The climb was both literal and figurative. He went up, up, up, the pain searing his legs and his lungs. Twelve flights of concrete stairs, 20 stairs each flight. The skyline of Seattle receded below him. His mind was somewhere else, away from the steps, back in a cramped, hot gym in rural Indiana. The place closed in on him as the crowd yelled, "S-A-T! S-A-T! S-A-T!" Over and over he heard the chant, the sound coming down from the rafters, up from the floor, in from the walls. The noise was so loud it had a physical presence. Sometimes he thought he could smell its rotten breath.
Shawn Kemp still hears those taunts. He still sees the bananas that spectators threw on the court. He still hears his side of the gym, the fans of Elkhart's Concord High School, countering with cries of "N-B-A! N-B-A! N-B-A!"
Which was worse, the insult or the compliment? The pressure from both sides was equal. Shawn's life at 17 was too public. That everyone knew of his failure to score 700 on the SATs, the minimum required for college freshman eligibility, was just one example. He had begun giving up pieces of himself to the game at an early age. Basketball took some of his youth, most of his privacy, all of his trust. It gave back fame and wealth. He's not always sure he came out ahead.
As he ascended those outdoor stairs on Seattle's Capitol Hill last summer, every footfall was intended to silence his doubters: the ones who booed the day he was drafted by the SuperSonics in 1989 and the ones who raged after Seattle's two straight first-round playoff losses, in '94 and '95. Kemp is only 26 years old and already seven years into a wildly successful NBA career, but every day he fools his mind into thinking that nothing has changed from his days at Concord High. Nothing he does ever seems good enough.
So he spent last off-season running up these steps, punishing his body. Two hundred forty stairs. Every step, every pulse of pain, was a reminder that he was redefining himself as a player. He would show everybody, no matter what it took, that he was more than a series of highlights, more than fancy dunks.
He split his summer between Seattle and his 30-acre farm in tiny Bristol, Ind., just outside Elkhart, and he ran there, too. He ran during the worst heat wave in decades. Public officials warned people to stay inside, to keep cool. Kemp ran.
He ran on the Fourth of July, the air thick as glue. "I'll never forget that day," he says. "My mom looked at me and said, 'I know you're not going to run today.' I said, 'I'm on this program, and I'm not about to stop.' But when I was out there running, I was telling myself, 'Whoo, this better be worth it. It's a holiday; everybody else is eating.' But that's why I was out there: Nobody else was doing it."
Late at night he would head for a nearby gym and work out: shooting baskets, lifting weights until he couldn't raise his arms. "I like that," he says. "I like working out in the middle of the night, all by myself, nobody else around. That's my time."
Back in high school his only recourse against the taunts was to dunk harder, run faster, slap opponents' shots a few rows deeper into the bleachers. He dunked so hard that his hands were covered with cuts and bruises. That was the outlet.
There was always an enemy, and the enemy is still alive. For motivation, the enemy is imperative. He must accompany Kemp up steps, down hills, into dank weight rooms deep in the night. The enemy questions Kemp's intelligence and his character and his work ethic. The enemy is, in an odd way, Kemp's guardian angel. "He was always able to use the taunts to his advantage," says Jim Hahn, Kemp's coach at Concord High. "He wouldn't lash out or retaliate, even though it bothered him a lot. He got back at his critics by beating them.