Hold On, We’re Going Home

Originally published in SLAM 173

by Adam Figman / @afigman

Shawn Kemp has a question. The six-time NBA All-Star is standing in downtown New York City sneaker paradise Flight Club on an August afternoon, holding a single “Remember the Alamo” Reebok Kamikaze II, and wondering, just as any other curious customer might, if the store has any pairs available in his size. To those familiar with all of the proper nouns in the previous two sentences, this should sound pretty absurd—the Kamikazes were (well, “are,” considering they’ve been re-released this year) Kemp’s signature shoe, so one would think Reebok would hook him up with as many pairs, in as many sizes, as he’d like.

One would be right, for the most part. But for some reason or another the company hasn’t had many that fit his large feet—especially of this new release—so if Kemp wants himself a fresh pair of exclusive kicks, he’s going to have to go about it the civilian way. Unfortunately, a kid wearing a Flight Club polo has bad news: There are none. “Mr. Kamikaze himself can’t even get a pair of Kamikazes,” he mutters after Kemp drifts away.

Then, a miracle: Like a chef deciding that, Fine, his restaurant can produce a dish that isn’t on the menu, someone on the Flight Club staff realizes a pair of “Remember the Alamo” Kamikazes does exist in the needed size, and that Kemp can go ahead and buy it for the expectedly inflated price of $408. Huzzah!

The whole scene is weird. Some people around the store stop and request photos with Kemp. Others completely ignore him, having seemingly no idea that standing alongside them is a former NBA superstar whose signature sneaker is available on the massive wall of sneaks in front of them. A couple staff members heed his every wish, scrambling like maniacs for the pair he’d like. Others act as if he’s just a normal customer, or worse, a normal customer with an annoying request.

It’s a juxtaposition Kemp may be familiar with. After dominating the 90s with the Seattle Supersonics, utilizing his high-flying game to become a local hero in The Emerald City and, for that matter, to 90s kids worldwide, he experienced a few less-successful stints in Cleveland, Portland and Orlando that left plenty of fans upset with what he did (or didn’t) offer their favorite teams. And now, a decade after his final NBA game, it’s as if we don’t know how to define Kemp’s legacy. Is he a legend who captivated a wide audience of basketball-lovers for close to a decade? Or an unfortunate but all too common case of talent that never lived up to what could’ve/should’ve been?

Earlier that afternoon, Kemp, now 43, sits in a burger joint in midtown Manhattan reminiscing about all of it. The 6-10 former power forward grew up in of Elkhart, IN, a city in northern Indiana with a basketball obsession that borders on fanatical. He was raised by a single, hard-working mother, and as he grew older, it became obvious that hoops would dominate his future. One day when Shawn was in 9th grade, a center from the Indiana Pacers visited the school and played Shawn one-on-one. The contest ended when the young Kemp dunked right over the Pacer, a 7-footer whose name Kemp politely declined to offer up.

(But here’s a guess: Stuart Gray, a center on the ’84-85 Pacers who told us he absolutely did visit schools in the Elkhart area in the mid-80s. “It may have been me,” Gray told us. “It’s stretching my memory, but I do remember events we used to have up in Elkhart. Put it this way: It sounds credible.”)

Word of Kemp’s talent spread quickly. Fans would line up for hours to get a good seat to watch him play at Elkhart’s Concord High School; during games and practices, he would slam the ball down so hard his hands would bruise up. One of his cousins has said Kemp once dunked so hard sparks flew off a chain-link net.

For years Bobby Knight tried to convince Kemp to sign with Indiana University, a recruiting attempt that turned political as Kemp’s high school career wound down. He was the favorite for the coveted Indiana Mr. Basketball award at the time, and one day he received a letter saying a decision to attend IU will help him earn the accolade. The message was clear: Commit elsewhere and kiss the trophy goodbye. “The memo was sent!” Kemp laughs now. Not long after he signed with out-of-state University of Kentucky, Woody Austin was named Mr. Basketball.

The senselessness didn’t stop there. Because of a failure to earn a specific score on the S.A.T. test, Shawn was labeled a Proposition 48, meaning he’d have to sit out a year at UK before he was eligible to take the court. During his senior season at Concord, opposing fans would chant “S-A-T! S-A-T!” Concord fans would respond with “N-B-A! N-B-A!”. A few years earlier, after he sank a jumper that buried rival Elkhart Central during the Indiana state tournament, angry fans lobbed banana peels at him.

Things should’ve been better in Kentucky. He was nicknamed “Beast” during his first few months there, a name that described his viscous mentality on the court. But any positive momentum came to a halt in October of Kemp’s freshman year, when Lexington police announced he had attempted to sell two chains—stolen from his teammate Sean Sutton, the son of then-UK Head Coach Eddie Sutton—to a local pawn shop.

