Being a high-profile basketball recruit at Lexington in the fall of 1988 was rather like being a vacationer in Charleston, S.C., during Hurricane Hugo. The now infamous Emery Worldwide package containing $1,000, allegedly sent from Kentucky assistant coach Dwane Casey to the father of Kentucky recruit Chris Mills, had been made public several months before Kemp arrived, and the Wildcats were barreling down Probation Highway at 90 mph. Naturally, there were rumors of illegal payments and inducements made to Kemp, and he won no popularity contests in his home state when he chose bluegrass over the University of Bobby Knight. Kemp denies that he got anything under the table from Kentucky, and there is no mention of Kemp in the list of irregularities that ultimately led to Kentucky's probation.
But Kemp did make headlines with the revelation, in early November of 1988, that he had sold to a Lexington pawnshop two gold necklaces that had been stolen from Sean Sutton, a Kentucky player and the son of former Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton. Sean Sutton never pressed charges, and subsequent news stories never named the thief, only the person who pawned the necklaces.
In the past Kemp talked about the incident in generalities. He said things like: "Not everything came out in the papers," or, "There was a lot of other stuff going on." Last Wednesday, in a deserted Seattle locker room, he was asked if he stole the necklaces.
"No," said Kemp. "I am not a thief. I've never spent a day in jail, and I was never even questioned by the police."
Did you pawn the necklaces?
"Well, that's a different story," answered Kemp reluctantly. "Yes. And it was a mistake. But I'm not a thief."
Bickerstaff, who says he knows the whole story, maintains that Kemp took the fall for another player. "It's to Shawn's credit that he'll never say publicly who that player is," says Bicker-staff. "Shawn made some mistakes, but he showed some character, too."
Kemp quit Kentucky later in November. He says he left not because of the necklace incident but because he knew the Wildcats were going on probation. Finally away from the media spotlight, Kemp was able to get off the bumper car when he enrolled at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas.
Though he was still ineligible for games, Kemp worked out daily with the team and got along famously with coach Leon Spencer. But no matter how much Spencer hoped to have a blue-chipper in the lineup, Athens was destined to be just a brief stopover for Kemp. He declared himself eligible for the NBA draft in the spring and a few months later signed a six-year contract worth about $4 million.
"Before that I never even had a summer job," says Kemp, shaking his head. He says that if he had had any doubts about making the NBA, he would have stayed at Trinity Valley. But he didn't. "Basketball and football are the only sports that they say you have to go to college to play pro," says Kemp. "That doesn't make sense. Baseball players come right out of high school all the time."