Shawn Kemp: A regular Seattle legend

Former Sonics star Shawn Kemp embraces colorful past, laid-back present

Staff writerDecember 26, 2012 

The bar side of Oskar’s Kitchen is slender, neon-tinged and anchored by a bright fish tank. The restaurant sits in Seattle’s lower Queen Anne neighborhood, two blocks northwest of NBA-free KeyArena, Shawn Kemp’s old soaring ground. Midday, there is no evidence of Kemp within the joint he owns. His name is not on the door or above it. No still photos of him soaring, ball cocked, legs flared, in the midst of another awe-inducing challenge to gravity.

Late afternoon, a regular doesn’t have to speak to have his food order scribbled down then hung from stainless steel in the back. Shelves with glasses and booze flank the fish tank, which is anchored by a meandering yellow resident. The rest of the restaurant is dim.

He’s late, which is typical. Kemp’s employees joke he’s on “Shawn Time.” Even former Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl couldn’t corral the tardiness. Stories that friends or teammates had to set his car alarms off to rouse Kemp during his NBA days are prevalent. No new waitress or random reporter is going to get him to mind the dial now.

At night, when the show begins and ardor fills the place spurred by a DJ’s beat, Kemp shows. Friends, pretenders, employees shake hands with him. He slaps backs and only the doorman rivals his size.

Kemp’s smiling nighttime face hides a previously mangled spirit wrenched by years of mistrust. He learned early not to believe in strangers when fools threw bananas at him in high school. Others he never met tried to influence his college choice by leveraging the Mr. Indiana Basketball Award. In college, some accused him of theft.

One general manager made him watch the day he was supposed to give their team a predraft workout. Another general manager gave millions of dollars to a career backup without extending Kemp’s contract. People wrote stories about his children and cops arrested him in a dingy north Seattle parking lot.

Before, when life was darker, he didn’t want to hear about how he could fix things; personal mistrust muffling advice. What he should have been the second half of his career? Save it. He didn’t want to hear disapproval throughout his basketball odyssey, his congeniality both an aid and a flaw that led him to try to satisfy others at his own expense.

Kemp, a six-time All-Star who dominated the 1996 NBA Finals and flew in a way few have, appears to wear the influence from these years of suspicion on his oft-sullen face. He’s had a flammable touch throughout his life, which has left him pinned with three mainstream identities: athletic revelation, father of many, former associate of trouble. He’s pieces of each.

But, don’t sit down with him now if you want preconceptions confirmed. He’s delved into charity work the past two decades. When approached by strangers in public, he’s amicable, joyful even, willing to stoop for a photo or to have a laugh. Kemp has been married for a decade.

He’s not perfect, an affliction that competes with his in-game dunking ability as his biggest draw. The publicized mistakes are also his biggest detraction.

Almost a decade after his last NBA game, Kemp, 43, sits in a red leather chair he doesn’t fit in at a long table in the back of Oskar’s. Kemp has recently opened his long-guarded soul. He gets right to it.

“My mama always used to tell me, man, don’t grow up to be no old fool,” Kemp said.

Getting there has been exhilarating and complicated.

EARLY ATTENTION

The wariness grew with his game. Coming out of Elkhart, Ind. – the self-proclaimed “RV capital of the World” – Kemp had dignitaries such as Bob Knight on his trail when he was a sophomore playing at Concord High School.

By his senior year, such state stalwarts as Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame were after Kemp, as were North Carolina and Kentucky.

At the time, current Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey was an assistant at Kentucky. He was the Wildcats’ point person in pursuit of Kemp.

“I knew he was going to be an NBA player,” Casey said. “Was he going to be a chemistry major, or a math major or whatever? No. He was one of the rare talents you could look at and say, you need to be in the NBA.”

As his fame rose, Kemp learned what accompanied that. When opposing fans hurled bananas at him during a high school game, he says he took a bite out of one and discarded it. Later he cried. He didn’t understand why those people loathed him.

Then Woody Austin, who committed to Purdue, was named the Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1988. That decision left Kemp, Casey and others stunned. Kemp scoffs and says the choice had little to do with ability.

“One of the schools notified me, that if I didn’t come to school there, I wasn’t going to be Mr. Basketball,” Kemp said. “It made the decision for me to go to Kentucky that much easier.”

Kemp headed to Lexington in the fall of 1988. He had academic problems. By November, he was accused of stealing and pawning gold chains from Sean Sutton, a teammate and son of head coach Eddie Sutton. He was never charged.

“They accused me of some things at Kentucky, of stealing this gold chain,” Kemp said. “I was trying to get over the hump with that because it was the furthest thing from the truth.

“It did not happen.”