“I didn’t steal the chain,” Kemp says. “What I was guilty of was pawning the chain, and I had done it for a friend on the team, but he was currently playing. I’m the one who went and pawned it. I didn’t know the chain was stolen, though. I explained it to the university, and to the authorities, and they checked it out. I couldn’t tell on the player. I couldn’t say, ‘This is where it came from.’ So I just took [the blame].”

Kemp transferred to Trinity Valley Community College in quiet Athens, TX, where, still ineligible to play, he practiced with the team every day, slowly rebuilding his passion for basketball. “He led our big guy workouts in practice,” says Guy Furr, an assistant at Trinity Valley. “He raised everybody’s game to a different level.”

A group of TVCC players would train each night from midnight to 2 a.m., and while driving home from one session, the group heard a commercial on the radio advertising a Dallas Mavericks-hosted dunk contest, with the grand prize being the right to practice with the Mavs three times. The guys made the 40-minute drive to Dallas, and Kemp, after easily winning the contest, was invited to train with a squad that included his future teammates Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins. He dominated the first practice to such a level that the Mavs’ coaches decided the first was his last. “They let me practice the Friday, and they were like, Yeah, you can’t come back here,” Kemp says. “I’ll never forget this: A reporter in Dallas told me, If you don’t get your ass in the pros tomorrow, something’s wrong. He said, Man, you’re the best player on the team out there.”

Kemp declared for the 1989 NBA Draft that February, never officially suiting up for TVCC. In Madison Square Garden on Draft night, Seattle fans rained boos down from the rafters after the Sonics selected Kemp with the 17th pick; many of those boos turned to cheers after Kemp’s high school highlights were displayed on the Jumbotron.

His NBA career started slow—he played sparingly during his rookie year under Head Coach Bernie Bickerstaff, then never settled into a groove under KC Jones, who coached Seattle during Kemp’s second season in the NBA, his first playing alongside a point guard named Gary Payton. Before the ’90 Draft, Kemp had lobbied for the Sonics to select GP. “I saw Gary Payton on the front page of Sports Illustrated,” Kemp says, “and I told the organization we had to have him. I saw him play against UCLA and score like 47, and he talked to the whole game. He talked so much shit, man, I couldn’t believe what I was watching.”

In the middle of ’90-91, Sonics management replaced Jones—who preferred to allot heavy minutes to veterans over youngsters—with George Karl, who turned Kemp and Payton loose. “Once George Karl and (assistant) Tim Ggurgich got there, me and Shawn started saying, let’s start having highlight films,” Payton says. “Let’s start doing things that we wanted to do.”

And what they wanted to do, and what they did, was nothing short of incredible. The Reign Man—a nickname for Kemp made famous by broadcaster Kevin Calabro, who originally spotted the name splashed on a poster—and The Glove were Lob City before Lob City, invigorating Seattle with an uptempo style rooted in tough, in-your-face defense. “We needed a system where we could run and do what we wanna do,” Payton says. “George came in and right away said, Look, they want to trade you guys. We’re gonna see what happens after a year, but you guys are gonna have to go out and work.”

Ggurgich made it his mission to get Kemp playing like he was back in Elkhart, and to get Payton, who had stammered out of the gate under KC Jones, to rediscover his Oakland-bred attitude. It worked. Defensive stops often ended in swipes from Payton or swats from Kemp. “Shawn was a tremendous weak-side shotblocker,” Calabro says. “He’d come out of nowhere and swat shots, and actually keep shots in play. He’d grab balls out of the air. The guy was amazing. He was a bona-fide stretch 4-5.”

Fast breaks, meanwhile, concluded with powerful alley-oops. Once during that breakout ’92-93 year, Payton rocketed a pass off the backboard to Kemp, who rose for the alley-oop and threw the ball down without control, slamming it off the rim and back into play. Karl, furious, benched Kemp and Payton immediately. “I looked at Shawn, and he looked at me, and I said, If we get another chance, we’re gonna do it again,” Payton says. Later in the game, same situation: Payton threw the same pass, and Kemp rose for the same dunk, this time sending it through the net successfully. The ecstatic pair ran over to Karl and smiled as they gave him high-fives. “That’s how much confidence he had in us to let us do whatever we wanted,” Payton says.

Kemp, Payton and a group that included guys like Schrempf, Perkins and Nate McMillan thrived in Seattle, reaching the postseason on an annual basis from ’90-91 to ’97-98. During Karl’s tenure, the first full season of which was ’92-93, the team never won less than 55 games. “George never had to teach effort or get us motivated,” Schrempf says. “We wanted to go out there and beat people down. We knew sometimes going into the game that teams were scared to play us because of the way we were playing.”

That squad’s pinnacle came in 1996, when it fished the regular season a miraculous 64-18, only to fall prey to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the Finals. Following a tough run through the West, “we were just not mentally ready to play the Finals,” Schrempf says.

In 1996, the Sonics signed center Jim McIlvaine to a seven-year, $35 million deal. It was the first of a few curious decisions by SuperSonics management during the late 90s, and also the one that likely led to Kemp’s exit from Seattle—with too much money on the books, the organization didn’t have enough to pay Kemp what he felt he was deserved. He was traded to Cleveland in ’97, where he’d later receive a seven-year deal worth around $107 million.

