The NBA'S only teenager is sitting in the Seattle SuperSonics' locker room with a world-class scowl on his face. Some say he looks like Portland's Jerome Kersey, who is 27, and others say he resembles the Los Angeles Clippers' Ken Bannister, who is 29, but he definitely looks closer to 30 than to 20, the tender age he will turn on Nov. 26.
"People tell me all the time I look older than I am," says Shawn Kemp, the fifth player to enter the NBA without playing a collegiate game. "I'll tell you this—sometimes I feel that way."
And with good reason. Much of the past two years of Kemp's young life has been like a bad bumper-car ride. He has rammed into fenders and steered up dead-end streets. He got the wrong grades, chose the wrong school and then did the wrong things at the wrong school. Prop 48. Probation. Transfer. Juco. All the buzzwords that can swirl negatively around a college athlete have found the 6'10", 240-pound Kemp.
Yet something about Kemp is different. In person, he doesn't live up—or, more accurately, down—to his reputation. The scowl is natural: He simply has a hard face, not a hard edge. He has his detractors, but most people genuinely like him and take pains to explain that the person is a whole lot better than the rèsumè.
November 27, 1989
"Shawn's been the victim of character assassination," says Seattle coach Bernie Bickerstaff.
"He's done more in the community in the few weeks he's been here than a lot of players have done over their whole careers," says Jim Marsh, the Sonics' director of community relations. "This city is starving for a personality, and Shawn has a chance to be it. He could have Seattle in the palm of his hand."
"I want Shawn Kemp to do well so he'll silence his critics," says Jim Hahn, his coach at Concord High School back in Elkhart, Ind. "I want Shawn to have the last word."
The track record of NBA players who bypassed college is actually fairly good. Joe Graboski played from 1948-49 to '61-62, mostly with the Philadelphia Warriors. Moses Malone, who came into the old American Basketball Association with Utah in 1974 and is still playing in the NBA as Atlanta's starting center, will probably be in the Hall of Fame one day. Bill Willoughby hung around for eight NBA seasons, playing for six teams between 1975 and '84. And after 14 seasons (1975-89), Darryl Dawkins left behind a treasure chest of laughter, colorfully named monster dunks and shattered backboards.
Kemp? Only a fool would say that he'll be another Moses Malone, but there's no reason why, barring injury or incident, he won't be better than the others.
"Potentially," says the notoriously cautious Bickerstaff, "Shawn is a real marquee player."
The Sonics have been bringing Kemp along slowly, and he's averaging 12.1 minutes and 5.8 points a game. This is not the speed of choice for Kemp, who announced on the first day of training camp: "I didn't come here to sit on the bench." But it might be getting harder to keep him under wraps after the coming-out party he shared with fellow rookie and best buddy Dana Barros last Thursday night during Seattle's 111-98 home court victory over Washington. In 20 minutes, Kemp had 18 points, nine rebounds, three blocked shots and one jaw-to-jaw confrontation with Bullet forward Harvey Grant, who did not take to being pushed around by a teenager. In one memorable 19-second sequence late in the game, Kemp tipped in a missed shot with his left hand; blocked a Mel Turpin layup at the other end (the 260-pound Turpin landed in the front row, a frightening reality for those sitting there); and filled the right lane on the break, jumping high to bank in an alley-oop pass from Barros, who would score 25 points. On a team that marches to a beat set by the steady but unspectacular Dale Ellis, Kemp is clearly Seattle's most exciting player.
Also its most irritating. After a dunk or a block, Kemp is given to putting his arms down at his sides and strutting-a bit, a High School Harry piece of choreography to be sure. But, hey, be sympathetic—just 18 months ago he was a High School Harry.
"When I step on the court I don't feel young at all, and it doesn't seem like anyone treats me that way, either," says Kemp, who already has played both forward positions and center. "I guess I don't look like a guy who's going to run away from the action." Guess not. Even off the court, Kemp doesn't catch much abuse. "We just let him be," says Ellis, who at 29 is the oldest Sonic. "You look at him, and you tend to forget his age."
The Sonics selected Kemp with the 17th pick of last June's draft, right after they got Boston College's Barros at 16. Reputation aside, even teams that liked Kemp as a player were reluctant to use a first-round pick on a guy whose last official game was against Muncie Central High in the 1988 Indiana state tournament. But the Sonics, who have made as many player moves over the last few seasons as any team in the NBA, saw in Kemp the opportunity to make a bold strike.
"Teams that got to the top in this league invariably did a deal out of the ordinary," says Seattle president and general manager Bob Whitsitt. "The Celtics got Bird that way [by selecting him as a junior-eligible, a year before he came out]. And we think getting Shawn can be that kind of deal for us."
