Saturday, August 21st, 2010 at 10:00 am  |  25 responses

Super Fly

SLAM 2: Shawn Kemp led the League in style. But he never led the Sonics to an NBA title.

Originally published in SLAM 2, it’s time for this Shawn Kemp cover story to see the light of day internet.—Ed.

SLAM 2 feature: Shawn Kemp.

by Touré

The quiet of a loser’s locker room is suffocating. It paralyzes; it makes you want to run. Players look down, keep to themselves and tiptoe through the shower-dress-interview ritual so as not to bump into one of the shoulda-coulda ghosts hanging around.

This locker room is a New Jersey where the visiting Seattle SuperSonics have just lost a close game to the Nets. In the middle of the silence is the 24-year-old All-Star and ’94 Dream Teamer, Shawn Kemp. As the game sinks further and further into the past, Kemp’s stern playing face gives way to the emotions of his eyes-huge, deep-set eyes piercing with a brightness one would expect to find in a child. Bookending them are gigantic cheekbones, which sit directly below a pair of deeply-sunken temples.

This is not the man I’ve come to see. I hoped to find the Shawn Kemp whose savage alley-oop dunks seem to rock my TV, the Shawn Kemp who shoots jumpers with a passionate authority and wrists cocked, the Shawn Kemp who leaves rims rattling and fans screaming and whose dark growls ring into the back rows of every arena in which he plays.

Instead, I’m facing a man twice my size, who’s never seen me before, who’s trying to wipe off frustration along with shower-water, asking him what happened to cause his team to lose by three points. Imagine an ego like a mine field; each question is a step into danger. Envision also, a man who scored 26 points and had a chance to win the game. Down by a point, Kemp grabbed the ball, the Nets Derrick Coleman fouled him, and Kemp heaved a pathetic attempt at a shot. An inbounds pass and a pathetic heave later and the game was over.

“You gotta do what you gotta do to stop a ballplayer from scoring that late in the game, under a minute. He probably did the same thing I would’ve done,” Kemp says diplomatically about Coleman’s foul, returning to the silence that has dominated our conversation. When not open, Kemp’s mouth is often crooked, from the viewer’s left. His lips meet in a jagged line, approximating a mountain range. As I reach hopefully for a harmless question, he turns toward me and reveals small ears that stick out from his close-cropped fade like little wings.

“I thought we had control most of the ballgame,” he answers, his deep voice coming up from the middle of his chest, punctuated by a slight but present lisp. “We had a chance to win several times. But we’ve been struggling the last few weeks.”

It’s February and the Sonics have the league’s best record. But this slip suggests that the team may not be hanging on to the lead for the long haul. Can the same be said for its star?

Coach George Karl may have an answer. “I think the next thing he needs to add to the respect area is to win a championship. If he wins a championship, I think he jumps into that real elite area. The next great superstar is gonna be the next guy who wins a championship.”


It’s a cold Sunday in Minneapolis, but since the Black Millionaires Club has come out to play, the rest of the world-at least the section of it that cares about basketball-has followed. “When you watch those guys in the All-Star game, you’re watching the Black Millionaires Club,” says Nelson George, author of Elevating The Game: Black Men And Basketball. “If you ever get any NBA players and just talk to them and get them comfortable, you’ll really hear how they feel about each other as men. Who’s a punk and who’s not a punk. Who they respect and who they don’t respect. Who’s got fine women and who doesn’t have fine women. I don’t think that Kemp’s considered one of the boys on that level. He’s still considered a new jack, which has gotta be tough for him because he’s been in the league longer than most of the kids who’re getting the respect now.”

Though Kemp has a superstar’s resume, there are critical things he needs before he can move into the upper echelon of true NBA superstars-especially as judged by the BMC itself.

“Kemp really is rap music in the real sense,” George continues. “His game, still, is relatively raw. Obviously, he’s refined it by playing NBA ball, but look at Alonzo Mourning and Chris Webber, who are in the same physical range, and the polish they have. Kemp has really had to learn on the go, and I think that’s why he’s never gotten the respect that he wants. This is the first time that he was voted to the All-star team and there’s a reason for that. At this point, for him to be a championship player, there’s another leap he has to make in his game.”

Kemp’s rawness is a leftover from his short, unfortunate college career: He graduated from Concord High School in Elkhart, Indiana in 1987 as one of the most highly-sought after players in the country. But he became hated in his own state when he declined to attend the University of Bobby Knight, opting instead for Kentucky. When he failed to score 700 on his SATs, the abuse began in earnest. “Stupid, dumb, greedy and disloyal” are some of the kinder words Indiana boosters had for the 17-year-old.

He had to sit out his freshman year at Kentucky, while the Wildcats’ program was under the microscope of the local papers and the NCAA. A package containing $1000 sent allegedly to recruit Chris Mills had come to light a few months before Kemp arrived, and it now appeared that the entire Kentucky program was headed for probation.

