The climb was both literal and figurative. He went up, up, up,
the pain searing his legs and his lungs. Twelve flights of
concrete stairs, 20 stairs each flight. The skyline of Seattle
receded below him. His mind was somewhere else, away from the
steps, back in a cramped, hot gym in rural Indiana. The place
closed in on him as the crowd yelled, "S-A-T! S-A-T! S-A-T!"
Over and over he heard the chant, the sound coming down from the
rafters, up from the floor, in from the walls. The noise was so
loud it had a physical presence. Sometimes he thought he could
smell its rotten breath.
Shawn Kemp still hears those taunts. He still sees the bananas
that spectators threw on the court. He still hears his side of
the gym, the fans of Elkhart's Concord High School, countering
with cries of "N-B-A! N-B-A! N-B-A!"
Which was worse, the insult or the compliment? The pressure from
both sides was equal. Shawn's life at 17 was too public. That
everyone knew of his failure to score 700 on the SATs, the
minimum required for college freshman eligibility, was just one
example. He had begun giving up pieces of himself to the game at
an early age. Basketball took some of his youth, most of his
privacy, all of his trust. It gave back fame and wealth. He's
not always sure he came out ahead.
As he ascended those outdoor stairs on Seattle's Capitol Hill
last summer, every footfall was intended to silence his
doubters: the ones who booed the day he was drafted by the
SuperSonics in 1989 and the ones who raged after Seattle's two
straight first-round playoff losses, in '94 and '95. Kemp is
only 26 years old and already seven years into a wildly
successful NBA career, but every day he fools his mind into
thinking that nothing has changed from his days at Concord High.
Nothing he does ever seems good enough.
February 19, 1996
So he spent last off-season running up these steps, punishing
his body. Two hundred forty stairs. Every step, every pulse of
pain, was a reminder that he was redefining himself as a player.
He would show everybody, no matter what it took, that he was
more than a series of highlights, more than fancy dunks.
He split his summer between Seattle and his 30-acre farm in tiny
Bristol, Ind., just outside Elkhart, and he ran there, too. He
ran during the worst heat wave in decades. Public officials
warned people to stay inside, to keep cool. Kemp ran.
He ran on the Fourth of July, the air thick as glue. "I'll never
forget that day," he says. "My mom looked at me and said, 'I
know you're not going to run today.' I said, 'I'm on this
program, and I'm not about to stop.' But when I was out there
running, I was telling myself, 'Whoo, this better be worth it.
It's a holiday; everybody else is eating.' But that's why I was
out there: Nobody else was doing it."
Late at night he would head for a nearby gym and work out:
shooting baskets, lifting weights until he couldn't raise his
arms. "I like that," he says. "I like working out in the middle
of the night, all by myself, nobody else around. That's my time."
Back in high school his only recourse against the taunts was to
dunk harder, run faster, slap opponents' shots a few rows deeper
into the bleachers. He dunked so hard that his hands were
covered with cuts and bruises. That was the outlet.
There was always an enemy, and the enemy is still alive. For
motivation, the enemy is imperative. He must accompany Kemp up
steps, down hills, into dank weight rooms deep in the night. The
enemy questions Kemp's intelligence and his character and his
work ethic. The enemy is, in an odd way, Kemp's guardian angel.
"He was always able to use the taunts to his advantage," says
Jim Hahn, Kemp's coach at Concord High. "He wouldn't lash out or
retaliate, even though it bothered him a lot. He got back at his
critics by beating them.
"I remember one time we were on the road, and he was going to
the foul line to decide the game. All the opposing fans ran from
the bleachers to stand behind the basket and harass him. As I
watched this happen, I turned to my assistants and said, 'They
made a mistake there. These shots are as good as made.' And they
were. You could see it in Shawn's eyes: He wasn't going to let
them get to him."
Of all the enemy's taunts, of all the doubters' questions, this
has been the most constant: When will Kemp's maturity catch up
with his tremendous talent?
We may finally have an answer. Maybe the blissful convergence of
talent and maturity is taking place now, a few months past
Kemp's 26th birthday. Through the All-Star break, he was third
in the NBA in rebounding, at 12.3 a game, and he was scoring a
career-high 21 points per game. He was making 56.4% of his
shots. Consistency is at last part of Kemp's game. As Sonics
center Sam Perkins says, "Every guy on this team can see the
emergence. It's a year for all those critics of Shawn to shut up
and start looking at what the man is doing."
