"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 post-dunk 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 another.
"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.