Seek not every quality in one individual. — Confucius
Thomas Jefferson had several. George Washington was widely rumored to have a few. Murphy Brown had only one but sparked a nationwide debate. Somewhere in the middle is Shawn Kemp.
Shawn doesn’t talk much about fathering out-of-wedlock children except to say he wishes he could spend more time with them. His love for kids is as obvious as his inability to control his demons.
Starting with his Seattle Sonics tenure in 1989, Shawn dressed like Santa and gave out food and toys to children of the poor. Crowds of adoring kids came out to see Santa Kemp; he returned their affection with a priceless gift. Shawn took these kids seriously; he helped them, he joked with them, he even played ball with them.
“He’s done more in the community in the few weeks he’s been here than a lot of players have done over their whole careers,” says Jim Marsh, the Sonics’ director of community relations.
Six years later, same story. Shawn and Mayor Norm Rice dedicate new basketballs courts, funded by Reebok, at I-90 Park.
He waited in a stretch limo. They waited in anticipation. Then Shawn Kemp got out of the car and mingled with his most adoring fans, the kids of Seattle.
Around 250 elementary, junior high and high schoolers showed up for the ceremony, at which Kemp was surrounded, pestered and generally loved.
[Shawn Kemp is] 3-year-old Eian Kaine Jr.’s hero.
“He likes his slams,” said his father, Eian Kaine Sr. “At home, he has a hoop that’s a little taller than he is. He’ll slam and hang on the rim and spread his feet just like Shawn.”
Older kids, after half a decade of technical fouls called for taunting, are more realistic, yet still judgment-free:
“I like the way he moves his hands after he scores,” said Ronald Howell, a 10th grader at Chief Sealth. “I’m his biggest fan, but he’s got to work on his fouls.”
Shawn’s mom had to be pleased. And even more so when Shawn announced he would take classes over the summer back home at Indiana University to erase the sting of striking out 3 times on high school SATs. Sports Illustrated:
Kemp’s bumper-car ride began in his junior year at Concord High, when he failed to score 700 on his SATs, one of the requirements needed for freshman eligibility in college athletics under the NCAA‘s Proposition 48. He signed with the University of Kentucky early in his senior year, then came up short on the SATs twice more while the Wildcat coaching staff waited anxiously for the results. The press waited, too, and Kemp‘s failures turned into well-chronicled public humiliations.
Shawn’s initiation into all that is wrong about college basketball began after signing with Kentucky. Rick Calloway, an assistant scout and former player for the Hoosiers, in a statement designed to hurt and sounding like bitter grapes, told the press:
Kemp wanted to know what he could get if he decided to play with the Hoosiers.
“His main question just was: ‘Do you get things? Do they kick you all out (give you kickbacks).’ I told him, ‘Naw, cuz, a week after we won the national championship it was just like a regular day,;” Calloway said Sunday in a telephone interview with The Courier-Journal.
“Kemp didn’t really say anything specifically about money or a car,” said Calloway [...] “He just wanted stuff. He kept saying: ‘You all don’t get nothing? I know you’re lying.’ [...] He was looking for a handout.” (Source: The Associated Press, May 3, 1988)
Couple of thoughts. Maybe 17-year-old Shawn did ask that question. Wonder where he got the idea that colleges throw money at basketball recruits. Maybe from colleges throwing money at basketball recruits.
Wonder if he knew about the scandal already brewing which would end in probation for Kentucky before the year was out. Wonder if Indiana was a little perturbed that the State’s star chose their rival:
Basketball-crazy Indiana is where both Kemp and the distorted perceptions of him began. There, the only thing taken more seriously than winning is losing. That’s the only explanation for the surly mood the Hoosier state was in the year it lost Shawn Kemp.
[...] he crossed the state line into Kentucky, Indiana’s main rival for hoops supremacy.
The reaction was like that of a smitten lover unexpectedly sent a Dear-John letter. When Kemp failed his first try at a college-entrance exam, it became such big news that opposing rooting sections would try to rattle him by chanting, “S-A-T, S-A-T, S-A-T.”
Concord High School fans would respond, “N-B-A, N-B-A, N-B-A.”
In a twisted sort of way, they all chased Kemp away.
Should Shawn Kemp have been Mr. Basketball his senior year at Concord?
When it came time to bestow the honor Kemp cherished most, excuses were concocted to give the state’s prestigious Mr. Basketball award to Richmond High’s Woody Austin [...]
We’ll never know for sure. As for Rick Calloway, Shawn told the South Bend, Indiana, Tribune:
“That’s ridiculous. I never had any interest in anything under the table [...] Kemp said Monday he did not even talk to Calloway during the recruit’s official visit to Indiana.
“Rick wasn’t even my host _ Jay (Edwards) and Lyndon (Jones) were,” he said. “All this bothers me. It’s starting to make me and my family look bad. I’m starting to get ticked off. I’m not sure where they got any of this stuff. From my side, none of this is true.” (Source: The Associated Press, May 3, 1988)
The story gets worse for the Kemp family:
The NCAA is also investigating a trip that Kemp’s mother, Barbara Brown, made to the Kentucky campus Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. Kentucky’s internal investigation of the matter concluded that Ms. Brown paid for her own transportation and expenses, and Ms. Brown said the same thing in an interview last week. (Source: The Associated Press, May 3, 1988)
In other words, nothing happened. What will people remember? Probably not Rick Calloway’s retraction:
[...] Rick Calloway said a newspaper misquoted him in reporting that he said Kentucky signee Shawn Kemp asked about receiving a “handout” during a recruiting visit to Indiana University.