Kemp's off-season workout program helped him lose nearly 30
pounds. Last season he bulked up to bang with the NBA's human
landmasses, but he found that it only sapped his energy and
limited his open-court game. His new program pared him down from
a potential Karl Malone to a 6'10", 240-pounder with both the
speed to outrun most power forwards and the endurance to outlast
them. "He's like a champion fighter," says Sonics assistant
coach Dwane Casey. "You're going to have to knock him out,
because he's going to be there in the 15th round."
There are gaps in Kemp's story, like sections of road washed
away in a storm. He is too private to provide details that would
repave those gaps, but occasionally he extends a hand and pulls
you from one stretch of the road to another.
He stood 6'1" at 12 years old; his body grew so fast that one
year in elementary school he had to wear braces on his knees and
ankles. By the time he was in the 10th grade, in '85, residents
of Elkhart were lining up outside the Concord gym two hours
before games. Shawn's dunks and his postdunk antics were
legendary. Some of them were mythical. The tallest tale is told
by a cousin, Kerry Ellison, who swears Shawn once dunked a ball
so hard on a playground hoop that it touched off a miniature
electrical storm in the chain-link net.
Shawn was recruited by everybody, but it was assumed that he
would go to Indiana. Instead, before his senior season he chose
Kentucky. The decision branded him a traitor in his home state.
Spurning the Hoosiers was one thing; choosing rival Kentucky was
"Coming out of high school, people accused him of being a bad
person, being academically unrecruitable," says Casey, who as an
assistant coach at Kentucky recruited Kemp. "The coaches who
couldn't sign him said they didn't want him in their programs."
When his below-par score on the SATs became public knowledge,
the pressure on Shawn increased. What must it be like to be 18
and have an arena full of people insult your intelligence? Those
people in those gyms didn't see him at night, sitting at home
with a textbook in front of him, crying as he struggled to
comprehend. He sometimes felt like a prisoner of his athletic
ability. I never asked for this gift, he would think.
The world is cruel, Kemp says now. He smiles and shrugs. The
people in Indiana treated basketball with reverence. He was
visible. He was good. And to Concord's foes, he was a target.
That's life in the spotlight.
And that was just the beginning. Things would get worse, and
more confusing. He enrolled at Kentucky, even though he was
ineligible to play as a freshman because of his low SAT score,
and the vise tightened further. On Oct. 20, 1988, less than two
months into the school year, police in Lexington reported that
Kemp had tried to sell two gold chains worth $700 to a pawn
shop. The chains had been stolen from Wildcats player Sean
Sutton, the son of Eddie Sutton, who was then Kentucky's coach.
The story made news nationally, even though the Suttons never
The incident seems destined to accompany Kemp to his grave.
"Once a story's printed, people have their minds made up," he
says. "If you read that someone's a thief, that's what you'll
believe. If there'd been a problem with what I did, it would've
been taken care of in a court of law." Kemp left Kentucky within
a few days, explaining later that he knew the Wildcats would be
going on NCAA probation (which they did six months later, for
recruiting violations not involving Kemp). Casey helped Kemp
enroll at Trinity Valley Community College in the dusty town of
Athens, Texas. Because he transferred in the middle of the
school year, Kemp still couldn't play basketball as a freshman.
After only a semester at Trinity, at the age of 19, with no
college basketball experience, Kemp declared himself eligible
for the 1989 NBA draft.
His mother, Barbara, had advised him against it. His high school
coach, Hahn, had promoted it. Kemp says most people considered
his decision the rash act of a guy with nowhere else to go. He
shrugs again. You have to laugh, he says.
But you don't have to forget.
He has never been, to use his word, normal. That was never an
option. When you can play, the publicity machine rolls early and
never lets up. Guys in suits find your gym, your classes, your
house. Dick Vitale knows your name before your voice changes.
