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 Seattle.
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."