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