“If you talk to Shawn, apologize for me,” Calloway [...] told the Elkhart (Ind.) Truth. “Some [comments] were taken out of context . . . A couple times, [the reporter] did misquote me.” (Source: The Washington Post, May 4, 1988)
Ironically, Shawn never played a single game for Kentucky. He blames himself for his academic woes:
“I had people tell me I couldn’t read, couldn’t spell my own name,” says Kemp. “It hurt. But it’s my own fault for ignoring academics. My mother was on me all the time about it, but I didn’t listen. I’m not dumb; I’m not stupid. But I just didn’t push myself.
“Some people say Prop 48 is a bad thing and discriminates against blacks, but I don’t have any problems with it. It’s fair. The only person who held me back was myself.”
And then there was The Necklace Incident. Story goes like this:
Kemp pawned two gold chains that had been reported stolen by a teammate, Sean Sutton, son of Coach Eddie Sutton. (Source: The New York Times, November 8, 1988)
But Kemp did make headlines with the revelation, in early November of 1988, that he had sold to a Lexington pawnshop two gold necklaces that had been stolen from Sean Sutton. [Sports Illustrated, 1989]
The best-known of the Kemp-related incidents was the question of two gold chains stolen from Sean Sutton. Lexington police records showed Kemp sold two chains, worth $700, to a local pawn shop. [Seattle Times, 1991]
Shawn admitted to pawning the necklaces as a favor for another player. According to his mom, Barbara:
At the time, I couldn’t see why Shawn decided to take the blame [...] Now I can support what he’s done, because he was leaving Kentucky anyway. What good would have done to name other people? He was young, and kind of drawn into the situation. He was asked to do something, which he did, and the other person never stepped forward.
The other person never spoke up. The Suttons did not press charges. Shawn saw no reason to continue discussing the incident two years later:
Sometimes, it’s just better to let it go. I don’t think people really care about that incident anyway. If they do, that’s their problem.
And there lies the heart of Shawn. A big kid with a kid’s abrupt manner of speaking; a big talent with a kid’s penchant for on-court gloating; a manchild with the naïve belief that all things in life can be worked out on the basketball court. A teenager whose mistakes are public and classic. Pregnant girlfriend. He’s not the first. Pawning a necklace – a story some people might tell in their 50’s and laugh about how silly they were at that age.
More than one reporter shares the same impression of Shawn as a rookie NBA player. Glenn Nelson, writing for the Seattle Times, portrays him poetically:
He has an old face, etched with generations of hardship. His eyes, ever widened beneath an often-furrowed brow, sometimes appear as pools of melancholy, gazing backward as much as forward.
Jack McCallum, writing for Sports Illustrated in 1989, also describes an old teenager:
The NBA’s only teenager is sitting in the Seattle SuperSonics locker room with a world-class scowl on his face. Some say he looks like Portland’s Jerome Kersey, who is 27, and others say he resembles the Los Angeles Clippers’ Ken Bannister, who is 29, but he definitely looks closer to 30 than to 20, the tender age he will turn on Nov. 26.
[...] something about Kemp is different. In person, he doesn’t live up—or, more accurately, down—to his reputation. The scowl is natural: He simply has a hard face, not a hard edge. He has his detractors, but most people genuinely like him and take pains to explain that the person is a whole lot better than the resume.
Bernie Bickerstaff, speaking during Shawn’s honeymoon phase with the Sonics, before rumors became fact and fact became career-crippling:
Shawn’s been the victim of character assassination.
Jim Hahn, Shawn’s high school coach, worried about Shawn, foreshadowing events to come. When academic eligibility at UK became an issue, Hahn saw nothing but trouble for Shawn on any college campus. Sports Illustrated reported:
Hahn tried to persuade him to enroll at a junior college or even to play a year in Europe rather than go to Lexington.
“Every single athlete is not meant for college,” says Hahn. “To have Shawn in a college environment without basketball, the one thing he loves, was, I felt, a big mistake. It even crossed my mind to advise him to go right into the NBA, and the only thing that stopped me was the fact that so few players have done it.” Kemp thought about the NBA, too, but again there weren’t enough precedents. So he took the predictable course—with predictably disastrous results.
Shawn left UK shortly after the necklace incident in November of 1988, transferring to Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas. Although still ineligible to play, Coach Leon Spencer was happy to have Shawn work out with the TVCC Cardinals. The college proudly displays a profile of Shawn on their “Cardinals in the Pros” page (there are 2; the other is Nick Van Exel), including this statement:
Despite never officially wearing the Cardinals uniform, Shawn Kemp put Cardinal basketball in the national spotlight. Cardinal fans turned out in huge numbers for daily workouts to watch the future star.
