The Sonics have been bringing Kemp along slowly, and he's averaging 12.1 minutes and 5.8 points a game. This is not the speed of choice for Kemp, who announced on the first day of training camp: "I didn't come here to sit on the bench." But it might be getting harder to keep him under wraps after the coming-out party he shared with fellow rookie and best buddy Dana Barros last Thursday night during Seattle's 111-98 home court victory over Washington. In 20 minutes, Kemp had 18 points, nine rebounds, three blocked shots and one jaw-to-jaw confrontation with Bullet forward Harvey Grant, who did not take to being pushed around by a teenager. In one memorable 19-second sequence late in the game, Kemp tipped in a missed shot with his left hand; blocked a Mel Turpin layup at the other end (the 260-pound Turpin landed in the front row, a frightening reality for those sitting there); and filled the right lane on the break, jumping high to bank in an alley-oop pass from Barros, who would score 25 points. On a team that marches to a beat set by the steady but unspectacular Dale Ellis, Kemp is clearly Seattle's most exciting player.
Also its most irritating. After a dunk or a block, Kemp is given to putting his arms down at his sides and strutting-a bit, a High School Harry piece of choreography to be sure. But, hey, be sympathetic—just 18 months ago he was a High School Harry.
"When I step on the court I don't feel young at all, and it doesn't seem like anyone treats me that way, either," says Kemp, who already has played both forward positions and center. "I guess I don't look like a guy who's going to run away from the action." Guess not. Even off the court, Kemp doesn't catch much abuse. "We just let him be," says Ellis, who at 29 is the oldest Sonic. "You look at him, and you tend to forget his age."
The Sonics selected Kemp with the 17th pick of last June's draft, right after they got Boston College's Barros at 16. Reputation aside, even teams that liked Kemp as a player were reluctant to use a first-round pick on a guy whose last official game was against Muncie Central High in the 1988 Indiana state tournament. But the Sonics, who have made as many player moves over the last few seasons as any team in the NBA, saw in Kemp the opportunity to make a bold strike.
"Teams that got to the top in this league invariably did a deal out of the ordinary," says Seattle president and general manager Bob Whitsitt. "The Celtics got Bird that way [by selecting him as a junior-eligible, a year before he came out]. And we think getting Shawn can be that kind of deal for us."
Kemp's bumper-car ride began in his junior year at Concord High, when he failed to score 700 on his SATs, one of the requirements needed for freshman eligibility in college athletics under the NCAA's Proposition 48. He signed with the University of Kentucky early in his senior year, then came up short on the SATs twice more while the Wildcat coaching staff waited anxiously for the results. The press waited, too, and Kemp's failures turned into well-chronicled public humiliations.
"I had people tell me I couldn't read, couldn't spell my own name," says Kemp. "It hurt. But it's my own fault for ignoring academics. My mother was on me all the time about it, but I didn't listen. I'm not dumb; I'm not stupid. But I just didn't push myself.
"Some people say Prop 48 is a bad thing and discriminates against blacks, but I don't have any problems with it. It's fair. The only person who held me back was myself."
Prop 48 might motivate some athletes to work hard in class, but it did not have that effect on Kemp. This hardly came as a surprise to anyone who knew him, particularly his high school coach. In fact, after Kemp was declared ineligible, Hahn tried to persuade him to enroll at a junior college or even to play a year in Europe rather than go to Lexington.
"Every single athlete is not meant for college," says Hahn. "To have Shawn in a college environment without basketball, the one thing he loves, was, I felt, a big mistake. It even crossed my mind to advise him to go right into the NBA, and the only thing that stopped me was the fact that so few players have done it." Kemp thought about the NBA, too, but again there weren't enough precedents. So he took the predictable course—with predictably disastrous results.