The NBA'S only teenager is sitting in the Seattle SuperSonics' locker room with a world-class scowl on his face. Some say he looks like Portland's Jerome Kersey, who is 27, and others say he resembles the Los Angeles Clippers' Ken Bannister, who is 29, but he definitely looks closer to 30 than to 20, the tender age he will turn on Nov. 26.
"People tell me all the time I look older than I am," says Shawn Kemp, the fifth player to enter the NBA without playing a collegiate game. "I'll tell you this—sometimes I feel that way."
And with good reason. Much of the past two years of Kemp's young life has been like a bad bumper-car ride. He has rammed into fenders and steered up dead-end streets. He got the wrong grades, chose the wrong school and then did the wrong things at the wrong school. Prop 48. Probation. Transfer. Juco. All the buzzwords that can swirl negatively around a college athlete have found the 6'10", 240-pound Kemp.
Yet something about Kemp is different. In person, he doesn't live up—or, more accurately, down—to his reputation. The scowl is natural: He simply has a hard face, not a hard edge. He has his detractors, but most people genuinely like him and take pains to explain that the person is a whole lot better than the r�sum�.
"Shawn's been the victim of character assassination," says Seattle coach Bernie Bickerstaff.
"He's done more in the community in the few weeks he's been here than a lot of players have done over their whole careers," says Jim Marsh, the Sonics' director of community relations. "This city is starving for a personality, and Shawn has a chance to be it. He could have Seattle in the palm of his hand."
"I want Shawn Kemp to do well so he'll silence his critics," says Jim Hahn, his coach at Concord High School back in Elkhart, Ind. "I want Shawn to have the last word."
The track record of NBA players who bypassed college is actually fairly good. Joe Graboski played from 1948-49 to '61-62, mostly with the Philadelphia Warriors. Moses Malone, who came into the old American Basketball Association with Utah in 1974 and is still playing in the NBA as Atlanta's starting center, will probably be in the Hall of Fame one day. Bill Willoughby hung around for eight NBA seasons, playing for six teams between 1975 and '84. And after 14 seasons (1975-89), Darryl Dawkins left behind a treasure chest of laughter, colorfully named monster dunks and shattered backboards.
Kemp? Only a fool would say that he'll be another Moses Malone, but there's no reason why, barring injury or incident, he won't be better than the others.
"Potentially," says the notoriously cautious Bickerstaff, "Shawn is a real marquee player."