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Kemp was only 33 and wearing an Orlando Magic jersey when he played his final, forgettable, NBA season. A series of comeback attempts never took hold. In 2005 he was arrested outside Seattle when police found small amounts of marijuana and cocaine in his car. A friend took responsibility for the drugs, but Kemp pleaded guilty to attempted possession of marijuana.
That arrest changed everything, he says. "It was just so far from where I wanted to be. It was only for a minute, but I was in jail, man," he says, shaking his head with disgust at himself. "[You're] done playing and you feel a little lost. You tell yourself, You can relax, you've made good money, you can enjoy. Well, that's not the case. I found out you really have to push yourself that much more. I had to say to myself, Where are you going: up or down?"
Kemp's personal troubleshooting entailed getting into physical shape, losing the rolls of fat that, he admits, embarrassed him deeply. It also meant getting back to Seattle. He had always kept a home in the area but—in part because of his messy divorce from the Sonics—had bounced between Orlando and Houston. After returning full time to the Pacific Northwest, he "got out and got to know my city," as he puts it.
Sometimes it felt natural. Other times he had to force himself out of his comfort zone. It meant learning to play tennis, taking up snowboarding and buying a motorcycle to ride through the Cascades. It meant buying tickets to see the Seahawks, the Storm and various concerts, forgoing the VIP passes and sitting in the crowd. It meant popping into the art galleries he'd never visited while he was playing, taking up flag football with construction workers and cops, playing co-ed softball in the Seattle Parks and Rec league. It meant sponsoring all sorts of charity events and running to keep off the weight. In May he read from The Taming of the Shrew, as part of a fund-raiser for the Seattle Shakespeare Company.
Today Shawn Kemp lives on a sprawling property in the suburb of Maple Valley with Marvena, his wife of 12 years, and their three sons, Jamir, Jamar and Jamon. One son from another relationship, Shawn Kemp Jr., 21, is a sophomore at Washington and a backup forward on the basketball team. Shawn Sr. has been tutoring Shawn Jr. this summer, encouraging the kid to use his bulk, to extend the range on his shot. Kemp describes himself as a strict dad, but he's cautious about not being overbearing. The Huskies' coaches say that the next time the former Reign Man interferes or complains about his son's minutes will be the first.
Kemp declines to discuss his children other than to say, "You'll never hear about me not taking care of my kids." He mentions in passing that most share his height, that one teenage daughter has serious game, that he's closer to some than to others.
As for his past substance abuse, he talks abstractly, using the vocabulary of recovery as he alludes to "staying on the right path," and the "challenge" and "battle" each day presents.
Kemp's voice almost catches, though, when he talks about the reception he's received locally. "Honestly," he says, "so much had happened, I didn't know how people would react to me." What he found out: Seattleites liked Shawn Kemp the superstar. They may be even more fond of Shawn Kemp the civilian.
"It's like you can get lost here, but you can't get lost," he says. "It's big enough that people respect your privacy but small enough that you get to know a lot of people. Really, it's been fabulous." Stroll around Pike Place Market and you'll notice that even among kids, more sports fans are wearing throwback number 40 Sonics jerseys than those of any current Mariner or Seahawk. Says Geo Quibuyen, half of the popular Seattle hip-hop duo Blue Scholars, speaking for all of the Emerald City, "We love Shawn Kemp. Love this city and we'll love you back."
It is suggested that Kemp's popularity might stem from the fact that Seattle watched him grow up, experienced much of the drama surrounding him and now feels truly invested in the outcome of his story. Maybe, he shrugs. But he also thinks that after the Sonics effectively died when the franchise moved to Oklahoma City in 2008 to become the Thunder, the team has been romanticized, its players turned into cult figures. "The Sonics did so much in the community and had so much history," says Kemp. "Hopefully Seattle will get another team. I think it's one of those you-don't-know-what-you-got-till-it's-gone deals."