Kemp's bumper-car ride began in his junior year at Concord High, when he failed to score 700 on his SATs, one of the requirements needed for freshman eligibility in college athletics under the NCAA's Proposition 48. He signed with the University of Kentucky early in his senior year, then came up short on the SATs twice more while the Wildcat coaching staff waited anxiously for the results. The press waited, too, and Kemp's failures turned into well-chronicled public humiliations.
"I had people tell me I couldn't read, couldn't spell my own name," says Kemp. "It hurt. But it's my own fault for ignoring academics. My mother was on me all the time about it, but I didn't listen. I'm not dumb; I'm not stupid. But I just didn't push myself.
"Some people say Prop 48 is a bad thing and discriminates against blacks, but I don't have any problems with it. It's fair. The only person who held me back was myself."
Prop 48 might motivate some athletes to work hard in class, but it did not have that effect on Kemp. This hardly came as a surprise to anyone who knew him, particularly his high school coach. In fact, after Kemp was declared ineligible, Hahn tried to persuade him to enroll at a junior college or even to play a year in Europe rather than go to Lexington.
"Every single athlete is not meant for college," says Hahn. "To have Shawn in a college environment without basketball, the one thing he loves, was, I felt, a big mistake. It even crossed my mind to advise him to go right into the NBA, and the only thing that stopped me was the fact that so few players have done it." Kemp thought about the NBA, too, but again there weren't enough precedents. So he took the predictable course—with predictably disastrous results.
Being a high-profile basketball recruit at Lexington in the fall of 1988 was rather like being a vacationer in Charleston, S.C., during Hurricane Hugo. The now infamous Emery Worldwide package containing $1,000, allegedly sent from Kentucky assistant coach Dwane Casey to the father of Kentucky recruit Chris Mills, had been made public several months before Kemp arrived, and the Wildcats were barreling down Probation Highway at 90 mph. Naturally, there were rumors of illegal payments and inducements made to Kemp, and he won no popularity contests in his home state when he chose bluegrass over the University of Bobby Knight. Kemp denies that he got anything under the table from Kentucky, and there is no mention of Kemp in the list of irregularities that ultimately led to Kentucky's probation.
But Kemp did make headlines with the revelation, in early November of 1988, that he had sold to a Lexington pawnshop two gold necklaces that had been stolen from Sean Sutton, a Kentucky player and the son of former Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton. Sean Sutton never pressed charges, and subsequent news stories never named the thief, only the person who pawned the necklaces.
In the past Kemp talked about the incident in generalities. He said things like: "Not everything came out in the papers," or, "There was a lot of other stuff going on." Last Wednesday, in a deserted Seattle locker room, he was asked if he stole the necklaces.
"No," said Kemp. "I am not a thief. I've never spent a day in jail, and I was never even questioned by the police."
Did you pawn the necklaces?
"Well, that's a different story," answered Kemp reluctantly. "Yes. And it was a mistake. But I'm not a thief."
Bickerstaff, who says he knows the whole story, maintains that Kemp took the fall for another player. "It's to Shawn's credit that he'll never say publicly who that player is," says Bicker-staff. "Shawn made some mistakes, but he showed some character, too."
Kemp quit Kentucky later in November. He says he left not because of the necklace incident but because he knew the Wildcats were going on probation. Finally away from the media spotlight, Kemp was able to get off the bumper car when he enrolled at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas.
Though he was still ineligible for games, Kemp worked out daily with the team and got along famously with coach Leon Spencer. But no matter how much Spencer hoped to have a blue-chipper in the lineup, Athens was destined to be just a brief stopover for Kemp. He declared himself eligible for the NBA draft in the spring and a few months later signed a six-year contract worth about $4 million.
"Before that I never even had a summer job," says Kemp, shaking his head. He says that if he had had any doubts about making the NBA, he would have stayed at Trinity Valley. But he didn't. "Basketball and football are the only sports that they say you have to go to college to play pro," says Kemp. "That doesn't make sense. Baseball players come right out of high school all the time."
Ironically, just when he seems ready to prove that his decision to pass up college was the right one, Kemp says he's going back to school. The summer will find him, he insists, sitting in a classroom at Indiana University at South Bend, near his hometown.
"I think I'll do well," says Kemp. "It'll be my money, it'll be me calling the shots. Kentucky just wasn't right for me. Wasn't the right time, wasn't the right place. The main regret I have is that people think of me as dumb. That'll push me to do well. I'm going to show everybody I'm not the person they think lam."