Though Kemp’s career arc is often generalized as one part good (Seattle) and one part bad (everything post-Seattle), that doesn’t really do his time in Cleveland justice. Kemp excelled early on in Ohio, averaging a solid 18.0 points per game and 9.3 game, even with a style of play that was clearly evolving from above to beneath the rim. He famously returned from the ’98 lockout overweight—the Cavs listed him at 280 pounds, up 34 from the year previous, though some have speculated he was actually up above 300—but his numbers remained steady, with a career-high 20.5 ppg and a career-high 23.5 PER in ’98-99. “The lockout ended, I had gained a little weight,” Kemp says. “I didn’t think [the lockout] was gonna end. I thought we were gonna be on strike for the whole season. I was weary of [working out] because I didn’t wanna get hurt.”

The Cavs inevitably realized that what they invested in—a high-flying, all-energy-everything superstar—was not what they had received. Kemp was traded to Portland on August 31, 2000.

Any excitement for a fresh opportunity in PDX evaporated about 24 hours later, when the team announced that it had also traded for the 6-11 Dale Davis in a separate deal. “I was doing my press conference in Portland, and they were doing some more trading to bring some more players in,” Kemp says. “You realize that you’ve become a bit more of a number than you had realized.”

Kemp was occasionally a helpful reserve in Portland; other times, he was simply too out of shape to contribute much at all. He left the team before the end of the ‘00-01 season to reportedly check himself into drug treatment. “I had some issues to deal with,” he says. “Mine didn’t come from addiction, it came from lifestyle choices. With the drugs and alcohol, it didn’t take me long to clean up certain things. I’ve always had certain things to deal with. Once you start doing something everyday at this level, when you take it down a notch, it’s not the same.

“It takes a toll on you, psychologically,” he continues. “As a professional athlete, one thing you don’t have is time. The only thing I would say to a professional athlete, if they go through anything as far as drugs and alcohol or anything like that, is to take a small break, take a step back from the game, and really look at the big picture. See where you started and where you wanna end, then you can figure it out. If you don’t take a break and look at it, you’re probably not gonna figure it out.”

Kemp never took a break. He returned for ’01-02, during which he put up similar numbers to the year before: around 6 points and 4 rebounds per 15 minutes a game, all way down from his averages of around 20 and 10 in Seattle and Cleveland. To the surprise of many, he elected to forfeit about $25 million to be let go from his contract following the 2002 season. He then signed with Orlando, where he started 55 games as a veteran on the Tracy McGrady-led Magic, averaging 6.8 ppg and 5.7 rpg.

And that was it. A few failed comeback attempts followed, the most serious of which came in 2005, when multiple outlets reported that Kemp appeared to be in very good shape, but a knee injury put an end his career before one last comeback materialized. He finished with 14 years under his belt, career averages of 14.6 ppg and 8.4 rpg, 15,347 points and 5,808 boards in total. “The only regret that I have is that I would’ve stretched it out and let people see my talent a little longer,” Kemp says. “But outside of that, I don’t have any regrets.”

How you view Shawn Kemp’s career likely depends on context. If you pulled for the Trail Blazers or Magic in the early 00s, you may not think much of the guy, having witnessed him struggle both on and off the court during years he could’ve spent solidifying a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame. If you were a Seattle fan—or just a neutral NBA fan in general—during the 90s, you had to have loved watching this dude play. “There was nothing I couldn’t do on the basketball court,” Kemp laughs.

These days he resides in Seattle and co-owns Oskar’s Kitchen, a restaurant a few blocks from KeyArena, the building he and the Sonics once packed on a nightly basis. He lives with his wife and three of his 10 children—the youngest of the 10 is in eighth grade, the oldest a junior in college. “I don’t want my kids to grow up and think anything negative of their dad,” he says. “Only thing I want them to think of are personal experiences with me.”

He also maintains a relationship with Reebok—who’s been and will continue to re-release his signature kicks to ever-hungry sneaker enthusiasts—and if the SuperSonics some day make a return to Seattle, Kemp says he’d love to work with the organization, preferably in a role where he could advise younger players on the importance of saving their money. “That would mean more to me than coaching,” he says.

Which is all to say that, despite more than a handful of ups and downs over the years, Kemp has seemingly found peace, using his time to fulfill fatherhood responsibilities, oversee Oskar’s, participate in community relations events throughout the Seattle area and pursue the business opportunities afforded a retired NBA star. “I think what I’ve done will always be remembered,” Kemp says toward the end of our conversation. “But as an individual, I just want people to realize that a person can go through certain things. It’s about what you learn.

“Normally guys who go through as much as I did probably don’t have a good ending. But I’ve been able to switch things around into a more positive direction. That’s simply from being a good person, man. When you know you’re a good person, you live a good lifestyle.”