Within the next six months, Kentucky’s program was a mess. The athletic director, head coach and Casey all resigned amid scandal. An internal review exonerated Casey, though the NCAA put him on probation for five years. Casey also won a defamation lawsuit associated with recruiting violations at the school. Kemp had nothing to do with the charges.

“I had to grow up real quick at this stage,” Kemp said. “There were so many things popping up, and it was so unfair. It was just time to get out of Lexington.

“I’ll just say this: in situations when young kids are involved with schools when they’re accused of doing things that they didn’t do, some of the pressures that they put on them is amazing. They force these kids in a corner where they have to do pretty much what the university wants them to do.

“If you go on your own, you’re blackballed. Not only that, no help, no direction, no anything. When you’re young, that’s tough. It’s tough to realize you worked your butt off, you’re at this major university, (but) the day you walked off that property, you’re absolutely nothing to them. You better be one strong-minded individual. Because if you’re not, you’re going to get nothing.”

Kemp headed to Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, though he considered joining future NBA No. 1 pick Larry Johnson at Odessa College. He also heavily considered going with Johnson to talent-laden UNLV the following season.

Kemp didn’t play basketball at Trinity. At the end of the school year, there was no press conference or formality. Kemp simply moved to Los Angeles, desperate to somehow join his favorite team, the Lakers. It wasn’t that easy, so he declared for the NBA draft.

PROVING HIS TALENT

With 29 days remaining until the 1989 draft, Kemp went on a 28-team odyssey to show his skills.

Kemp says Warriors coach Don Nelson wouldn’t let him on the court for a tryout with Golden State, and told him he wasn’t strong or good enough. The Trail Blazers told him he wouldn’t get off the bench for four years. In Seattle, Sonics president and general manager Bob Whitsitt was in the middle of an overhaul.

Whitsitt traded this and flipped that – including future Kemp combatant Alton Lister – to end up with the 16th and 17th picks in the 1989 draft. The coaches wanted a point guard. They got Dana Barros out of Boston College with the 16th pick.

Whitsitt wanted Kemp. He says it was a tough sell to former Sonics owner Barry Ackerley, with whom Whitsitt had an acrimonious relationship, but he pitched it this way:

“If this guy comes together – and it’s a big if – but if it comes together, we’re going to get a combination of Charles Barkley and Dominique Wilkins,” Whitsitt said. “I mean he’s a powerful guy like a Barkley, but he’s spring-loaded like Dominique, and he can run like Dominique.

“He didn’t have the fundamental skills some of those guys had. But to some extent, when he really got it together and was playing great for the Sonics, that’s a little bit what he was.”

The Sonics selected Kemp 17th. He was 19, so, under NBA rules, his mother, Barbara, had to sign his contract for him because he was not old enough. It became a steal.

“Everybody likes to go from after the fact – I was going to do this, I wanted to do this, I knew this guy would be good. And the answer is that’s (expletive),” Whitsitt said. “If they knew, they would have done it.

“The reality is, it was a risk and guys are pretty risk-averse. And, honestly, if I knew he was going to be that good, I would have moved a few more mountains to get up higher to get him. But I did know he would be available when we were picking. That I did know.”

DYNAMIC POWERHOUSES

The Sonics had the No. 2 overall pick in 1990 after Kemp’s quiet rookie year. Despite taking Barros the year before, the organization selected another point guard, Oregon State’s Gary Payton.

Kemp knew little of Payton prior to seeing the senior on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Then, he saw Payton doing what Payton does: dominating other guards and making sure everyone within earshot knew.

“I watched Gary on TV, and he was running his mouth,” Kemp said. “I fell in love with him.

“It was love at first sight. I could tell, with his game and my game, I was like, aw, man, this is what I’ve been waiting for.”

Current Denver coach George Karl was extracted from Spain and took over the Sonics midway through the 1992 season. The triumvirate that would make the Sonics a force through the mid-90s was in place.

Karl opened things up. Kemp and Payton exploited their atypical styles at point guard and power forward. A fervor grew. West Seattle poster makers John and Tock Costacos first called Kemp the “Reign Man.” Sonics play-by-play announcer Kevin Calabro latched on to the phrase and dispatched it early on during a Payton-to-Kemp alley-oop. The lore was being constructed.

“At that time it was (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone,” Calabro said. “You needed the 1-4 combination. When you got a 1-4 combination that was as young with the potential these two guys had, our feeling was, boy, we are about to take off as a franchise.”

The sixth-seeded Sonics faced third-seeded Golden State in the first round of the 1992 playoffs. The Warriors were built around the Run TMC trio, Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond.