Ultimately though, Shawn fell to the lure of big money and stardom that is the NBA, declaring eligibility in the spring while still at Trinity. The decision was not made lightly. Shawn conferred with coaches, family and friends and promised his mother he would attend summer school and work toward his degree:
”If she had said stay in school, I don’t think I would have come out,” Kemp said. ”I regret not having the chance to win an NCAA championship but I’m going to work hard to try and win an NBA championship. Education is important to me.” (Source: United Press International, February 1, 1990)
And yet, controversy followed. While Shawn is waiting for the draft picks to be announced, United Press International runs a story quoting Marty Blake, NBA scouting chief, referring to Shawn’s decision as ”a terrible mistake” with no clarification. (Source: United Press International, June 23, 1989)
The Seattle SuperSonics, willing to risk the “terrible mistake,” pick Shawn 17th in the first round, sign a six-year contract and everyone is happy. At least for a while.
Shawn is invited to the March 1989 NBA All-Star Slam-Dunk Contest his rookie year and shows respect for Coach Bickerstaff’s decisions regarding his minutes on the court:
”I would like to be in a situation by the end of the season where coaches have enough respect for me to play me at the end of a game,” Kemp said. ”Because I’m a rookie and I’m learning, I haven’t been able to get into many games at crunch time.” (Source: United Press International, February 1, 1990)
Xavier McDaniel becomes Shawn’s mentor, things are falling into place. Kerry Eggers, of The Portland Tribune:
I began covering the NBA in 1989-90, Kemp’s rookie season in Seattle, and have found him an engaging, thoughtful interview most of the time. For a man who has admitted to making many mistakes, he has a kind heart. He goes out of his way to sign autographs and has a soft spot for kids. Each Christmas, he enjoys playing “Santa Kemp,” bestowing presents on underprivileged children.
Shawn’s first few years with the Sonics earned him life-long fans and the nickname “Reignman” as he reigned over the city in style. [Editor's note; Shawn's nickname appears in various publications as Reignman, Reign Man, Rainman and Rain Man. For purposes of this article, we are using "Reignman."]
No moment in Shawn Kemp’s rookie season [1989-1990] exemplified his youthful exuberance and prodigious athletic ability better than an incident in an April 19 game against the Kings in Sacramento. In that contest Kemp hit his head on the rim and needed five stitches to close the cut.
Only two months earlier he had finished fourth in the Slam-Dunk Championship at the NBA All-Star Weekend, and throughout his first NBA season he graced television highlight films with spectacular dunks-all at just 20 years old.
Season Two. Fifteen games into his second season as a Sonic, Shawn starts for the first time. There’s a good and bad to this one. Shawn has been anxious to play more minutes; however, in order to open up the spot for him, Xavier McDaniel was traded to the Phoenix Suns. Reignman.com:
In his second game as a starter, Kemp exploded for 31 points and 10 rebounds against the Bucks at Milwaukee on December 9. He then set a franchise record with 10 blocked shots against the Los Angeles Lakers on January 18.
Kemp was invited back to the Slam-Dunk Championship at the NBA All-Star Weekend, and he put on a dazzling display, finishing runner-up to the Boston Celtics’ Dee Brown. He saw the first postseason action of his career when the Sonics faced the Portland Trail Blazers in a first-round playoff series. Seattle lost in five games, with Kemp averaging 13.2 points and 7.2 rebounds.
Season Three. 1991-1992. Shawn is injured, missing 18 games due to a combination of a sprained left foot and a lacerated right hand. Still only 22:
The third-year forward […] staked his claim on NBA stardom during Seattle’s final 18 games when he averaged 18.3 points and 12.9 rebounds during that stretch. He recorded the first 20-20 game of his career with 22 points and 21 rebounds against the Charlotte Hornets on January 31.
Kemp led the Sonics in rebounding 39 times during the season and posted Seattle’s highest rebounding average in seven years [...] Kemp was even more impressive during the 1992 NBA Playoffs, helping Seattle to a first-round upset of the Golden State Warriors before the Sonics lost to the Utah Jazz in the conference semifinals.
In the four-game series with the Warriors, Kemp averaged 22.0 points and 16.3 rebounds. He recorded the NBA’s top two playoff rebounding performances in 1992 with 19 boards in Game 2 and 20 in Game 4. His 25 offensive rebounds ranked No. 2 on the NBA’s all-time list for a four-game playoff series.
Season Four. 1992-1993. Shawn continues to improve; the word “meteoric” is tossed about:
Kemp […] began the 1992-93 campaign with a strong statement: 29 points and 20 rebounds in an opening-night victory against the Houston Rockets. He continued to roll through the first half of the year, earning his first-ever NBA All-Star berth in February. Kemp was Seattle’s first All-Star since Dale Ellis in 1989.
Kemp improved in nearly every category for the fourth time in his four NBA seasons. He ranked second on the Sonics in scoring (17.8 ppg) while finishing 12th in the NBA in both rebounding (10.7 rpg) and blocked shots (1.87 per game). His rebounding average marked the best for a Seattle player since Jack Sikma’s 11.1 in 1983-84.
[...] Kemp again dazzled in the postseason. Seattle pushed the Phoenix Suns to seven games in the Western Conference Finals before losing, 123-110, in the decisive Game 7. In 19 playoff games Kemp averaged 16.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 2.11 blocked shots. He scored a playoff career high of 33 points against Phoenix in Game 5 of the conference finals.
Season Five. 1993-1994. A dream season with an invitation to join Dream Team II, winning a Gold medal at the World Olympics in Ontario, Canada.
Kemp had a banner year. He ranked 13th in the NBA in rebounding, fifth in field-goal percentage (.538), and 10th in blocked shots (2.10 per game). At midseason he was voted by fans to start in the NBA All-Star Game, his second straight appearance in the midseason classic and his first as a starter. He also finished runner-up to Isaiah Rider in the NBA Slam-Dunk Championship.