The final straw came on Oct. 28, 1988 when Lexington police claimed that Kemp had tried to pawn two chains stolen from then-Coach Eddie Sutton’s son, Sean.

That was enough for Kemp. He hadn’t stolen the chains (many believe he was taking the rap for a teammate), and now it looked like he’d never play ball for Kentucky. He transferred to Trinity Junior College in Athens, Texas, an obscure school in the middle of the desert and didn’t even tryout for the team. A year later, he declared himself eligible for the 1989 draft and was picked by Seattle in the second round as a “6-10 project.”

While that absence of a college coaching and tutelage has not kept him from becoming a star, the lack of coaching is evident in his game. For example, his unorthodox ump shot: He launches the ball from the right and just above his head rather than completely above and in front. His right elbow comes near, though not above shoulder level; and while his left hand finishes pointing straight at the basket, his right continues curling abruptly down, ending in a painful arc.

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  • underdog

    Thanks! Kemp is my all-time favourite.

  • http://google c_cantrell

    kemp was a beast

  • http://fatshawnkemp.com zack

    “As Disneyization tumors through the NBA…”
    how prophetic. i think it’s full blown cancer by now.

  • JTaylor21

    It’s crazy how many of the young 90s stars faded quickly either due to injuries or personal problems. Guys like GHill, Penny, Kemp and a few others were on the fast track to the pantheon of GREATNESS. It’s goes to show that you can’t take things for granted.

  • hammer

    The reign man. Short lived career success yet left his imprint on the game. The hair cut,the dunks(lister blister!)the reebok shoes, formed 1 of the best tendems in league history w/gp,the trip 2 the 96 finals r a few. And say whatever about how things ended n seattle,sonics management did disrespect kemp. They gave jim mcilvaine all that cream while kemp was denied his request 4 a raise. Its a shame how his career ended

  • Benjamin Stone

    One of my all time faves. Always wished he had worked on his game a little harder…thought he relied on his athleticism too much and it came back to bite him. But man was that fun to watch: Payton chunkin’ the ball off the backboard for Kemp on the break was a thing of beauty. Kemp in the playoff game cradling the ball, delivering the facial then pointing at the dude with both fingers. The alley-oop dunk over Mourning. Good stuff.

  • Lz – Cphfinest3

    SLAM 2 with Kemp was my first issue. Have every single one since then, but the ‘Superfly’ issue will always be special. Kemp was a manchild when he came into the league. A beast, to bad he got so fond of hamburgers when he got older, loved to watch him play.

  • Benjamin Stone

    BTW how you gonna be a cokehead and gain 40 pounds…just asking.

  • German Reignman

    The Real MVP of the 1996 Finals … but the since no losing team gets MVP honors Mike got the trophy … but Kemp was the player of the seies …. blocking shots, throwin down, sitting on Rodmans shoulders …

  • Jetballer

    failed to score 700 on the SATs? How retarded can you be?

  • Chris

    yeah, saw that 96 finals not too long ago. Kemp was indeed the best player in that series, while MJ actually had a subpar Finals showing.

  • JD

    Thank you SLAM – Kemp was the man

  • http://www.rich-imaging.com Dutch Rich

    What did Karl mean “I don’t care about his sugar”.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    REIGN MAN is classic. Great player, sad ending, but you can’t front on what he did during his short career in the NBA. AND he was sh!tting on Rodman in that ’96 Finals, no offense to the Worm.

  • hoodsnake

    @ German reignman Jerry West was MVP in 1969 on a losing team

  • http://slamonline moneymellz

    Man was kemp sumthing to watch bakk in the day..I remember he dunked Over chris gatlin pointed at him wit two fingers but wat was more crazy was dat gatlin got up n dapped kemp as if to say “yea dat was disrespectful byt I gotta give yu yur props”..dat was crazyyy..but does anyone in todays game remind u of kemp?

  • hobbes

    Kemp > Malone > Webber > Duncan > KG > Dirk > Amare > Gasol , the best PF in the league in order since 96.

  • hammer

    @dutch rich. What karl was referring 2 was the fancy playmaking (example:behind the back passes,between the leg dribbles,tomahawk dunks)things of that nature. Or as manolo in scarface would say the “pizzaz.”

  • JTaylor21

    @Hobbes come on son, Amare has never ever been the best PF in the league. Not even for one milli second, the best PF has to be able to REBOUND the ball and play defense which AMARE does absolutely none of those things.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    Gasol is NOT the best power-forward in the league.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    @ JTaylor: Amare doesn’t have a great track record of rebounding the ball, but 8-9 is NOT that bad at all for a forward.

  • JTaylor21

    So Teddy-the-Bear, if you were a coach and your 6-10 245 uber-athletic PF avgs. 8.9 rpg would you be happy with that, or better yet if you had Amare’s size and athletic ability would you be satisfied in knowing that you can only muster 9 rebounds a game. I think NOT.

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  • http://brimartin13@gmail.com Brion

    The only jersey I own…#40 The Reignman.

  • German Reignman


    heads up, your right … but that was the only time, no ?