Man-Child — Seattle’s Shawn Kemp Is Anything But A Little Kid On The Basketball Court

By Glenn Nelson
The Seattle Times

He has an old face, etched with generations of hardship. His eyes, ever widened beneath an often-furrowed brow, sometimes appear as pools of melancholy, gazing backward as much as forward.

Then there is the body that unfolds 6 feet, 10 inches, the balance between ambition and temperance in his outlook, and the ripened repertoire of basketball skills. The basso-profundo voice completes the illusion.

Yet the maturity of his appearance, his personality and his game is incongruous with reality. Shawn Kemp could easily be mistaken for, say, 31.

But that would be 10 years off.

In public, Kemp appears most at ease on a basketball court, either plying his trade among men or taking an educational or promotional respite among children. The SuperSonics find Kemp the most willing of their players to volunteer for either. Truth be known, he fits comfortably with both, the men and the children.

Speaking of Kemp’s tumultuous few months at the University of Kentucky, Warren Robertson says of his close friend, “He struggled. It took a toll on him. He’s still a kid. You have to remember that.”

Yet it is so easy to forget.

Basketball-crazy Indiana is where both Kemp and the distorted perceptions of him began. There, the only thing taken more seriously than winning is losing. That’s the only explanation for the surly mood the Hoosier state was in the year it lost Shawn Kemp.

The upstart from Elkhart said no-thanks to beloved Indiana, not-a-chance to Purdue and even Notre Dame, which is only 30 minutes from home. Even more galling, he crossed the state line into Kentucky, Indiana’s main rival for hoops supremacy.

The reaction was like that of a smitten lover unexpectedly sent a Dear-John letter. When Kemp failed his first try at a college-entrance exam, it became such big news that opposing rooting sections would try to rattle him by chanting, “S-A-T, S-A-T, S-A-T.”

Concord High School fans would respond, “N-B-A, N-B-A, N-B-A.”

In a twisted sort of way, they all chased Kemp away.

Four years ago, he sank rival Elkhart Central with a last-second shot in a sectional game of the Indiana state basketball tournament. As Concord celebrated the victory, its star was showered with banana peels by opposing fans. Kemp took a step toward his antagonists, but stopped himself.

By then, Kemp had become accustomed to dismissing such treatment. When he started his Concord career, he was one of only two black players in a predominately white school whose opponents were of the same ilk. Kemp also stood out because, breaking out of the Midwestern mold of predictable, often-mechanical fundamental soundness, his game was both urbane and inner-urban.

The applause often did not drown out the racial slurs. Some clippings from his high-school career contain references to a player marked by “flashiness, cockiness, arrogance.” Some dispute the characterizations, conceding only that Kemp sometimes showboated to combat boredom.

When it came time to bestow the honor Kemp cherished most, excuses were concocted to give the state’s prestigious Mr. Basketball award to Richmond High’s Woody Austin, now at Purdue. There had been references to Kemp’s scoring plunge (from 27 to 22 points) during his senior season. Yet Concord’s talent had grown to a point where it no longer required as much offense from a single player.

Others raise a more palatable explanation – simply that Kemp had dared to defy convention. His style of play was one way. His preseason commitment to Kentucky was another.

“Shawn hid some things in his life that many people wouldn’t be able to deal with,” says Kerry Ellison, Kemp’s cousin. “He faced a lot of things in high school that made him tough. He had to grow up quick.”

Which helps to explain this Kid Kemp phenomenon.

Sometime between the ninth and 11th grades, Kemp grew 13 inches. And sometime between his junior year at Concord in Elkhart, Ind., and his first year in the NBA, he aged 10 years. That’s the only way to figure how he arrived so clearly ahead of his time.

At 21, Kemp is the youngest player in the NBA, and a starting power forward and emerging impact player for the Sonics. Already established among the game’s premier in-traffic jammers, he was the second-best solo act during the NBA’s 1991 Slam-Dunk Championship. When college basketball’s highly regarded class of 1992, including the likes of Alonzo Mourning, Billy Owens and Don MacLean, finally catches up with Kemp in the pros, he already will be a fourth-year NBA veteran.

Kemp’s life began to fast-forward at an early age. His parents divorced when he was in kindergarten, and he lived with his mother, Barbara, and sister, Lisa, in Elkhart. After growing into, and out of, an episodic career at Concord, Kemp plunged right into a maelstrom at Kentucky.

Because he didn’t meet the NCAA’s minimum Scholastic Aptitude Test requirement, Kemp would sit out a season under Proposition 48. By then, Kentucky expected its troubles with the NCAA to have ended.

Instead, they escalated.

