Q+A: Shawn Kemp

Basketball fans of all ages know the Reign Man. Nearly 20 years after his NBA Finals appearance alongside Gary Payton as a member of the Seattle SuperSonics and more than a decade since his last NBA game, Shawn Kemp’s legacy as one of the most explosive and fearsome athletes the league has ever seen still stands strong.

Kemp was on hand at the Reebok Classic Breakout camp, featuring 140 of the nation’s top high school players, to dispense some wisdom to the younger generation. While the campers remember his ferocious dunks, they probably don’t know the twisted path he took to get the NBA. Kemp enrolled at the University of Kentucky, but never played due to off-court issues, then transferred to a junior college, where he also never played, before finally entering the 1989 Draft.

Kemp stressed the importance of hard work to the campers, telling them, “If you think you’ve worked hard already, you haven’t. If you think you’re good enough, you’re not.”

After sharing his experiences with the crowd, Kemp took some time to talk to SLAM about his experiences at high school camps, what he’s up to and his thoughts on today’s game.

SLAM: You were known for your dunking back in the day. Do you have any favorites that stand out? I know the Lister Blister is one people always bring up.

Shawn Kemp: Not really dunks, man. I was just into making exciting plays, whether it be a dunk, the finger roll. I always enjoyed making the play that was going to make the difference.

SLAM: You kind of had a twisted path getting to the NBA, bouncing between schools and community colleges. How important is it when you see these kids to make sure that they’re showing up and getting their best opportunity to go to college?

SK: Oh, it’s very important. These kids have to understand that opportunity always comes, but you don’t always get opportunities to be successful. So hard work makes that difference with the chances that you get. Nobody can tell you what you do in this world, but if you work your butt off you can get anything accomplished. That’s really my message to them. Kids have so many options these days in life, what they can do, the one thing they have to do is just work hard.

SLAM: How’s the whole circuit changed since you were coming up, you came up in the late ’80s. What are the biggest differences you see?

SK: Not a whole lot of big difference. There’s probably more corporations and stuff that’s involved now, but it’s pretty much the same thing, man. The same sweat, the same grind, the same mission. These kids are doing the same thing that we were trying to get accomplished. Some of us got the message and some of us didn’t. When you’re a kid, you can’t take days off. At these camps, you have to perform at the highest level every day and that’s what they have to understand.

SLAM: With social media, cell phones, kids know who their competition is. Did you know who you were going up against?

SK: I knew who the best players were, simply because I started playing AAU at a very young age. I got a chance to travel around the world and see a lot of different players at an early age. It kind of sticks with you when you can measure the talent that’s out there, if you can see guys in California and guys in New York, you kind of have a measuring stick, and that’s really the only stick that you need. The social media stuff is good, sometimes it’s too much, but these kids only have to have a little bit just to see what kind of measuring stick, where they are on the talent level.

SLAM: What kind of involvement do you have with the game today? With the NBA, high school, AAU level, are you involved with the game at all?

SK: Absolutely, absolutely. I live in Seattle, WA, where I work and own a restaurant out there in Seattle. I just had a Reebok camp out there for the top-100 kids in the whole state of Washington. Me and my wife also run a college summer league, the pro-am league (Northwest Summer Pro League). We work with all the elementary, junior high kids, try to push just to work hard, to love the game but to have a passion to work hard continuously. Sometimes, kids don’t have that understanding. I enjoy playing the game, but I enjoy sending this message out to the younger kids that they continually have to get better.

SLAM: Being in Seattle, how tough is it not having an NBA team there right now?

SK: Oh, it sucks! It does, man. Even though Portland’s right around the corner, it sucks.

SLAM: That was one of Seattle’s biggest rivals when they were around.

SK: Yeah, man. It’s a big rival. You know what, it feels like we’re missing a big part of the game. I enjoy watching the younger guys come up, I didn’t just enjoy playing the game. So I want to see LeBron, I want to see Kobe, I want to see some of these younger guys develop. We’re anxious to get a team back in Seattle as soon as possible.

SLAM: When you came into the League, your athleticism and explosiveness kind of changed the game for the power forward position. A couple of years ago, Amar’e Stoudemire was getting those comparisons to you. Do you see anybody in the League now that has a game like yours?

SK: I think Blake Griffin would be the closest thing, probably, to myself, but he’s a little bit undersized, a little bit smaller than me, but I would definitely see I see a lot of myself in Blake.

SLAM: Do you think your game would fit into the game today? How do you think you’d adjust?

SK: Definitely, definitely. I was first a finesse player, a guy who could run, who could shoot, dribble. Definitely, I would have loved to play in today’s game because I had the speed to do it. A lot of big guys didn’t have that speed but I had the speed to keep up with these guys. It would be fun simply because, you know, they’re just so fast and I would have enjoyed that, definitely.

SLAM: That 1996 Sonics team was probably the best non-Bulls team of that Jordan era. Do you ever wish that team came around five years earlier or five years later so you wouldn’t have to run into the greatest team of all time?

SK: No I mean, it’s cool. You never want to lose or come in second to someone, but if you’re going to get beat you really want to get beat by the best. I think not only was Michael Jordan one of the best players in the NBA, but also, like you just said, that team from Chicago, they were one of the best teams in the history of the NBA. If you’re going to lose to somebody, that’s who you want to lose to.

SLAM: The game has changed a lot in terms of player movement. What do you think of the way free agency is basically being held up by three players? (This interview was conducted two days before LeBron James announced his decision to join the Cavaliers—Ed.)

SK: These guys should always protect themselves, and they have that right. The one thing that sometimes we don’t do as players, we always give up our rights and have ownership control those rights. I think a lot of these guys are doing good. It’s kind of funny how some of the best players we have in the game today, we’re not sure where they’re going to end up. I think everything will change and smooth out and this will be something that’ll be all over real quickly. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where these guys are going to sign. I actually think (LeBron’s) going back to Cleveland.