The Original “Special K”: CHD sits down with Memphis legend Larry Kenon

Coach Josh Pastner has certainly pumped some life back into the Memphis basketball program, but one of the first people to bring the school to national prominence was Larry Kenon.  After just missing out on being a part of the 1972 US Olympic team, he helped lead his team to the 1973 NCAA tourney title game before running into a near-perfect Bill Walton.  In 1974 he won an ABA title as a 21-year old rookie on the New York Nets, and 2 years later he participated in the first-ever All-Star Slam Dunk Contest.  In addition to being a great offensive player, he also set an NBA record with 11 steals in a single game.  Jon Teitel sat down with Larry to chat about what it was like to have a teammate who ended up becoming richer than anyone else on the court. 

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Your nickname was “Special K”: who gave it to you, and how do you like it? I do not remember who gave it to me but it must have been one of my teammates. They seemed to enjoy it, so I liked it as well.

You did not play organized basketball until your junior year at Ullman High School.  Why did you get such a late start, and how long did it take you to feel comfortable on the court? I grew five inches during the summer before my junior year so I was pretty uncoordinated at first: I had problems just walking and talking at the same time! By my senior year I was much better. I played basketball in the schoolyard while growing up but organized ball was a little different. In the schoolyard you just get out there and play so I did not learn any fundamentals until I had a coach in school.

You averaged 27.6 PPG/25.1 RPG during your sophomore year at Amarillo College: why did you decide to go to Amarillo, and were you just better than everyone else? I only had two scholarship offers from some small schools coming out of high school but I wanted to go to a D-1 school. I got a call from Coach Bill McDonald at Amarillo so I went there and he instilled confidence in me to be a special player.

In 1972 you earned an invitation to try out for the US Olympic team that later lost to the USSR in the infamous gold medal game: did you feel that you had earned the right to try out despite not being a D-1 player, and how close did you come to making the team? That was a huge disappointment for me. I know that God is the best planner but I had plans in my own mind. Spencer Haywood was one of my heroes: he played in the 1968 Olympics and then went pro so my aspiration was to follow his path. When I got to Olympic training camp in Colorado there were 66 of the best players in the country, but they already had their 12-man roster in mind. I played well and felt that it was unfair that I was not picked to join the team.

In 1973 Memphis coach Gene Bartow (who was named national COY that season) had a roster that included more African-Americans than any prior team in school history.  What made Bartow such a great coach, and how big a deal was it to have so many African-Americans on the team? I was not aware of that fact. I have never played on a team that was closer than that Memphis team: we were just one big happy family. One of the reasons I went there is because it was close to my family in Birmingham, which was nice after spending two years in Amarillo. Coach Bartow was a disciplinarian but a fair man, and I enjoyed my time there even though it went so fast.

One of your teammates was PG Bill Laurie, who later married Nancy Walton (daughter of Wal-Mart founder Bud Walton) and bought the St. Louis Blues.  What was it like to play with Bill, and could you ever imagine him becoming a billionaire? I thought Bill was a billionaire even back in school! He was a tough competitor and played great defense against guys like John Williamson at New Mexico State. His wife is nice too: they were college sweethearts.

When your team headed to New Mexico State to clinch the MVC title and secure an NCAA tourney berth, there were student protests over the refusal of the school’s regents to allow co-ed visitation rights, which led to confrontations with police and two campus buildings being burned down. What do you remember about that road trip, and did you ever feel that your life was in danger? When you are in college you live in a protective shell. We did not see or hear a lot of things that were going on around the campus.

In the magical 1973 NCAA tourney you scored 25 PTS (including 9-10 FT) in the 1st-ever tourney win in school history over South Carolina (Alex English had 19 PTS before fouling out).  Could you tell at the time that Alex English was going to become a star? I do not even remember English playing against us to tell you the truth. We were not a favorite entering the tourney but just got hot in February and continued that into March.

You had 28 points and 22 rebounds in an upset of fourth-ranked Providence (Marvin Barnes had 12 points but only played 11 minutes).  How good was Barnes back then, and what are your memories of the wild post-game celebration that included singer Isaac Hayes? Barnes was talking a lot of trash from the start of the game before he got hurt in the 1st half. I also remember Ernie DiGregorio (32 points/7 assists) making great passes all over the court to help them get an early lead. The party was kind of crazy: Isaac was a Memphis fan, and that is all I need to say about that!

