Kemp and Payton are sick of talking about the playoffs. Wherever they go, that's all they hear. Last summer Kemp was in Florida when a man stopped him on the street and challenged him to a fight. "He said he lost money betting on the Sonics to beat Denver two years ago," Kemp says. "I looked at this guy, and I thought, Man, this is getting pretty serious. We're going to have to win some playoff games."
But still the quest for an NBA title has not become an obsession for Kemp and Payton. "People want us to be more serious," Payton says, "but we're serious all the time on the court. I don't know how much more serious you can be. To be as serious as everyone wants us to be, I guess we're going to have to change and become saints or priests."
Almost two hours before a game, Kemp is on the court with Sonics assistant coach Terry Stotts, shooting jumpers. The ball's trajectory is fiat but true. There is no conversation, no change in Kemp's expression. Stotts jumps out at him, and Kemp shoots. The ball goes up, the ball comes back. The action is metronomic.
Malone did this. Charles Barkley did this. They did it because it was a prerequisite for greatness. Dunking is not enough. "Being with Shawn and seeing how he approaches every game, how intense and dedicated he is, makes me realize players like him don't come along often," says Hawkins. "This is my first year here, and the image I had of him before was probably the same as everyone else's: a wild man. But I've learned you can't judge what kind of person a guy is by how he plays on the floor."
Kemp often thinks about the odds he has overcome. They were formidable, even for a man of his remarkable talent. "Coming out without college, it would have been easy for me not to make it," he says. Moses Malone made it right out of high school, but he started out in the less taxing ABA. Darryl Dawkins made it, sort of, but never really lived up to expectations.
Now child prodigies are everywhere. Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Kevin Garnett, who entered the NBA straight from high school, is just the youngest and most visible manifestation of a growing trend. For the best players, college has become just a two-year (or even briefer) apprenticeship.
"When I made my decision, I understood basketball," Kemp says. "I hope those guys know it's not just about fun and not just about money, because at their age you're not a good player yet. You're not going to be very good for a very long time. I understood that. A lot of these guys are making a lot of money. I think when you have all that money, it's harder to work on your game.
"I listened, and I was patient. Those are the two hardest things in the world to do when you're 19 and you know you can play. It's hard, because you look out on the floor and it doesn't always seem like the guy who's out there playing instead of you is better than you."
That applies even to the Dream Team. There are two open spots on the '96 U.S. Olympic squad. One is believed to be the property of Sacramento Kings guard Mitch Richmond. Kemp is considered a strong possibility for the 12th and final spot. The U.S. coach, Lenny Wilkens, will say only this: "There is a huge list of names, and Kemp's right up there. I know he comes to work every night. He wants to be better, and that's obvious."
The problem, once again, has been perception. Kemp was a member of the U.S. team that took the gold medal at the 1994 world championships in Toronto. While the team won, its behavior on the court did little to enhance international relations. Kemp was lumped together with Derrick Coleman and Larry Johnson, who repeatedly taunted opponents and yelled profanities. Kemp considers the association unfair, but he contributed to it by grabbing his crotch during postdunk celebrations. "I don't know if regret is the word, but there are things I wouldn't do a second time if I could," he says of that vulgar gesturing, which he has since eliminated from his repertoire.