Come on, man," Shawn Kemp says in an impossibly deep and rumbling voice, followed by a rich laugh that originates somewhere deep in his belly. "This doesn't even count as rain."
This is an article from the July 9, 2012 issue
No? Those drops falling from Seattle's bruise-colored sky this spring morning? That's not rain?
"It's nothing," he says. "Let's go."
And with that, Kemp bounds up from his seat at Oskar's Kitchen, the restaurant he owns in the Lower Queen Anne section of Seattle, unfolding a 6'10" physique that's appreciably slimmer than last recalled. Bereft of an umbrella, wearing baggy jeans, a black hoodie and a Nike cap, he ambles out the front doors and begins a walking tour of the neighborhood.
Outside of Dick's Drive-In, a local hamburger institution since the 1950s, an older couple spot Kemp and wave warmly. "Known them forever," he says. At the Seattle Center, at the foot of the Space Needle, a pair of women exchange Hey, isn't that ... looks. Kemp confirms their suspicions, smiling and tipping his cap. At KeyArena—the basketball venue where Kemp worked diligently for most of the '90s, now occupied only by the WNBA's Storm—security guards and dock loaders shout his name. With comparable enthusiasm he shouts theirs back. Walking on Valley Street, a slacker dude straight out of Seattle central casting—soul patch and wool hat, armed with a coffee cup—looks up, sees Kemp and deadpans, "What's up, Reign Man?" The two slap five without breaking stride.
Kemp is less a celebrity or a glad-handing politician here than he is a fixture, a taller-than-average neighborhood regular. He is recognized, but not once is he besieged for an autograph. And this absence of interruption enables Kemp, the restaurateur, to riff on everything from the importance of positive Yelp reviews ("Social media in general can make or break you as a small business!") to the virtues of fried Brussels sprouts ("Don't knock 'em till you've tried 'em").
The only mention of past athletic glory comes when he walks past Memorial Field, site of his flag football games. Kemp plays quarterback for teams in two local leagues and fancies himself the Tom Brady of Seattle's recreational sports crowd.
"Check this out," he says, fanning his palm to display a crooked right index finger. "I fractured it when it got caught on someone's hook. And I can still throw the ball close to 100 yards. I throw long, and I can throw it through your chest. I'm the best July quarterback you've ever seen."
The walk ends back at Oskar's Kitchen, a cross between hipster lounge and hospitable neighborhood joint, wedged between a head shop and, inevitably, a coffee shop. Kemp doesn't just own the place; he stops in on most days, sometimes playing deejay, sometimes tending bar. Not that you'd know it otherwise. D/b/a Reign Man, Kemp may have been a six-time NBA All-Star who played a few blocks away, but his name is nowhere to be seen. (Oskar, the restaurant's eponym, is a yellow tang who swims in a tropical aquarium behind the bar.) The walls feature no jerseys or memorabilia, covered instead with mermaids and 1950s pin-ups.
The only indication that Kemp is the proprietor: Oskar's signature drink, the Reignman, is a mix of 151-proof rum, melon liqueur, pineapple juice and orange juice that somehow comes out a green-yellow that combines the colors of the former Seattle Sonics' jerseys.
Kemp, now 42, points out what you've likely been thinking: Oskar's is a pretty good representation of his life post-basketball. It's casual and understated. It's weaved seamlessly into the community. It's eclectic and different from what you probably expected.
"Let's be honest, I've gone through some things that made me want to stand up a little taller, stand for something bigger, show a different side," he says. Surveying Oskar's, the city's best lounge, according to Seattle Weekly, he smiles. "When you make changes in your life, it can be a wonderful thing, you know?"
During his prime as a basketball player Kemp possessed a level of athleticism that verged on the absurd. Yet whatever his vertical leap may have been, whatever the trajectory of his ferocious dunks, those dimensions have nothing on the arcs of his narrative. Without having ever played D-I ball Kemp was drafted straight out of Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College by Seattle in 1989, his selection drawing boos from local fans. He was a 19-year-old kid from Elkhart, Ind., his game and his persona lacking polish in equal measure, his name already tarnished. Still, he could run the floor and jump supernaturally, and he played for a coach, Bernie Bickerstaff, unafraid to put him on the floor. "Because Shawn didn't [play in] college, a lot of people didn't know about him," Nate McMillan, a guard-forward on that team, once recalled. "Then he did things in games, and you'd say, How can this kid not be a star?"