The signal event occurred when $1,000 in cash spilled out of an Emery Air overnight envelope addressed to the father of Kentucky recruit Chris Mills. The basketball program now is serving the last season of NCAA sanctions; Don Casey, the Kentucky assistant, was placed on a five-year probation after the NCAA concluded he had sent the bills-laden package; Coach Eddie Sutton resigned; his son, Sean, was charged with lying to NCAA investigators, and Eric Manuel was banned for life by the NCAA after found guilty of cheating on a college-entrance exam.

Those were the main figures directly ensnared in the scandal. At least they went through some sort of judicial process. Kemp, however, was sucked into the affair, and his was a trial by innuendo.

Barbara Kemp’s vigilance over her only son’s future led to the first development. Casey also sent her a package, by Emery Air, but it contained nothing more than recruiting material. Shortly after, she visited the Kentucky campus, a visit that she proved to the NCAA was paid for with cash – her own.

Then came Rick Calloway’s assertion that Kemp “was looking for a handout” during a recruiting visit to Indiana.

“Kemp didn’t really say anything specifically about money or a car,” Calloway, who was about to transfer from Indiana, told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “He just wanted stuff. He kept saying: `You all don’t get nothing? I know you’re lying.’ ”

At the time, Kemp, who now refuses to address any of the Kentucky incidents, denied even talking to Calloway during his Indiana visit. Friends say Kemp never seriously considered attending Indiana, that he visited IU only to temper demands that he remain in-state and to keep himself in the running for the Mr. Basketball award.

The best-known of the Kemp-related incidents was the question of two gold chains stolen from Sean Sutton. Lexington police records showed Kemp sold two chains, worth $700, to a local pawn shop. The Suttons refused to press charges, explaining the chains could not be positively identified as those stolen from the younger Sutton’s dorm room.

According to his mother, and others familiar with the situation, Kemp sold the chains on another player’s behalf. Her son has not named the other player.

“At the time, I couldn’t see why Shawn decided to take the blame,” she says. “Now I can support what he’s done, because he was leaving Kentucky anyway. What good would have done to name other people? He was young, and kind of drawn into the situation. He was asked to do something, which he did, and the other person never stepped forward.”

Kemp only says that “possibly I was” taking the rap for someone else, adding, “Sometimes, it’s just better to let it go. I don’t think people really care about that incident anyway. If they do, that’s their problem.”

The lesson Kemp learned from his experiences at Concord and Kentucky was to trust people less. He is especially leery about his dealings with the media. For public consumption, his personality bears a serious streak discordant with the usual levity of youth.

It’s likely Kemp feels so comfortable playing among men, so at ease in a tough and solemn world, because he never was allowed to be a child. That fact became an issue during the months Kemp and his mother discussed the option of his turning pro.

“I thought he should stay in school, stick it out,” she says. “I wanted him to grow up with other people his age. I wanted him to enjoy life for a change, to be a kid, for once. He’s gone from being a kid one day to a grown man, with new responsibilities and problems, the next.’’

“He dunked the ball so hard, sparks flew off the metal-chain net on the basket. I realize things tend to get exaggerated over time, but you had to be there. And if you weren’t there, you don’t want to hear about it because you don’t want to know what you missed.”

– Kerry Ellison, on the best dunk he’d ever seen his cousin, Shawn Kemp, execute.

To a certain extent, Shawn Kemp shares the fate of Darryl Dawkins.

His predecessor on the road from high school to the pros was best known for dunking a basketball so hard that the backboard shattered. It wasn’t a single dunk, however, but the art of dunking that Kemp used to carve out his identity. Though he seeks to dissociate himself from the act’s claim on his soul, any discussion of his talents must begin with the dunk.

Dunking was how Kemp first rose above his elders. It was an important breakthrough. Kerry Ellison would take his cousin’s hands after games to survey the bruises and cuts and scars on his wrists.

“You’ve got to stop dunking the ball so hard,” Ellison would say.

But Kemp would always reply, “When I dunk, I just want to tear the rim down.”

Ellison was at Elkhart’s Neighborhood Basketball Court the day Kemp did something almost as spectacular. So were Jamal Jackson and Warren Robertson. And many others probably claim to be, just to reserve their place in the legend.

A lob from the corner arched over the backboard. Kemp, trailing on a fast break, went airborne, corralled the ball with his left hand, spun 180 degrees and flushed down a reverse jam. The links of the chain-metal net clashed, producing a shower of sparks.

“He’s done some stuff,” Jackson says. “Unbelievable stuff. He could do anything.”

Not always.

Kemp spent some of his childhood trying to surpass his sister, Lisa, on a basketball court. She was a talented high school player whose prospects for a college career were curtailed by a pair of flat feet. Barbara Kemp didn’t encourage her children’s inclination toward sports and swears their basketball talent didn’t emerge from her portion of the gene pool.

Lisa Kemp may have helped push her brother in basketball, but it was Kerry Ellison who dragged him into the sport. They played almost daily with the lopsided, red-white-and-blue basketball that seemed like a treasure when they found it discarded one day on the street. Those journeys to the local basketball court began as ego trips for Ellison, who is five years older but 14 inches shorter than Kemp.