On March 20 Kemp recorded his first career triple-double, victimizing the Charlotte Hornets for 15 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists. At season’s end he was named to the All-NBA Second Team. In summer 1994 Kemp participated on Dream Team II, the United States squad that captured a gold medal at the World Championship of Basketball in Ontario, Canada.
So much for the naysayers, the doubters, the rumor spreaders. At least in terms of his ability to play with the big boys. Now a new issue is discussed in the press; Shawn’s propensity toward what he calls “enthusiasm” and what at least one member of the press described as:
A taunter. A showboat. Raw and reckless, Kemp was prone to technical fouls that cost him stature and respect and cost his team a level of maturity and poise – the very things it takes to win big games including an NBA title.
Didn’t help that during the Dream Team II’s run in Toronto, Shawn grabbed his, as Reggie Miller might say, “man region,” and, wait for it, waved his towel aggressively. One taunt too many; Shawn was not invited back for Dream Team III even though, at the time he had:
[...] the highest field goal percentage in the NBA [...] Lead[ing] the league in rebounding.
Even Michael Jordan chimed in:
I really don’t know what the criteria was for picking the Olympic team [...] But to leave Kemp out, I really don’t understand the measuring stick. One of the reasons I chose not to perform was to give people like Shawn an opportunity to play. Everybody has their own dreams. Why they didn’t pick him, I don’t know.
So the manchild, as many people call him, is only supposed to look the child part; not act it. And this is a person who clearly needs impulse control management tutoring. Instead, Shawn is blamed for acting like a young adult by adults who often act like teenagers themselves. Ever seen a drunken fan at a game? On the road?
When I was at the World Games, someone said something to me about saying something to other players. I’ve never been the kind of guy who would go up to another player and say something. I don’t make it personal.
I get excited after a dunk. I was yelling and screaming, but it’s not yelling and screaming at another player to show them up and make them look bad. It’s just pure excitement. That’s the way I play. I can’t change that. If that’s the reason I won’t make the team then I have to accept that.
The Dream Team rejection stung almost as much as the outright spurning by the powers-that-be at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Shawn:
You know, I’m just not recognized as one of Indiana’s greatest players? […] They [Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame] have a list they publish every year in the newspaper. Damon Bailey’s on it. Oscar Robertson. But not me. I tell my mom it must be the route I took.
Seattle fans booed him when the Sonics announced their draft pick in 1989. Shawn won them over with his play. The chief NBA scout declared Shawn’s move to the NBA a terrible mistake. Shawn proved him wrong with his play. Only the kids saw Shawn for what he really was – an ordinary person with an extraordinary talent. And they loved him.
Elkhart, Indiana is a long way from Seattle and not just in distance. Shawn’s best friend, Duane Wilkey moved to Seattle with Kemp in 1989 to help with the transition, loneliness, spotlight, pressure; how perfectly normal to have your best friend nearby even if you do spend your days with superstars.
Maybe an equally talented player with a different disposition would have handled the pressure better. Then again, rehab clinics are packed full of adults unable to handle their demons.
And so we come to the sad part. Who knows why anyone does the things they do. For every act, there are a dozen plausible answers. Pressure, ignorance, mental instability, playing the odds and losing, lost in a moment. Perhaps self-destructive acts are the aggregate result of a lifetime filled with unpleasant encounters. In addition to the experiences at KU, Glenn Nelson, writing in March of 1991 for the Seattle Times, documents:
Four years ago, he sank rival Elkhart Central with a last-second shot in a sectional game of the Indiana state basketball tournament. As Concord celebrated the victory, its star was showered with banana peels by opposing fans. Kemp took a step toward his antagonists, but stopped himself.
When he started his Concord career, he was one of only two black players in a predominately white school whose opponents were of the same ilk. Kemp also stood out because, breaking out of the Midwestern mold of predictable, often-mechanical fundamental soundness, his game was both urbane and inner-urban.
The applause often did not drown out the racial slurs. Some clippings from his high-school career contain references to a player marked by “flashiness, cockiness, arrogance.” Some dispute the characterizations, conceding only that Kemp sometimes showboated to combat boredom.
The lesson Kemp learned from his experiences at Concord and Kentucky was to trust people less. He is especially leery about his dealings with the media. For public consumption, his personality bears a serious streak discordant with the usual levity of youth.
Shawn’s hometown paper, The Elkhart Truth, documents similar episodes:
There were the New Prairie fans who could be heard taunting and cursing Kemp, with one shouting, “Get a haircut, Negro. Have you learned to read yet?” during a game his senior season.
He responded to those fans by scoring a school-record 47 points.
And so, in 1994, when Jim McIlvaine joined the Sonics with a $33.6 million contract, dwarfing Shawn’s $3.6 million over six years, he imploded. Demanded more money. Arrived late at practices. Missed at least one team flight. Made his position known in a man-child sort of way.
Here was a chance for an adult to step in. No need to explain about the unfairness of life, Shawn already knew about that. Time for badly needed perspective; a role model; someone interested in Shawn as a person and not a commodity. Someone to talk about the big picture, highs and lows, how to think about this type of potentially life-changing situation.
Instead, behind Shawn’s back, team management contacted the Chicago Bulls to discuss a trade. And then denied it. And then admitted it. And then dropped it.