Kemp's fearlessness was limited to the court. "I was so afraid of failing," he says. "Remember, this was before so many players went right from high school to the NBA, and it was like, If I don't make it, I don't have a degree to fall back on." As a rookie earning $350,000, he had vague designs of owning a restaurant one day. So, to get a better sense of the business, before and after games he would occasionally work in the kitchen of a local diner. When a friend once mentioned investment opportunities in the construction business, Kemp was intrigued. So he talked to developers and learned to lay sheetrock. "Even as a rookie I knew that basketball was only going to be a stage, a platform, and I had to have a bigger vision," he says. "Luckily, it was like the whole city of Seattle was mentoring me."
Not that he didn't work hard at his basketball, too. Tim Grgurich, a former Seattle assistant, tells of Kemp's pulling all-nighters in the Sonics' training facility, practicing his jumper, rehearsing and refining low-post moves. Soon Kemp's gifts began coalescing with hard-earned skills. Play him to drive, and he would stick a 15-footer. Guard him too close, and he would maneuver to the basket. He blocked shots (he's No. 49 all time), rebounded (No. 55), ran the floor (No. 35 in assists among forwards and centers) and had the quickness to defend small forwards as well as the bulk to body-up to low-post centers. "I have not seen a player rival Shawn Kemp since Shawn Kemp," says Kevin Calabro, the former Sonics radio and TV announcer. "He just did so much so well."
Kemp's specialty, though, was dunking. The apocryphal story: Playing in an outdoor pickup game back in Indiana, Kemp once dunked so ferociously that sparks flew off the chain-link net. While he won't confirm that one, he played as though unencumbered by gravity, both on the fast break and in the half-court set, his easy grace broken up a few times each game by spasms of violent jams. Think those Blake Griffin throwdowns have no precedent? Fire up YouTube, watch some of Kemp's handiwork and compare for yourself. Start with his posterization during the 1992 playoffs of Warriors center Alton Lister, one of the signature NBA plays of that era.
The Reign Man's reign coincided with a gilded era for Seattle, too. Beflannelled grunge bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden made the city the national epicenter of hip. One local company, Starbucks, was starting to colonize America; another, Microsoft, was the early-1990s equivalent of Google. Seattle home values were soaring in lockstep with the city's Quality of Life index. And it all seemed to coalesce at Sonics games. The newly minted tech millionaires and the newly minted rock stars communed together in an endearingly quirky arena to watch an endearingly quirky team in the country's upper-left corner. "Those," says George Karl, the Sonics' coach from '92 to '98, "were some real good times."
In '96, Kemp drained a series of crucial Game 7 free throws against the Jazz—poise, still another dimension of his game—to advance Seattle to the NBA Finals. While the Sonics lost to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in six games, many argued that Kemp, who averaged 23.3 points and 10 rebounds, was the best player on the floor during the series. "Shawn," says Karl, "was at the peak of his powers."
And then, suddenly, he wasn't. Kemp, having signed a seven-year, $24 million contract with Seattle, became embittered when lesser teammates—most notably the team's ponderous center, Jim McIlvaine, who inked a seven-year, $35 million deal—made more money. Kemp sulked for most of the next season, after which he was traded to Cleveland. He scored prodigiously for awful Cavaliers teams, but he'd put on weight and lost his explosiveness. It was around that time that this magazine reported that Kemp, then unmarried, had fathered at least seven children by multiple women. He next headed to Portland, where he became part of that collective menace nicknamed the Jail Blazers. He finished his first season in drug rehab, having checked himself in for cocaine abuse. He was cut loose after year two.
Coupled with his soaring weight and plummeting play, he became a national punch line, a baby machine, the poster boy for squandered potential in the face of wanton living. It remains, understandably, something other than a preferred conversation topic for Kemp. Knitting his fingers, starting and restarting his sentences, he finally settles on this: "It was some tough times, some bad decisions, but you learn about yourself in tough situations."
Kemp was only 33 and wearing an Orlando Magic jersey when he played his final, forgettable, NBA season. A series of comeback attempts never took hold. In 2005 he was arrested outside Seattle when police found small amounts of marijuana and cocaine in his car. A friend took responsibility for the drugs, but Kemp pleaded guilty to attempted possession of marijuana.
