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Kemp, now 42, points out what you've likely been thinking: Oskar's is a pretty good representation of his life post-basketball. It's casual and understated. It's weaved seamlessly into the community. It's eclectic and different from what you probably expected.
"Let's be honest, I've gone through some things that made me want to stand up a little taller, stand for something bigger, show a different side," he says. Surveying Oskar's, the city's best lounge, according to Seattle Weekly, he smiles. "When you make changes in your life, it can be a wonderful thing, you know?"
During his prime as a basketball player Kemp possessed a level of athleticism that verged on the absurd. Yet whatever his vertical leap may have been, whatever the trajectory of his ferocious dunks, those dimensions have nothing on the arcs of his narrative. Without having ever played D-I ball Kemp was drafted straight out of Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College by Seattle in 1989, his selection drawing boos from local fans. He was a 19-year-old kid from Elkhart, Ind., his game and his persona lacking polish in equal measure, his name already tarnished. Still, he could run the floor and jump supernaturally, and he played for a coach, Bernie Bickerstaff, unafraid to put him on the floor. "Because Shawn didn't [play in] college, a lot of people didn't know about him," Nate McMillan, a guard-forward on that team, once recalled. "Then he did things in games, and you'd say, How can this kid not be a star?"
Kemp's fearlessness was limited to the court. "I was so afraid of failing," he says. "Remember, this was before so many players went right from high school to the NBA, and it was like, If I don't make it, I don't have a degree to fall back on." As a rookie earning $350,000, he had vague designs of owning a restaurant one day. So, to get a better sense of the business, before and after games he would occasionally work in the kitchen of a local diner. When a friend once mentioned investment opportunities in the construction business, Kemp was intrigued. So he talked to developers and learned to lay sheetrock. "Even as a rookie I knew that basketball was only going to be a stage, a platform, and I had to have a bigger vision," he says. "Luckily, it was like the whole city of Seattle was mentoring me."
Not that he didn't work hard at his basketball, too. Tim Grgurich, a former Seattle assistant, tells of Kemp's pulling all-nighters in the Sonics' training facility, practicing his jumper, rehearsing and refining low-post moves. Soon Kemp's gifts began coalescing with hard-earned skills. Play him to drive, and he would stick a 15-footer. Guard him too close, and he would maneuver to the basket. He blocked shots (he's No. 49 all time), rebounded (No. 55), ran the floor (No. 35 in assists among forwards and centers) and had the quickness to defend small forwards as well as the bulk to body-up to low-post centers. "I have not seen a player rival Shawn Kemp since Shawn Kemp," says Kevin Calabro, the former Sonics radio and TV announcer. "He just did so much so well."
Kemp's specialty, though, was dunking. The apocryphal story: Playing in an outdoor pickup game back in Indiana, Kemp once dunked so ferociously that sparks flew off the chain-link net. While he won't confirm that one, he played as though unencumbered by gravity, both on the fast break and in the half-court set, his easy grace broken up a few times each game by spasms of violent jams. Think those Blake Griffin throwdowns have no precedent? Fire up YouTube, watch some of Kemp's handiwork and compare for yourself. Start with his posterization during the 1992 playoffs of Warriors center Alton Lister, one of the signature NBA plays of that era.
The Reign Man's reign coincided with a gilded era for Seattle, too. Beflannelled grunge bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden made the city the national epicenter of hip. One local company, Starbucks, was starting to colonize America; another, Microsoft, was the early-1990s equivalent of Google. Seattle home values were soaring in lockstep with the city's Quality of Life index. And it all seemed to coalesce at Sonics games. The newly minted tech millionaires and the newly minted rock stars communed together in an endearingly quirky arena to watch an endearingly quirky team in the country's upper-left corner. "Those," says George Karl, the Sonics' coach from '92 to '98, "were some real good times."
In '96, Kemp drained a series of crucial Game 7 free throws against the Jazz—poise, still another dimension of his game—to advance Seattle to the NBA Finals. While the Sonics lost to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in six games, many argued that Kemp, who averaged 23.3 points and 10 rebounds, was the best player on the floor during the series. "Shawn," says Karl, "was at the peak of his powers."
And then, suddenly, he wasn't. Kemp, having signed a seven-year, $24 million contract with Seattle, became embittered when lesser teammates—most notably the team's ponderous center, Jim McIlvaine, who inked a seven-year, $35 million deal—made more money. Kemp sulked for most of the next season, after which he was traded to Cleveland. He scored prodigiously for awful Cavaliers teams, but he'd put on weight and lost his explosiveness. It was around that time that this magazine reported that Kemp, then unmarried, had fathered at least seven children by multiple women. He next headed to Portland, where he became part of that collective menace nicknamed the Jail Blazers. He finished his first season in drug rehab, having checked himself in for cocaine abuse. He was cut loose after year two.
Coupled with his soaring weight and plummeting play, he became a national punch line, a baby machine, the poster boy for squandered potential in the face of wanton living. It remains, understandably, something other than a preferred conversation topic for Kemp. Knitting his fingers, starting and restarting his sentences, he finally settles on this: "It was some tough times, some bad decisions, but you learn about yourself in tough situations."