Shawn and the Sonics fumbled forward but the die was cast. In December of 1995, Laura Vecsey of the Seattle PI ran an article which would make the most mature person’s head spin. In it, she said:
. . . at this rate, with Kemp owning November and working hard on December, the route he’s taking might take him to the top. Maybe even to Olympic gold – if not in Atlanta then next time. Kemp has earned his place.
Not a bad sentiment; that was the final paragraph. What came before was bizarre and could easily put someone like Shawn over the edge:
Maybe it is this history of an image problem that explains the Cadillac.
Kemp, in another befuddling move, doesn’t drive a BMW or Mercedes or any of those sports cars typically driven by a superstar athlete.
He has outdone himself this time, choosing to drive the car of a mortician.
The car of a loan shark.
The car of a New Jersey cement executive.
Since he bought it a few months back, Kemp has been motoring from his Magnolia home and around Seattle in a 32-valve DeVille – a big, fat Caddy with tinted windows and modified fins and electric antennae.
The car takes up a great deal of space in Laura’s piece. She goes on to say:
Worse yet, Kemp’s choice of vehicle may have helped steer Sonics coach George Karl and point guard Gary Payton to their own Cadillacs, a trend in need of immediate reversal.
Karl says the Caddy club puts the Sonic trio in a “back to the street” mood.
Whatever the explanation for his taste in cars, Kemp is starting to see that the DeVille is not quite the image a 26-year-old NBA All-Star should project.
Maybe it’s tongue in cheek. If so, it was poor timing. Not sure Shawn found any humor here:
“Maybe I’ll have to get a new one,” Kemp said the other day, parking the monster in back of a lower Queen Anne restaurant. I’ve taken a lot of heat about this.”
At 26, Shawn has taken “heat” for being black, for inappropriate displays of enthusiasm (which Michael Jackson would later take to an art form), for his NBA decision, for pawning necklaces at age 17, and now for buying a car which offends the sensibilities of Seattle, according to Ms. Vescey. Basically, the media would prefer that Shawn Kemp not be Shawn Kemp.
Shawn Kemp went and got himself lumped into the wrong crowd.
Outlaw. Most unwanted. NBA All-Star whose rising star is stuck in one of the glitter galaxy’s bad-boy constellations.
“A couple of years ago, I think people were kind of getting the wrong perception. When I play basketball, I always feel like that. I try to pick the team up,” [Shawn] said.
“To be truthful, a lot of times when I’m out there playing and I make a good move, I can feel me doing it and I get excited, too.”
That this enthusiasm has been mistaken for arrogance is something Kemp said he understands.
The man-child is now a “bad boy”; sounds like regression, probably felt like that to Shawn, too. A self-fulfilling prophecy ensues. In October of 1996, Shawn is sued by movie producer Salgado Productions:
. . . due to breach of contract by professional basketball player Shawn Kemp as a result of his failure to appear on the set of two scheduled movie shoots for the basketball action film “3 on 3.” (Source: Business Wire, October 18, 1996)
Peter Vescey, then NBA analyst, adds fuel to the fire by suggesting, on the air, that Shawn has a drinking problem which led to tardiness and other issues with the team.
Vecsey, during halftime of NBC’s coverage of the Knicks-Heat game Saturday, said Kemp admitted during a players-only meeting April 5 that he has a problem with alcohol. Vecsey said the meeting was called by Gary Payton after the Sonics’ 103-84 victory over Dallas, to allow Kemp to explain his chronic tardiness.
Vecsey, citing sources he did not name, said Kemp was to meet with a union official yesterday in Houston to talk about the issue. Kemp said he hasn’t met with the union nor does he plan to. Center Jim McIlvaine, the Sonics’ player representative, said he didn’t know if a meeting was scheduled.
Reaction from Shawn’s friends, team and coach was immediate, forceful and angry. Each player on the Sonics’ roster signed an affidavit disputing Vecsey’s claim.
Outspoken Houston forward Charles Barkley had a suggestion for Kemp.
“I’d whip (Vecsey’s) butt if that was me,” Barkley said. “Or, I’d have one of my boys do it. Peter Vecsey is wrong. And whoever said that (rumor) in the Sonics’ organization is gutless.”
Sonics coach George Karl was incensed by Vecsey’s report.
“He [Vecsey] cheats. He takes innuendoes and pure opinion and pieces it together into a theory,” Karl said. “Then, he assassinates by association, which is destructive.”
Teammate Detlef Schrempf:
“None of that is true,” an angry Schrempf said in the Sonics’ locker room afterward. “(Vecsey) should back up his sources. He should ask somebody who was in the meeting. That was totally vicious. It’s an outrageous lie.
“It hurts Shawn’s name. It hurts him. People believe what they see and hear. You have to say it’s not true 10 times against the one time someone says it’s true.”
The Sonics make the playoffs again and lose to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. The following year, Shawn leaves rainy Seattle for Cleveland and a $100 million contract.
As Shawn heads to C-Town, Glenn Nelson, of the Seattle Times, poses a poignant question:
What becomes of a man whose childhood has been lost, whose childhood wounds not only failed to heal, but have been repeatedly reopened?