Lister delivered a stern foul on Kemp in Game Two, which led to a typical NBA fight of accuracy-free punches. Angered, Kemp put down one of the greatest highlight dunks in pro basketball when he slammed on Lister in Game Three. Kemp dashed from the free-throw line, cupped then crammed the ball with his legs splayed. The force knocked Lister to the floor. Kemp taunted the sprawled big man with alternating finger points.

The dunk is affectionately remembered as the Lister Blister. It was also an emphatic microcosm of Kemp’s gifts, a superlative package of flight, power and flair.

The Sonics dismantled the Warriors, three games to one. Kemp and Payton – aided by such high-quality teammates as Ricky Pierce, Eddie Johnson and Derrick McKey – were beamed across America essentially for the first time after beating Golden State.

Then, Utah delivered a forceful epiphany with a 4-1 series win over Seattle in the next round.

“We beat Golden State, and it was like we ran down the street and a damn semi-truck was waiting for us,” Kemp said. “I had no idea that these guys could turn up the volume of their game. I watched Karl Malone, I watched John Stockton. We played them like four times that year.

“Those aren’t the same guys in the playoffs, man. Don’t even look the same.”

Kemp made a list of things to work on right after his skull-thumping from Malone and the Jazz.

SOME MINOR ISSUES

The Kemp, Karl, Payton base continued to rise, averaging 58 wins over the next four seasons. Excellent pieces Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, Nate McMillan, Hersey Hawkins and Dale Ellis helped the mix.

But there were issues. The top-seeded Sonics lost in the first round to Denver in 1994, then followed that with another first-round loss in 1995, before making the NBA Finals in 1996. Chicago beat Seattle, four game to two, despite an average of 23 points and 10 rebounds per game from Kemp, who many called the best player on the floor against Michael Jordan’s dynastic Bulls.

“We had opportunities to win championships, but we let a few of them go,” Kemp said. “There were so many years we won 50-some-odd games and the team that won the championship we handled pretty good.”

Stories about Kemp’s off-court behavior began to circulate. He and Payton were rumored to celebrate postgame with Salt-N-Pepa in one instance. The team plane was a rowdy place.

“Back in those days, after a long road trip, those guys liked to get loose,” former Sonics TV announcer and NBA player Marques Johnson said. “Crown Royal was definitely the official drink of the Seattle Sonics.”

Karl worried.

“The only thing I had a major problem with was Shawn and his tardiness,” Karl said. “When he got there, he was always professional, but he did create some nightmares of not being on time.

“There was always a rumor off the court that there were some situations he probably would have handled better, but I was not privy to the details of those situations.”

The off-court rumblings didn’t make Karl think the issues outweighed the talent.

“I never felt that way,” he said.

Kemp was an All-Star for the Sonics from 1993-97. He played in the upper crust of the NBA, engineered to produce posters. Whatever social extravagance Kemp had going on while with Seattle did little damage to his on-court performance. That would change.

PUSHED OUT

The signing of a player who had six career starts would shove Kemp’s career over the cliff.

When the Sonics invested $35 million over seven yeas in center Jim McIlvaine, Kemp was enraged. He was talking to the Sonics about an extension. He held out, thinking there was a verbal deal in pl ace, but was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Nothing improved for him from there.

“I didn’t have a problem with McIlvaine personally, but the deal that they gave him was garbage,” Kemp said. “It kind of gave me a good sense they weren’t really true to their word. As an athlete, you always think that anyways.”

His wallet and frame became bloated. Cleveland signed Kemp to a seven-year, $107 million contract extension. He was an All-Star his first season with the Cavs, and averaged a career-high 20.5 points during the lockout-shortened 1999 season.

But, shortly after, Kemp’s weight ballooned while his basketball ambition deflated. Kemp was shipped to Portland, where Whitsitt was the general manager.

“We made it clear to our owner (Paul Allen) that this is not Shawn Kemp the way you think of Shawn Kemp,” Whitsitt said. “Just because I drafted him and had great success with him, there’s nothing I can do to snap my fingers and make him the guy he was.”

Kemp did little in Portland prior to being waived and checking into a drug rehabilitation clinic for cocaine addiction. He played one season with Orlando after being released. At 33, he was done in the NBA. He averaged 14.6 points and 8.4 rebounds over 14 seasons.

“I can’t deny over the years we’ve talked about what happened,” Karl said. “We’ve had conversations that maybe he started too young, and he wore his body out a little bit.

“And, how he wore his body out, we all know. I think as he slid down the backside of the mountain, he went faster than I thought he would.”

KEMP JR. BACKUP BIG MAN

Twenty years after Kemp had high school fans deride him, his son was a point of derision. Shawn Kemp Jr. heard chants of, “Dad-dy doesn’t love you!” or the more eloquent, “Con-dom broke!” from opposing high school fans.

