Kempton said. “If he keeps on improving his junior and senior year as much as he did his freshman and sophomore year – (on) ballhandling and shooting it out to the 3-point line — I think he’s got a shot.”
The younger Kempton has a role model of sorts in Lehigh graduate C.J. McCollum, a starting guard with the Portland Trail Blazers and a shining example of what a mid-major player can accomplish at the next level. Kempton met him on his official recruiting visit a few years back, and now tracks McCollum religiously.
As for his own prospects, he will, again, think about that when the time comes.
“In basketball if you look too hard in the future, you let the present slip away,” Kempton said.
And right now the goal, quite simply, is to become almost famous.
Above and middle: Tim Kempton, last year season's Patriot League Player of the Year, is averaging a career-best 17.2 points this season. (Courtesy Lehigh Athletics)