Championship-starved Clevelanders welcomed Shawn with open arms, after acquiring Kemp in a three-way trade with Milwaukee and Seattle (Terrell Brandon, Tyrone Hill and a first-round draft pick went from Cleveland to Milwaukee, and Vin Baker went from Milwaukee to Seattle.). Wayne Embry:
”Cavs owner Gordon Gund has made a commitment to get the team back in contention for an NBA championship [...] We all look forward to many exciting years of Shawn Kemp leading the Cavaliers.” (Source: Associated Press Online, October 17, 1997)
There was that little bump pre-season during an exhibition game when he left the bench after watching Minnesota’s Clifford Rozier punch fellow Cav Vitaly Potapenko. Sound familiar? Patrick Ewing was suspended one year earlier during the Playoffs for “a similar act.” (Source: Seattle Times, January 11, 1998)
Kemp was suspended from Cleveland’s season opener, fined $107,000 and the Cavs management held their breath until mid-January when a stunned Seattle press reported:
At age 28, he’s the unquestioned leader of the surprising young Cavaliers. Rookies seek his advice on how to conduct themselves. He has shown a strong work ethic. He has even been accommodating with the media.
This role model is Shawn Kemp. Say it slowly: Shawn Kemp.
Kemp is averaging 17.8 points (on 46.6 percent shooting) and 9.4 rebounds on his way to his sixth selection as an all-star. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s attendance, which had declined by about 3,000 fans last season, has improved markedly. More significantly, Kemp’s play has bolstered the Cavaliers to one of the best records in the Eastern Conference (20-12 entering the Jan. 10 game against the Toronto Raptors.). (Source: Seattle Times, January 11, 1998)
The 1997-1998 season ended should have ended on a high note. In addition to bolstering attendance and solid game performances, Shawn became the first All-Star Game starter in Cavaliers franchise history, with 12 points and game-highs of 11 rebounds and 4 steals, in the 1998 NBA All-Star Game in New York.
Instead, Sports Illustrated chose to run a story detailing out-of-wedlock children fathered by NBA players. Shawn Kemp’s personal life was detailed and once again the press was stunned.
This man, who loves children, has many. At the time, these children were conceived outside of marriage. Shawn is now married; he and Marvena have 3 sons. He chose not to comment when Sports Illustrated contacted him prior to running the story.
Information came through Gerald Phillips, the lawyer who represented Kemp in a paternity suit filed by Charlotte Osuna, and also from Ms. Osuna:
Take the case of Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kemp, who is not married but who, at 28, has fathered seven children, according to Gerald Phillips, an attorney who represented him in a paternity suit filed by Charlotte Osuna, the mother of Kemp’s two-year-old daughter, Dominique. (Osuna says that Kemp told her that five other women have also borne his children.) [Editor’s note: The paternity suit was filed while Shawn was with the Sonics]
The article posed a legitimate question regarding the mental health and wellbeing of children conceived and subsequently abandoned by famous fathers. Shawn’s relationship with his offspring does not appear to fall in this category and, ironically, the piece spawned a decade of insensitive Father’s Day jokes, leading to another question. If Shawn is financially supporting his children and chooses not to comment on his emotional relationship with them, how does it help these children to be continually subjected to public paternity satires?
The article, which covered many other professional athletes, including a lengthy and moving section about Larry Bird and his daughter, generated story after story about the issue and somehow Shawn Kemp became the focus. A new generation of NBA fans would form an impression of Shawn based on stories designed to titillate.
In April of 1997, one year before Peter Vecsey and the Sports Illustrated article, Ronald Tillery wrote for the Settle PI:
It was noisy and dark in Shawn Kemp’s world. The knocks on his character and ability seemed endless. The frustration pounded in his head.
There is a term for this phenomenon. Zombie lies. Per Atrios of Eschaton Blog:
No matter how hard we try to kill them, they keep coming back.
Inner demons become public fodder. Public fodder becomes fair game. Fair game becomes a game of telephone. Each zombie lie more distorted than the next. Until the leader of an NBA team with breath taking skills, eats his way into oblivion which becomes public fodder which becomes . . .
When things looked darkest in the spring of 1997, Shawn Kemp turned to the person he trusts the most; his mom.
“She just hopped on a plane and came out on her own. She said she’d heard and read enough criticism, and decided to come check on things,” said the Sonics’ rejuvenated All-Star forward, smiling after practice yesterday as he discussed what appears to be an about-face in his mostly downward season.
“She told me times are bad right now, but it’s been a lot worse in the past,” Kemp said. “By her relating that to me it’s made me able to take it out on the court and take some pressure off. A lot of people say a lot of stuff to you, but when your mom says something to you, it goes to your heart.