Life is different for Kemp Jr. than for senior’s eight other kids. His name is a wailing siren.

“That’s the first thing everybody asks me,” Kemp Jr. said. “What’s your name? … Is your dad Shawn Kemp?

“Some people even know, but still ask.”

Kemp Jr. moved from Seattle to Atlanta when he was 5. Last season, he played 6.5 minutes per game for the University of Washington off the bench as a 6-foot-9, 265-pound backup big man. He’s working his way back from a knee injury this season. When he was little and living in Atlanta, Kemp Jr. would see his dad on TV. His mother explained the circumstances to him.

“I just kind of went with things,” Kemp Jr. said. “I never really thought about it.”

Kemp Jr. is laid back. About two years ago, his father returned to his life. Prior to that, they had little interaction, and he’s always been good with that. He’s also pleased that their relationship has more depth now. And, he isn’t put off by all his siblings.

“It’s his choice,” Kemp Jr. said. “He’s got to take care of all that. I’m cool with everybody. We talk on Facebook and everything.”

Three of Kemp’s children live with him and his wife of 11 years, Marvena. When a Sports Illustrated story about pro athletes fathering numerous children came out in 1998, Kemp was vilified. It’s a storyline that hangs on him like his diamond-framed “SK” dog tags.

“A story is never going to make or break you,” Kemp Sr. said. “Whether I have kids, how many, it doesn’t matter. I always tell people this: It’s your job to handle your responsibilities, nobody else’s.

“If anything, the Sports Illustrated article made me grow up a little bit and really made me pay attention to more of the little things in my life, and I am thankful for that.”

PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

Kemp has an odd loving relationship with a public he wants to be a part of, but not elevated in. He doesn’t move with an entourage. Never has.

“I’m very careful who I hang out with,” Kemp said. “I’m just very careful. I went through some ups and downs, so I don’t really put myself out there to be in negative situations. It’s more protecting myself than anything.”

Kemp’s pursuit of normal life comes in different layers. Despite and because of his past, people who have local foundations ask him to attend their events, knowing his name is still an attraction. He doesn’t get paid. He doesn’t pump his restaurant or other business interests. Typically, he encourages kids and talks about footwork.

Seattle University is trying to get its program off the ground in the city, moving back to NCAA Division I after languishing in D-II obscurity. Last season, the Redhawks held a small event in KeyArena to introduce their squad. Kemp’s appearance was listed to put a name on the gathering. Few attended. Almost all tried to interact with Kemp, including one young boy flabbergasted by his presence. “You’re on my wall!” Kemp walked in and out alone.

Kemp even plays quarterback in city flag football leagues at Seattle Center’s Memorial Stadium. He’s open to anyone sitting in his restaurant or who notices him in a store, but are unsure if they should approach him. An everyman feel that came out in the past when he played pickup games at local parks encircled by the homeless while still in the NBA, is the overwhelming aura.

“I’m a regular person who lives in the community,” Kemp said. “I do regular things.

“You have these athletes today, they have people who work for them who really make the face of them up. Sometimes it’s not even a person that you meet, it’s someone they’ve really created. I’m not one of those individuals. Everything that I do, I generally do from the heart.”

That is the prevailing point about Kemp. Any poor decisions he made in the past were self-destructive. The drug use. Rampant reproduction. Two post-playing arrests for marijuana possession. They shouldn’t be discounted, but should be measured.

“Has he made mistakes in his life like we all have? Yes,” Casey said. “There’s no person reading this article who hasn’t made a mistake or had personal problems.

“To me, that doesn’t tell me the type of man Shawn Kemp is. He’s a warm-hearted, loving, caring man. He’d give you the shirt off his back. That’s the Shawn I know.”

A REVERED SONICS GHOST

Kemp has been approached by two restaurant-goers who just want to shake hands and invite him over to their table. Before he came in, others looked around hoping for an entrance. This is the effect he has on people in Seattle as one of the most revered Sonics ghosts.

After his NBA career, Kemp closed down. He has crept back into public the past few years following a staredown with himself. His personal trust finally swelled.

“What I found out is if something goes bad, don’t look at it as if it’s somebody else’s fault,” Kemp said. “It’s you.

“The day I had to make a decision is when I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Which way are you going to go now?’ …I hurt myself. May not be the face on the box of cereal as I once was, but that’s fine with me.

“I feel blessed to be able to be in a situation where I was able to make a decision for my future and the people around me for the better. Because it probably could have went for the worse.”

With that, Kemp finally hears words to believe.

todd.dybas@thenewstribune.com
@Todd_Dybas

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