Sometimes it's too much. Money and fame and adulation swirl
around Kemp, and a voice inside him tells him to find a place
where he can be normal: no worries, no pressure, nobody
watching. A place to bring the game back to life. So on summer
nights, long past midnight, something strange happens at the
corner of Third and Bell in Seattle's Belltown district. A
luxury car pulls up and parks in front of Regrade Park. A large
man unfurls his body from the car. He has a basketball in his
hands. He's looking for a game.
There's little to recommend Regrade: a portable toilet, a
concrete drinking faucet, a smelly covered bus stop, several
people living out of shopping carts. A sign says the park is
closed from 11:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., but this isn't the kind of
place where people take rules seriously. Regrade has the sad air
of many urban parks, where spirited conversations are often
In the back of the park there's a hoop attached to the side wall
of a small grocery store. There's a light pole close enough to
make a night game barely possible. Kemp goes there three or four
times a week in the off-season when he's in Seattle. At two,
three in the morning, he arrives with his roommate, Duane
Wickey, a former high school teammate. They play 21 or
two-on-two. The other players are likely to be a couple of guys
who drink wine out of paper bags. "The homeless people down
there, they know me," Kemp says. "We play ball, and we sit
around and talk. They tease me about the playoffs. We have fun
with it. They like it when a guy like me comes out and talks to
them. It lets them know I don't think I'm any different from
them. They don't want anything from me. They just want to sit
down and talk, get a handshake. Not even an autograph. I guess
I'm doing them a favor, but they're doing me a favor, too:
keeping me in reality."
Sometimes the streetlamp doesn't work, so the guys shoot and
laugh and razz Kemp in the dark. It's a giddy, hopeful time, the
time Kemp feels most alive. There's only the court--and people
who appreciate his company. What could be better? Third and Bell
isn't a nonfat-latte, grunge-angst district of Seattle. The
angst here is real, the holes in the clothes unintentional.
Kemp's friends tell him to stay out of Belltown, especially at
that time of night. You never know what might happen, they say.
"That's what I don't like: People say, 'Nah, nah, nah, you can't
go down there and shoot with those guys. You might break your
leg or twist your knee,'" Kemp says. "I say, 'Excuse me. I've
guarded Patrick Ewing. What do you think Hakeem's trying to do
to me? Shaq--what do you think he's trying to do to me?'"
To safeguard his privacy, Kemp surrounds himself with people
from the past: Wickey in Seattle, his mother and his sister,
Lisa, in Indiana. He rarely strays from his comfort zone. Hahn
is still a friend and confidant. If you're digging for clues in
the soil of Kemp's experience, you'll find that the attention he
received in Elkhart and Lexington is a big reason for his
guardedness. "I don't trust people," he says. "I try to keep
myself away from people I didn't know before I made it. You
learn quickly in this world: People will tell you how great you
are. I surround myself with people who treat me like a normal
person. There's no difference between me and the next guy. The
only difference is some breaks.
"Certain things happen to you that make it tough for you to open
up, so I try not to. The more people know about you, the more
you're going to get hurt."
The famous want to be normal, and the normal want to be famous.
Kemp is perhaps the most recognized man in Seattle, the Reign
Man (because he's the king of the court in a rainy city), hero
to thousands of kids, yet he often yearns for the end of his
career. Through his large, somber eyes he sees something he
likes: relative anonymity. "When you stop playing in the NBA,
you're just a normal person," he says. "I look forward to that
day. It doesn't take a genius to figure out this business. Once
you're done playing ball, people don't remember who you are.
You're only as good as your last dunk in this league."
He's a highlight guy in a highlight world. His dunks can be
packaged in a kaleidoscopic blur and put to a rap beat. One
after another they come, violent, rim-abusing slams, each one
completed with a scream. Kemp has been given an assigned seat in
the NBA world: He's the man-child, an untamed talent who emerged
from the primordial ooze with a basketball in his hands and a
snarl across his face.
He dunks. He yells. He loses in the playoffs. It's all so pat,
so easy on the mind. "Someone said to me, 'When I see Shawn
Kemp, all I see is dunks. What else you got in your game?'" Kemp
says. "I just sat back and laughed, because laughing was all I
could do. I wasn't going to argue, but this year my game's more
well-rounded. I hope people see that."
He knows the game. He knows that dunks sell tickets and shoes.
