Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl glanced up at the clock on his office wall last Saturday and politely told the reporters gathered around him that his postgame interview was over. It was 3:10 p.m., which gave Karl just enough time to make it to his 13-year-old son Coby's 3:30 basketball game. "Can't be late," Karl said, uttering the three words the Sonics no doubt wish Shawn Kemp, their All-Star power forward, had said to himself on several occasions recently.
If he had, the Sonics might not have found themselves in such turmoil last week, less than a month before the start of the playoffs. In a span of seven days Kemp, 27, was tardy for almost every team function imaginable—late for the cycle, you might say. His absences caused coaches and teammates to become alternately irritated and concerned about him, while radio talk-show callers from Aberdeen to Yakima filled the airwaves with theories about the reasons for his bizarre behavior. Kemp arrived 15 minutes after the team flight to Phoenix took off on the morning of March 29 and missed practice that afternoon. He was late for a team meeting on April 2 and missed practice last Friday. After each offense Karl removed Kemp from the starting lineup in the following game, and for the Friday incident the Sonics fined him an undisclosed amount.
An eight-year veteran, Kemp has never been the kind of person you set your watch by. He has a long history of being late for flights, buses and practices. However, his latest cluster of violations occurred with so little explanation that it left Seattle players, management and fans baffled. "We talked [to him] about some personal issues," said Sonics president and general manager Wally Walker, "but I would not say I have a clear understanding of everything he's going through." Kemp, whose nickname is Reign Man, became so unpredictable that the joke in Seattle was that his new alias should be 50 Percent Chance of Reign Man.
But Kemp wasn't laughing. He offered no public explanation for his behavior, refusing all interview requests on the subject before finally speaking with SI after the Sonics' 113-101 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night. Although he didn't reveal the cause of his late arrivals—he made vague references to personal problems and family issues but would not discuss them further—he did deny that there was any truth to two of the most widespread rumors about him, saying he does not have a drinking problem and that his repeated failure to show up on time was not a protest over his contract. "Anytime things are going wrong and you don't offer an explanation, people make up their own explanations," Kemp said. "Many people thought when I missed practice on Friday that it was because I had a baby being born, which isn't true." Kemp, who is not married, did say that he is due to become a father this summer. He declined to name the mother and said the impending birth has nothing to do with his recent behavior.
"I've just been late," he said. "I'm always running late. I've been that way the last two or three years." He then made a declaration that the Sonics and their fans may want to clip and save: "The only way to correct the problem is for me to start being early. That's what's going to happen."
Kemp insists that his biggest personal problem is unhappiness with his own play. During the second half of the season he has looked nothing like the player who led the Sonics to the NBA Finals last season, when he appeared to have matured into the best power forward in the league. Before this year's All-Star Game, in which he started for the fourth consecutive year, the 6'10", 256-pound Kemp was averaging 21.1 points on 52.1% field goal shooting, with 10.9 rebounds per game. Since the break his stats have slipped to 14.9 points, 48.4% shooting and 8.1 rebounds. "People ask me, 'What's wrong, Shawn? What's wrong?' " Kemp said. "And I say, 'Man, I'm playing bad." I consider that a personal problem. When I look at that stat sheet and see five points, 10 points after my name, I know I haven't helped the team, and I take that very personally."
He also lakes exception to some of the media reports about him. A Feb. 8 story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said that Kemp had been served nine to 10 alcoholic drinks with dinner at a Seattle restaurant the night before he turned in a subpar performance in a game against the Chicago Bulls. Subsequent stories amended that number to seven drinks—four shots of whiskey and three beers. The original story said Kemp could not be reached for comment; he says the story was inaccurate and shouldn't have run before lie had a chance lo respond. "I did not have that much to drink," said Kemp, who didn't remember how many drinks he did have, "I was with three other people. Just because I sat there and ordered those drinks doesn't mean that I drank them all. I'm not stupid enough to drink like that with so many people around, with waiters and waitresses watching your every move. But the drinking rumor is the one I worry about the least, because the people who know me know I'm not a heavy drinker."
Kemp doesn't deny being dissatisfied with his contract, which pays him $3 million this season and $40.4 million over the next seven years, a deal that pales in comparison to the contracts signed by Shaquille O'Neal and other top free agents last summer. But he says his decision to report 22 days after the start of training camp last October was the extent of his protest. "It wouldn't make any sense for me to suddenly start being late now because of that," he says. "How is that going to help in negotiations when you're trying to get $100 million?"
The collective bargaining agreement prohibits the Sonics from renegotiating Kemp's contract until October (three years after the deal was signed), and Walker will have to do some masterly maneuvering if he wants to clear enough salary-cap room to offer Kemp the kind of deal he is looking for. However, the more immediate question for Seattle, 52-24 through Sunday, is, Can Kemp begin playing like his old self in time for the playoffs? If not, the Sonics are vulnerable, and they know it. Their loss in Sacramento on Sunday night, when Kemp made only one of eight shots, was their fourth in seven games. "He's got to know I'm on his side," says Karl. "We have no illusions that we can win a championship without him."
Kemp will have to restore his teammates' confidence in him off the court as well. "We're 100 percent behind him," says guard Hersey Hawkins. "But at the same time, there are only so many ways and so many times you can talk to a guy about being late. We can't babysit him."