“I used to beat Shawn every day because I was too small to beat anybody else,” says Ellison, who’s 5-8. “That’s the way I felt good.”

When he acquired the coordination to match his constant growth spurts, Kemp developed into a fine all-around athlete. As a pitcher, he could steam a baseball but never harnessed his control. Challenged last summer by Ellison to see how far he could throw one, Kemp heaved a football 70 yards.

By the time Ellison returned from a hitch with the U.S. Marine Corps, his mentoring role had been redefined. Instead of administering lessons on a basketball court, he began administering advice off it. Ellison attended every one of Kemp’s games during his last two seasons at Concord. During each, Kemp would seek out Ellison in the massive crowds to deliver a special hand signal the two had developed.

“When he was out there playing, it was like I was out there playing,” Ellison says.

Soon, the vicarious thrills expanded. In addition to dunking a basketball, Kemp learned to dribble it, pass it and shoot it from the perimeter. Then he began to add special flourishes to each skill.

“Shawn was never really challenged in the big-man game in high school,” says Jackson, a former Concord teammate. “He got bored, and started trying other things. It made him a better player.”

When Kemp’s career at Concord was finished, his coach, Jim Hahn knew Kemp was going to the NBA.

“People go to college to get a degree and to use that degree to enter a profession,” Hahn says. “Shawn’s profession was going to be basketball. What did he need to get a college degree for?”

“I’m surprised at the question. I think the reasons are rather obvious. Basketball was going to be his profession anyway, he was ready and able, and the alternatives weren’t that good.’’

– Agent Arn Tellem, asked why his former client, Shawn Kemp, decided to make the jump from high school to the NBA.

Many had made the same determination before Shawn Kemp did – that they were ready and able, and that the alternatives weren’t that good. Since the NBA allowed underclassmen to declare “hardship” in 1971, then merely “early entry” in 1976, 161 players preceded Kemp in entering the draft without having exhausted their collegiate eligibility.

Quite a few were in for a shock: The NBA didn’t share their assessment.

Of the 161 who declared early for the draft, 72 percent were drafted, 62 percent made NBA rosters, but only 34 percent stayed around long enough to enjoy productive careers. Forty-one of them entered the draft after two or fewer years of college. Eight – Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Manute Bol, Rex Chapman, Darryl Dawkins, Cliff Robinson, John Williams and Bill Willoughby – “made it,” but even more, 11, were not even drafted.

Then consider that there are over 3,500 who play college basketball. Every year. In NCAA Division I alone.

“The odds against a Shawn Kemp are astronomical,” says Marty Blake, the NBA superscout. “Most guys out of college can’t play at the pro level; most can’t even play on the college level anymore.”

The NBA had additional reasons to be skeptical about Kemp.

“All we could get on him was a scratchy, incomplete film of him in high school,” Orlando’s Pat Williams says. “That’s all there was.”

Not exactly. There also were the rumors relating to Kemp’s experiences at Kentucky. By draft time, they grew to epic proportions.

“You had a lot of guys telling you things, perpetuating the rumors,” says Bernie Bickerstaff, the Sonic coach at the time. “They were saying all kinds of things because they didn’t want you to take him. They wanted Shawn for themselves.”

Arn Tellem, his agent at the time, carefully orchestrated the process of individual workouts and interviews conducted by interested teams.

“Their main concern wasn’t about Shawn’s ability to play in the NBA,” Tellem says, “but how to keep him hidden from the other teams.”

Kemp, meanwhile, was becoming more comfortable with his decision.

A part of him still laments having missed the college experience. If the so-called “Mills ‘n Bills” scandal had never happened at Kentucky, Kemp says he’d still be playing there.

If not for the scandal, last season he might have been playing with Chris Mills, now at Arizona; Eric Manuel, now at Oklahoma City, an NAIA school; LeRon Ellis, now a starting center at highly ranked Syracuse, and Rex Chapman, now a starting guard with Charlotte in the NBA. Add in Reggie Hanson and Sean Woods, now Kentucky’s best two players, and the Wildcats could have fielded one of the most formidable clubs to grace the college ranks.

“There would have been so much talent, it would’ve been ridiculous,” Kemp says. “If we had stayed together, we could’ve won the national championship, for sure. A couple times.”

Kemp missed playing basketball on an organized level, but considers the time he spent at Kentucky, then Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, a liberating experience. Basketball had always carried additional burdens. Since the sixth grade, he coped with all the attention, pressure, summer camps and travel, leaving little time to simply ponder life.

So convinced of the value of spending a year away from the game, Kemp counseled Jamal Jackson, his former Concord teammate, to spend his Prop 48 year at the University of Nebraska, instead of transferring to a junior college. Jackson is attending Nebraska this year with Kemp’s financial help.