He also knows he won't be fully accepted in the pantheon of NBA
stars until people acknowledge the variety in his game. But
what's the sense in fighting perceptions? Like the thief, the
fancy dunker is always that and only that. "This year I set out
to stick to playing basketball and not scream and growl so
much," Kemp says. "I wanted to let people see the other phases
of my game. That's important to me." So, instead of trying to
blast through a double team to the basket, Kemp has been kicking
the ball out to guards Gary Payton and Hersey Hawkins. Instead
of deferring to the older players, Perkins and Detlef Schrempf,
he's been pulling his teammates together on the floor for quick,
all-business talks. Instead of caving in to his frustration and
picking up pointless fouls, he's been playing smart. And he's
been rebounding with Rodmanesque tenacity. "The last two years
he wasn't going for rebounds the same way," says Payton. "He'd
go over someone's back, get stupid fouls and end up sitting out.
He's smarter now, and he's not as concerned with his numbers.
That used to be all he worried about. That's why his numbers are
up, because he's not worrying about them."
There is still the same stark immediacy to Kemp's play. His game
doesn't possess the soaring elegance of Michael Jordan's or
Grant Hill's. He comes at you in a violent rush. At times his
energy seems desperate. His arm rises high above the rim, and
the ball crashes through the hoop before your mind can fully
grasp the move. "When I scout college players, I find myself
writing down, 'Not explosive,'" says Seattle general manager
Wally Walker. "Then I realize, I'm used to watching Shawn. No
one is explosive compared to Shawn."
The 34-12 Sonics are, as usual, winning plenty of regular-season
games. They averaged 58 wins the last three seasons, and their
total of 175 over that stretch was second in the NBA to the
Phoenix Suns' 177. But aside from a trip to the Western
Conference finals in 1993, the playoffs have been disastrous for
First-round loss to the Denver Nuggets in 1994. First-round loss
to the Los Angeles Lakers last year. The Sonics can't impress
anybody with their regular-season record anymore. They have
acquired a reputation as a team that can't hold together when it
matters most. In past seasons the Sonics' volatile mix of an
emotional coach, George Karl, and an immature team put them on
the edge of anarchy even in the most tranquil of times. Under
the stress of the playoffs the last two years, Seattle slipped
off the edge.
To no one's surprise the Sonics say this season is different.
Payton says there's no more bickering, no more confusion.
Hawkins, acquired in the off-season in exchange for the
enigmatic Kendall Gill, has been a calming influence. "This is
the first team I've been on here where everybody knows his
role," Payton says. Karl, in the final year of his contract, has
challenged his young All-Stars--Payton and, particularly, Kemp--to
change Seattle's image and its fortunes: "I told Gary and Shawn,
'The responsibility for our success falls on your shoulders.
You've been our stars. It's time to quit camouflaging who we are
and what we are. It's time to stop saying, "Hey, we're a young
team." If we fail, let's make sure we take responsibility for
it, instead of passing the buck.' I've been on Shawn's back a
lot this year, and I think he's wanted this. Everything runs
through him now. I think he's wanted more responsibility."
Kemp and Payton are sick of talking about the playoffs. Wherever
they go, that's all they hear. Last summer Kemp was in Florida
when a man stopped him on the street and challenged him to a
fight. "He said he lost money betting on the Sonics to beat
Denver two years ago," Kemp says. "I looked at this guy, and I
thought, Man, this is getting pretty serious. We're going to
have to win some playoff games."
But still the quest for an NBA title has not become an obsession
for Kemp and Payton. "People want us to be more serious," Payton
says, "but we're serious all the time on the court. I don't know
how much more serious you can be. To be as serious as everyone
wants us to be, I guess we're going to have to change and become
saints or priests."
Almost two hours before a game, Kemp is on the court with Sonics
assistant coach Terry Stotts, shooting jumpers. The ball's
trajectory is flat but true. There is no conversation, no change
in Kemp's expression. Stotts jumps out at him, and Kemp shoots.
The ball goes up, the ball comes back. The action is metronomic.
Malone did this. Charles Barkley did this. They did it because
it was a prerequisite for greatness. Dunking is not enough.