“I’ve been put a position where I don’t trust very many people, or don’t try to have a relationship with very many people. She’s one I lean on for support and encouragement, and she’s pretty smart in basketball. She challenges me. She wants me to play better and be stronger.” (Source: Seattle P-I, April 24, 1997)
Moms have a way of making the ugliest sports articles appear in the proper perspective:
The April 14 edition of The Sporting News jabbed at Kemp with its “Caught on the Fly” column, printing a drawing with Kemp’s head in a cloud, and a caption that included, “When it comes to distractions, the Reign Man is worse than (Dennis) Rodman. . . . Shawn Kemp never saw a plane, bus or shoot-around he couldn’t miss. The guy’s billed as heir apparent to Karl Malone. Oh yeah, Kemp’s mailing it in every night.” (Source: Seattle P-I, April 24, 1997)
Even when the mom is not your own:
“Shawn is a nice guy,” Utah’s MVP candidate [Karl Malone] said recently. “As a player, I like (Kemp) a lot and I hope we see him get back to playing like he was. He’s my mom’s favorite player. My mom says ‘You’re my son, but I love Shawn Kemp.’” (Source: Seattle P-I, April 24, 1997)
Reignman.com documents a stellar 1999-2000 season, even with an injured Zydrunas Ilgauskas:
With center Zydrunas Ilgauskas still recovering from a broken foot, Kemp again was the Cavaliers’ inside force, leading the team in scoring, rebounding and shotblocking. Starting all 82 games, the only Cleveland player to do so, he averaged 17.9 points, 8.8 rebounds (14th in the NBA), 1.17 blocks and 1.22 steals per game, shooting .417 from the field and .776 from the foul line, where he was a frequent visitor.
And yet, in December of that year, the Toronto Star reported:
In Cleveland, Shawn Kemp weighs heavy on the minds of Cavalier management and fans alike.
His tonnage is not only food for thought, it is an entire smorgasbord.
In a league of big men, Kemp is big, man. Exactly how big, no one seems to know for sure . . .
Kemp’s averaging 33 minutes, 19.7 points and 10.9 rebounds a game. But his critics say, good as those number are, they’d be better if he’d help out gravity a little.
”I think he understands that he’s got to continue to lose weight if he wants to continue his career into his 30s (Kemp just turned 30),” coach Wittman told the Washington Times the other day. (Source: The Toronto Star, December 7, 1999)
No one asks the obvious. Why is Shawn gaining weight?
Age 31, Shawn is traded to Portland during the summer of 2000. Blazer GM Bob Whitsitt, formerly of the Seattle Sonics:
[…] stood before the skeptical local media on the day of the Kemp trade, in what someday should be his Portland epitaph, and said, “I will vouch for Shawn Kemp.”
In spring 2001, Shawn checks himself in to a rehabilitation facility for cocaine abuse and people take notice. Frank Hughes, writing for ESPN:
We didn’t hear him when his weight ballooned out of control, and we didn’t hear him when he went through all that emotional instability in Seattle, where meager things like making less money than the next guy sent him over the edge, to the point where he felt like he no longer could stay.
Frank remembers a younger Shawn:
[. . .] back in 1992 or ’93, I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, not covering the NBA. I went to a Washington Bullets game. They were playing the Seattle SuperSonics.
And the thing that I still remember is that I could not really pay attention to the game because I was riveted on Kemp. He seemed to glide around the court, lithe, graceful, unbelievably athletic, and his windmill jams and aerial moves and blocked shots, they all looked so effortless, as if he was made specifically to play basketball.
True to his word, Bob Whitsitt and the Trailblazers support Shawn while he spends the summer working out both his body and his demons. John Lucas, former NBA player and reformed drug abuser turned conditioning guru, hears about Shawn’s rehab and offers him a spot in his Houston facility for the summer.
“I sought him out,” Lucas said. “Here was a guy who had some similar problems that I had had. I thought that maybe I could help him by sharing my experiences. So we met for lunch.”
Lucas offered to work out with the 6-foot-10 Kemp, who was up to around 320 pounds, and Kemp accepted [...] the majority of their work was done in July and August, when Lucas brought in Jimmy Vidas.
Vidas, a burly, bald-headed man nicknamed “Telly Savalas” doesn’t mess around when it comes to drilling players into shape. Vidas, who was in Houston after having worked last season for the Rockets, is now assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Cavs.
“It was hard at first mentally getting him back,” Vidas said. “But once he got going, it really worked out great. Shawn had a great work ethic. We worked out five or six days a week for two or three hours a day. We worked him real good. . . In the two months, he lost about 40 pounds.”
In July, he marries long-time girlfriend, Marvena. In October, he apologizes to the fans and thanks the Blazers for a second chance. Sighs of relief all around. According to Landon Hall, The Associated Press, October 1, 2001:
Kemp was humble, contrite and realistic.
Shawn’s hometown paper, The Elkhart Truth, writes movingly about their errant son:
If a tragic character is one who falls from the pinnacle, Kemp’s story is a tragedy. . . The tale could be a biblical parable.
But if this story is like a parable, it hasn’t reached an ending yet. . . . A lot of people assume that Shawn Kemp is washed up, but in his hometown, we can hope that through his pain, he is able to lift himself up.
Playing for Mo Cheeks, Shawn patiently waits on the bench until March when Dale Davis is suspended and coach asks him to start:
Kemp, a six-time All-Star, made his first start of the season on Saturday. Subbing for Davis, who was penalized for throwing a punch at Shawn Bradley, Kemp had 21 points and 11 rebounds.
“Shawn has been major league great,” Portland coach Maurice Cheeks said. “Maybe people don’t think Shawn can play that way anymore. But you’ve got to be happy for the guy.” (Source: The Associated Press, March 19, 2002)
And then, in February of 2002, Shawn was suspended for violating the NBA’s anti-drug agreement. Strike one was entering rehab for cocaine addiction. Three strikes brings a mandatory two year ban from the NBA.
Over the summer of 2002, Shawn asked the Blazers to release him from his contract. At a cost of $16 million personally.