“I saw Shawn mature over that year,” Hahn says. “He knew his back was against the wall. The kind of person he is, when his back’s against the wall, he’s not going to stay there. He’s going to come out fighting.”

Indeed, Kemp has done little to make the Sonics regret their gyrations to get him in the 1989 NBA draft. He played in 81 games his rookie season, and Bickerstaff says Kemp is “the only player I’ve been around who made it through a whole season without hitting the rookie wall.”

When Kemp talks to his friends about his NBA experiences, the discussions usually revolve around the league’s incredible talent level. He’s told Jackson that “NBA players are 10 times better than what you see on TV.” Yet he’s remained unflappable among them.

On Jan. 2, Charles Barkley, the reigning power among NBA forwards, had a ballboy remind Kemp that he’d never blocked one of his shots. Barkley then supplemented the verbal message with physical ones during the game. Kemp mostly ignored Barkley’s taunts, retaliating only once by dunking on the Philadelphia star. The Sonic also blocked one of Barkley’s shots, scored 20 points, snared 10 rebounds and afterward shrugged away the whole experience.

“I tried,” said Barkley, whose team suffered a 28-point defeat that night. “He’s a great talent. It’s scary.”

Elkhart seems to agree. Its local newspaper, the Truth, runs a daily “Kemp Watch.” The past two years, 500 have taken a bus from Elkhart to Indianapolis for Kemp’s annual game against the Pacers. Every summer, Warren Robertson plays for the Shawn Kemp softball team, named for the local hero.

His youth, success in two straight NBA Slam-Dunk Championships and flair for the dramatic also have transformed Kemp into a national figure. He draws the most reaction of any Sonic when the club is on the road. At the Sonic offices, he receives two large crates of mail every week.

At the All-Star break, he talked at length with his mother about all the things he still needed to learn, all the mistakes he had made and his determination to spend the coming offseason working on his game. Except for the new house Kemp bought for his mother just outside Elkhart, their life hasn’t changed much.

“I still work full-time,” she says. “We’re just hanging in there. We enjoy life like it is. We’re just kind of plain, I guess.”

In spite of the contrary evidence, Kemp lacks a sense of being, or doing, anything special. To him, this is just a new station in life, with new responsibilities. He takes most seriously the way he is perceived by children, a constituency from which he is not much distanced.

“He always has the kids in the palm of his hand,” says Jim Marsh, who administers the Sonics’ community programs. “He’s really electric. They levitate 10 feet off the ground just when he walks into a gymnasium.”

Finding inspiration from his own life, Kemp embraces it tightly, works hard to maintain control. One small misstep along the way could have wrought devastation. That realization still haunts him. Losing his innocence so early in life made Kemp determined to hang onto everything else.

“In the NBA, you always have to make the right decisions,” he says. “You should feel free to live a normal life, but you really can’t. I still can’t go out on the street without being recognized. So you always have to be careful. Someone can say something about you, and it can all be gone.”



Sometimes it is nothing more than a tripwire to history. An accident just waiting for someone to make it happen.

That seems to be the case with the man who blazed the path from high school to professional basketball that’s since been traversed by Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, Bill Willoughby and, now, Seattle’s Shawn Kemp.

Joe Graboski is not impressed with the accomplishment.

Never was, in fact.

Graboski’s lack of a collegiate affiliation was more of a personal embarrassment. While leafing through game programs, he’d note their rosters listed college alma maters next to each player’s name. Next to his, it would always say, “None.”

“I started telling people it was a misprint, that I’d gone to Nome, Alaska,” says Graboski, who signed with the Chicago Staggs in 1948 and played 11 years in the NBA. “I’d been to a lot of colleges; I just never played for any of them.”

Now 61, Graboski didn’t make a jump from high school to the pros. He was pulled up. He was working as a ballboy for the Staggs and playing for Illinois Tool Works in a Chicago industrial basketball league when the NBA club offered him a two-year contract worth $5,000, plus a $500 signing bonus.

It was the start of a strange, somewhat ruinous run.

After Graboski played two seasons for them, the Chicago Staggs folded. He jumped from the NBA to the rival National Professional Basketball League, where his first team, Kansas City, disbanded after four months. His second, Louisville, followed suit.

In 1951-52, Graboski returned to the NBA, where he joined the Indianapolis Olympians, who’d obtained his rights through a dispersal draft. The Olympians stayed afloat for two seasons, after which Graboski went to the Philadelphia Warriors. He played his last eight seasons with the Warriors and won an NBA title with them in 1956. A year after he retired, they moved to San Francisco.

“I kind of felt like that Al Capp character who walked around with a cloud over his head,” says Graboski, now retired and living in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. “It never rained on me, but it seemed to rain on every team I went to.”

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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