That arrest changed everything, he says. "It was just so far from where I wanted to be. It was only for a minute, but I was in jail, man," he says, shaking his head with disgust at himself. "[You're] done playing and you feel a little lost. You tell yourself, You can relax, you've made good money, you can enjoy. Well, that's not the case. I found out you really have to push yourself that much more. I had to say to myself, Where are you going: up or down?"
Kemp's personal troubleshooting entailed getting into physical shape, losing the rolls of fat that, he admits, embarrassed him deeply. It also meant getting back to Seattle. He had always kept a home in the area but—in part because of his messy divorce from the Sonics—had bounced between Orlando and Houston. After returning full time to the Pacific Northwest, he "got out and got to know my city," as he puts it.
Sometimes it felt natural. Other times he had to force himself out of his comfort zone. It meant learning to play tennis, taking up snowboarding and buying a motorcycle to ride through the Cascades. It meant buying tickets to see the Seahawks, the Storm and various concerts, forgoing the VIP passes and sitting in the crowd. It meant popping into the art galleries he'd never visited while he was playing, taking up flag football with construction workers and cops, playing co-ed softball in the Seattle Parks and Rec league. It meant sponsoring all sorts of charity events and running to keep off the weight. In May he read from The Taming of the Shrew, as part of a fund-raiser for the Seattle Shakespeare Company.
Today Shawn Kemp lives on a sprawling property in the suburb of Maple Valley with Marvena, his wife of 12 years, and their three sons, Jamir, Jamar and Jamon. One son from another relationship, Shawn Kemp Jr., 21, is a sophomore at Washington and a backup forward on the basketball team. Shawn Sr. has been tutoring Shawn Jr. this summer, encouraging the kid to use his bulk, to extend the range on his shot. Kemp describes himself as a strict dad, but he's cautious about not being overbearing. The Huskies' coaches say that the next time the former Reign Man interferes or complains about his son's minutes will be the first.
Kemp declines to discuss his children other than to say, "You'll never hear about me not taking care of my kids." He mentions in passing that most share his height, that one teenage daughter has serious game, that he's closer to some than to others.
As for his past substance abuse, he talks abstractly, using the vocabulary of recovery as he alludes to "staying on the right path," and the "challenge" and "battle" each day presents.
Kemp's voice almost catches, though, when he talks about the reception he's received locally. "Honestly," he says, "so much had happened, I didn't know how people would react to me." What he found out: Seattleites liked Shawn Kemp the superstar. They may be even more fond of Shawn Kemp the civilian.
"It's like you can get lost here, but you can't get lost," he says. "It's big enough that people respect your privacy but small enough that you get to know a lot of people. Really, it's been fabulous." Stroll around Pike Place Market and you'll notice that even among kids, more sports fans are wearing throwback number 40 Sonics jerseys than those of any current Mariner or Seahawk. Says Geo Quibuyen, half of the popular Seattle hip-hop duo Blue Scholars, speaking for all of the Emerald City, "We love Shawn Kemp. Love this city and we'll love you back."
It is suggested that Kemp's popularity might stem from the fact that Seattle watched him grow up, experienced much of the drama surrounding him and now feels truly invested in the outcome of his story. Maybe, he shrugs. But he also thinks that after the Sonics effectively died when the franchise moved to Oklahoma City in 2008 to become the Thunder, the team has been romanticized, its players turned into cult figures. "The Sonics did so much in the community and had so much history," says Kemp. "Hopefully Seattle will get another team. I think it's one of those you-don't-know-what-you-got-till-it's-gone deals."
Last July the Mariners held a Sonics Night honoring "all the men who wore the green and gold." A string of 16 former Sonics stars—Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf, Jack Sikma and Slick Watts among them—walked onto Safeco Field before a game. The crowd went absolutely nuts, never more so than when Kemp was introduced.
Afterward most of the group of players and coaches repaired to Oskar's, where Kemp played host, and told jokes and stories. They reminisced and caught up late into the night. Talking quietly among themselves, a few of the old Sonics shared their pleasant surprise at seeing Kemp looking good and doing well. Plenty of athletes have made messes of their lives after they were done playing. Here, it seemed, was a shining counterexample.
Some of the gang sidled up to Kemp to offer business advice. Even with the Sonics no longer in the neighborhood, did he ever consider turning Oskar's into a sports bar? Or at least trading on his status and attaching his name to it?
No way. "I don't need the whole sports and celebrity thing," he says. "I just want somewhere people can go and feel comfortable and be in a good place. That's important, you know?"