Kemp was to make $21.5 million this season and $25 million in 2003-04. Guaranteed. No pro athlete has ever walked away from a deal like that. Kemp did. Through his agent, Tony Dutt, and attorney, Scott Boatman, Kemp negotiated a buyout that resulted in him forfeiting $16 million to gain his release.
The price of freedom.
“It wasn’t about money,” Kemp says. “I have been blessed in that aspect of life. It was personal. I am not going to play basketball forever. They have some great players on that team, but if I sat on the bench for two more years, I would have been pretty much ready to retire. I didn’t want to go out like that.”
Signing a one-year, $1.03 million free-agent contract with the Orlando Magic, Marvena and the now 33-year-old Shawn packed up and moved to Florida. Arriving at training camp overweight:
Mick Smith, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, put him on a stringent workout program.
The team hired a chef to help control Kemp’s diet. On the road, Smith orders his meals. “Shawn has lost close to 20 pounds since we have had him,” Smith says. “He works so hard; I couldn’t ask for anything more. He has a great attitude. He wants to come back.”
Could the nightmare be over? Married, drug-free, working toward physical fitness and ready to fight for a championship for whatever years he has left.
One problem. The youngest person in the NBA is now a battered veteran. The body can only take so much punishment.
The strenuous exercise regimen Kemp performs two or three times a day is designed to salvage his career, but it’s sapping his season with the Orlando Magic.
At 300 pounds, Kemp is hard-pressed to get off the floor, let alone remind anyone of his high-flying “Reign Man” days in Seattle nearly a decade ago. Recently, his midrange jumper has lost its accuracy, perhaps due to dead legs.
“He looks fatigued right now and is kind of playing tired,” coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s done triple times the work of anybody else, and it might be catching up to him. I’ve tried to tell him to slow down, but he says he needs to keep doing it.
“But at some point you have to wonder if he’s reaching the point of diminishing returns.”
Orlando strength and conditioning coach Mick Smith:
His mind wants his body to do things, but his body can’t quite do them. But he has shades of what he used to be.
Shawn quietly wraps up the season and goes home. Disappears. Voluntary retirement. Until once again his hometown paper, The Elkhart Truth, reports, in April of 2004:
Shawn Kemp is a co-owner of and will play for the Oklahoma Storm of the United States Basketball League, according to the league’s Web site.
Kemp, a 14-year NBA veteran, did not make an NBA team this past season.
And in that one sentence you can hear the echoes of a man’s dreams and hopes, once soaring as high as a basketball rim, plummeting to earth.
The thud upon impact is recorded by the Seattlest in April of 2005:
Five-time All-Star and former Sonics great Shawn Kemp and a friend got tagged for keeping things a little too Seattle this morning. He was arrested for marijuana and cocaine posession after a cop smelled the chronic that Seattlest imagines was pouring from their pickup’s windows Cheech and Chong style. The officer approached Kemp and his friend while they were standing around next to the truck in a Shoreliine parking lot.
According to some reports Kemp could face felony drug charges for “a small amount” of coke and about 60 grams of marijuana. The handgun that was also found in the truck is not going to help. Kemp has an unfortunate past involving various drugs and was suspended three times from the NBA for drug use.
In March of 2006, Shawn tells ESPN he is ready for a comeback:
“My love for the game is very, very high,” Kemp said. “I’ve made a living off of this game. I’m not coming back to play basketball for any financial reasons.”
“I’m not playing just to make someone’s roster. I’m not just playing to make a comeback. My hopes and dreams are to be in the Hall of Fame one day.”
In April, 2006, a slimmer, fitter Shawn visits his old coach George Karl, now working with the Denver Nuggets. Karl promises to evaluate Shawn for a potential comeback, says some kind words about the hard work Shawn has put in and not another word is heard.
In September of 2006, Shawn appears at the Chicago Bulls training camp, undergoes a physical and once again disappears:
Instead of working out with the Bulls, he traveled to his hometown of Elkhart, Ind., to visit an ailing relative. Kemp, 36, who retired in 2003 after 14 seasons because of weight issues, also missed a planned workout with Dallas earlier this year.
In April of 2008, Shawn Kemp decided to make the dreams of others a priority:
The YMCA of Elkhart County has received a $70,000 donation to its Strong Kids Campaign from former Elkhart resident and Concord High School basketball standout Shawn Kemp.
Kemp, a six-time NBA All Star, attributes much of his success as an athlete and development as a person to the YMCA. Charles Gary, the maintenance director, used to let Kemp into the YMCA after hours so he could practice.
Without a hint of irony or malice, Shawn Kemp rose above the taunts, the hatred, the racism and the past:
“My family and I are happy to give back to the Elkhart community and support the YMCA’s campaign to help local kids,” Kemp said in a statement. “The Elkhart YMCA is where it all started for me as a basketball player and Elkhart will always be home to me.”
Home. May your demons be buried there.
Bounce Magazine reports a recent Reign Man sighting
Shawn Kemp, Jr. rumored to be a Huskey prospect
Kevin Pelton, a Reebok promotional “Shawn Kemp kid”
Was once called the Imelda Marcos of the NBA
Just when you thought it was safe to dine out – a restaurant once released Shawn’s dinner order and bar tab to the press
Car Audio Mag once featured Shawn’s car (no, not the Caddy)
Podcast of Feb 2008 Shawn Kemp interview on KJR-AM
Shawn Kemp documentary – YouTube – Series of 8 videos: