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 pressed charges.
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 one-person affairs.
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?' "