Your teammate Bill Cook became the first freshman to ever play in an NCAA title game.  Did it seem like he was nervous or was it just another game to him? We were all nervous before the title game but did not fully realize the stage we were on. I remember playing at Tulsa earlier that season when Bill was taking a lot of shots from far away, but he gained my admiration because he made most of them.

You had 20 points and eight rebounds in the NCAA title game loss to UCLA, where you had to guard Bill Walton (who made 21-22 FG in the best individual shooting performance in tourney history en route to 44 points and 13 rebounds).  Was there anything your team could have done to stop Walton, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards? I remember PG Greg Lee kept giving Walton alley-oops: they were perfect passes and he had a perfect night. We were all dejected in the locker room: that one hurt a lot.

You were named to the all-tourney team: did you consider your run in the tourney to be a success (due to your individual accolades and your team making it to the title game) or a failure (due to getting so close but not winning it all)? It was a definitely a success: nobody picked us to do anything in the tourney. We looked good on paper but the key was to put it all together, and the MVC was one of the best conferences in the country.

In the summer of 1973 after deciding to turn pro before your senior season, you were drafted in the third round of the NBA draft by Detroit and also picked in the ABA draft by Memphis.  Why did you end up choosing the ABA over the NBA, and do you have any regrets? I do not have any regrets. The ABA was perfect for me: they had the best forwards in the sport. If I had gone to the NBA they would have made me play power forward despite the fact that I barely weighed 200 pounds. I had been a center all my life so I had to learn how to dribble and play facing the basket.

In 1974 you averaged a double-double in the playoffs (15.8 PPG/11.6 RPG) as your NY Nets went 12-2 en route to winning the ABA title (led by playoff MVP Julius Erving): what did it mean to you to win the title, and what was it like to play with Dr. J? Dr. J was just fantastic: playing with him was like going to the movies every day. I was 21 years old and he was only a year or 2 older, so we had a lot of energy out on the court. The best dunk I ever saw was 1 he showed me at practice: he would come from out of bounds and dunk the ball without hitting his head on the backboard. It is hard to do and is illegal…but it is awesome!

During halftime of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game you competed in the 1st-ever Slam Dunk contest (Dr. J won it with his famous dunk where he took off from the FT line, beating David Thompson/Artis Gilmore/George Gervin): did anyone realize at the time how big a deal the Slam Dunk contest would become, and what do you remember about the famous dunk? I actually thought that I was going to win the contest. The dunk contest was not a big deal at the time: the judges were an old lady and a retired serviceman! The dunk I actually remember is when David Thompson made a 360-degree dunk.

In 1976 you set an NBA record with 11 steals in a win at Kansas City: was that the greatest defensive performance of your life, and what is the secret to being a great defender? Defense is about reputation…which I did not have. The key is to just be aggressive. One thing that Coach Doug Moe taught me was “overplaying”. I usually had to guard the best scoring forward on the other team. Most forwards like to get the ball only a few steps from the basket. When you overplay someone, you try to get in the passing lane so that when they receive a pass from their teammate they are outside their comfort zone and farther from the hoop then normal. The KC game was one of those nights when everything just fell together.

During the 1976-77 season you became the first NBA player to ever have a season with 20+ PPG, 11+ RPG, 2+ SPG, and 80+ FT% (Shawn Marion duplicated this feat in the 2005-06 season).  Did you consider yourself to be a great all-around player, and did you feel that your skill set was unique when compared to everyone else you played against? The reason I had a unique skill set was because I had to have great defensive techniques. I was also quick, which helped me a lot.

You were a three-time ABA All-Star and two-time NBA All-Star, and scored 16 points in 20 minutes as a starter for an East team in 1978 featuring Hall of Fame starters Dr. J, Dave Cowens, John Havlicek and George Gervin.  Was that the best team you have ever played on, and how on earth did you only win by eight points with a bench that included Bob McAdoo/Moses Malone/Elvin Hayes? An All-Star Game is just a hodgepodge of great players. The coach controls it somewhat in terms of who gets to play and how much they play, even though he might not know all of his players’ strengths.

You finished your career averaging 8.9 rebounds per game, which remains in the top #100 all-time.  How satisfied are you with your career, and how do you want to be remembered the most? My goal was to get 10,000 rebounds but I fell a bit short of that (6701). I could have played longer but wanted to leave on my own terms and felt that I had a good 10-year career. I won a ring, made a good living, and got a ton of stories out of it! I am still in good health: thank God for that.

JonTeitel