"Being with Shawn and seeing how he approaches every game, how
intense and dedicated he is, makes me realize players like him
don't come along often," says Hawkins. "This is my first year
here, and the image I had of him before was probably the same as
everyone else's: a wild man. But I've learned you can't judge
what kind of person a guy is by how he plays on the floor."
Kemp often thinks about the odds he has overcome. They were
formidable, even for a man of his remarkable talent. "Coming out
without college, it would have been easy for me not to make it,"
he says. Moses Malone made it right out of high school, but he
started out in the less taxing ABA. Darryl Dawkins made it, sort
of, but never really lived up to expectations.
Now child prodigies are everywhere. Minnesota Timberwolves
rookie Kevin Garnett, who entered the NBA straight from high
school, is just the youngest and most visible manifestation of a
growing trend. For the best players, college has become just a
two-year (or even briefer) apprenticeship.
"When I made my decision, I understood basketball," Kemp says.
"I hope those guys know it's not just about fun and not just
about money, because at their age you're not a good player yet.
You're not going to be very good for a very long time. I
understood that. A lot of these guys are making a lot of money.
I think when you have all that money, it's harder to work on
"I listened, and I was patient. Those are the two hardest things
in the world to do when you're 19 and you know you can play.
It's hard, because you look out on the floor and it doesn't
always seem like the guy who's out there playing instead of you
is better than you."
That applies even to the Dream Team. There are two open spots on
the '96 U.S. Olympic squad. One is believed to be the property
of Sacramento Kings guard Mitch Richmond. Kemp is considered a
strong possibility for the 12th and final spot. The U.S. coach,
Lenny Wilkens, will say only this: "There is a huge list of
names, and Kemp's right up there. I know he comes to work every
night. He wants to be better, and that's obvious."
The problem, once again, has been perception. Kemp was a member
of the U.S. team that took the gold medal at the 1994 world
championships in Toronto. While the team won, its behavior on
the court did little to enhance international relations. Kemp
was lumped together with Derrick Coleman and Larry Johnson, who
repeatedly taunted opponents and yelled profanities. Kemp
considers the association unfair, but he contributed to it by
grabbing his crotch during postdunk celebrations. "I don't know
if regret is the word, but there are things I wouldn't do a
second time if I could," he says of that vulgar gesturing, which
he has since eliminated from his repertoire.
"I think the Olympics are important to Shawn, although he
wouldn't show it," says Walker, the Sonics' general manager.
"The way he's playing, he knows he deserves to be one of those
Kemp is sitting in the visitors' locker room at the Orlando
Arena after a lopsided loss to the Magic. The other Seattle
players are gone. The room is silent except for Kemp's voice. It
is so deep that it seems to rumble up from somewhere near the
earth's core. "I don't want people to think I'm a bad person,"
he says, "but I've come to know the truth: People are going to
think what they want. I don't know if I can change their minds."
He gets quieter; his voice deepens. This is not someone you
would call a man-child. He is not the person you see on the
court. He has built a wall around himself, but it is clear he
would like to change all those minds, convert all those people
who wonder whether he has the character to represent his country
or lead his team to a title. He is always climbing those stairs.
"I think some people believe the only reason I'm playing so well
is that I want to make the Olympic team, and that's
frustrating," Kemp says. "It's not true. If they ask me to join
the team, I don't even know if I'll say yes."
The reason might surprise you: Kemp says he plans to go to
college this summer. Of course, he has been saying this for
years and has yet to enroll. "It's really important to me," he
says of his education. "The guys I hung out with in high school,
we were going to college. That's all we talked about:
fraternities, going to class, having fun. I promised my mom I'd
go to college, and you never want to let your mom down."
He lets the words hang there, judging their effect. He does not
smile. He is not joking. He makes millions of dollars playing a
game, and yet he says he wants to sit in an auditorium and take
notes. He knows how crazy it sounds, but if he has to live life
a little bit backward to reclaim a piece of himself, so what?
Let the people back in those Indiana gyms chew on that for a
He yells. He dunks. He loses in the playoffs. It's all so pat.
He comes at you in a violent rush. At times his energy seems
Bulking up to bang with landmasses like Shaq limited his game.
He has been given an assigned seat in the NBA world: He's the
man-child, an untamed talent.