Once upon a time, Seattle had an NBA team, and Shawn Travis Kemp was their most electrifying player.
Shawn Travis Kemp burst onto the NBA scene as a teenager, having never played a college game. A first-round pick of the Seattle Supersonics [now Oklahoma City Thunder] in 1989, the immensely-talent skywalker became a fan favorite in the Emerald City. He was a double-double machine who could run the floor and finish the fast break with thunderous dunks. Kemp made the first of six straight All-Star teams at 23. He led Seattle to the best record in the Western Conference four times and the conference finals twice. In 1994, Kemp played with Team USA in the FIBA World Championships, winning a gold medal in Toronto. His career peaked in 1995-96, when Kemp and Gary Payton led the Sonics to a franchise-record 64 wins and their first NBA Finals since the Jack Sikma-led team in 1979.
Kemp played for four NBA teams over 14 seasons. Eight of those seasons were in Seattle, where he had his greatest success. The Sonics won 55 or more games each season between 1992-93 and 1996-97, and the “Reign Man” was their most potent weapon. Like Kemp, Seattle was mercurial. During the Space Jam generation, they reached the conference finals twice – in 1993 and 1996. In between, they became the first number-one seed to lose to a number-eight seed, then followed that up with another first-round exit. In a draft-day deal following the 1994 season, Kemp was nearly traded with Ricky Pierce to Chicago for Scottie Pippen. In the final minutes before the June draft, Sonics owner Barry Ackerley decided to back out, leaving Bulls GM Jerry Krause fuming.
Born November 26, 1960, Kemp attended Concord High School in Elkhart, a town along the northern border of Indiana that calls itself the “RV Capital of the World.” A four-year starter at Concord, Kemp set single game and season scoring records. As a senior, Kemp led the second-ranked Minutemen to the state title game, where they lost to top-ranked Muncie Central, 76-53. It was the first time in the storied history of Indiana high school basketball than Number One met Number Two in the final. In one of the Hoosier State’s biggest hoops gaffes, Woody Austin [the basketball player, not the golfer] was elected “Mr. Basketball,” 124 votes to 100. While Austin landed at Purdue, Kemp went on to become a six-time NBA All-Star. One of the top players in the nation, the 6’10” center was selected to the 1988 McDonald’s All-American Team. Considered one of the best classes of all time, the game featured future NBA’ers Alonzo Mourning, Billy Owens and Anthony Peeler. Kemp led the West squad with 18 points in a losing effort.
Kemp made waves in his home state when he signed with the University of Kentucky, rather than playing for Bob Knight at Indiana. After failing to score 700 on the SAT [the NCAA-mandated minimum], Kemp was ineligible to play basketball. He left Kentucky in November of his freshman year amid allegations of pawning two gold chains stolen from teammate Sean Sutton, son of Kentucky basketball coach Eddie Sutton. Kemp transferred to Trinity Valley Community College, a two-year school in east-central Texas. He never heard Dick Vitale call his name. After a semester at TVCC, where Kemp did not play, the 19-year-old declared for the NBA draft.
The 1989 NBA Draft is considered one of the worst in history. Eight of the top ten picks were busts, including Pervis Ellison and Danny Ferry, who were picked first and second, respectively. The Seattle Supersonics selected Kemp with the 17th overall selection, between guards Dana Barros of Boston College and Iowa’s B.J. Armstrong.
The youngest player in the league struggled to find his place early in his rookie season. The extremely athletic Kemp was mentored by veteran teammate Xavier McDaniel, and the youngster continued to improve. By his second season in Seattle, Kemp had become a star. Teaming with Gary Payton, Eddie Johnson, Ricky Pierce and Nate McMillan, the Sonics were on the rise.
Under head coach George Karl, who arrived in 1992, the Sonics became a Western Conference powerhouse and enjoyed the longest sustained success in franchise history. After going 64-18 – the best record in franchise history – they met the Chicago Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals. Led by Michael Jordan, the Bulls were coming off an NBA-record 72 wins. The Sonics pushed the series to six games — with the Reign Man averaging 23 points, ten rebounds and two blocks per game — before Chicago claimed its fourth title in six years.
After the Sonics posted 57 regular-season wins before losing in the conference semifinals in 1997, Kemp was sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a three-team, four-player deal. Kemp showed up at training camp weighing 315, then played himself into shape, starting 80 games and logging a career-high 35 minutes a night. He was named to his sixth straight All-Star team, then returned the following year to average a career-best 20.5 points per game. After three years in Cleveland, Kemp was shipped to Portland in 2000, where he was reunited with Bob Whitsitt, who had originally brought him to Seattle.
The last few years of Shawn Kemp’s career were riddled with problems stemming from weight, as well as cocaine and alcohol abuse. His first season in Portland ended early when he entered rehab. Kemp also faced child support problems, as he fathered at least seven children by six different women by the time he was 30. His play declined significantly and, after two years in Portland, Kemp was waived prior to the 2002-03 season. He signed as a free agent with the Magic, where he appeared in his 1,000 NBA game during his only season in Orlando. By 2003, his career was over.
One of the best leapers in NBA history – Sports Illustrated voted Kemp one of the five greatest Dunk Contest participants who never won — Kemp attempted to return to professional basketball several times. In April 2006, he failed to show for a private workout with Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson. Five months later, he missed his scheduled tryout with the Chicago Bulls. In August 2008, Kemp signed a one-year contract with Premiata Montegranaro of the Italian League. Nearly 39, Kemp left the team after three exhibition games and returned to the United States.
In January 2015, former Sonics teammates Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton watched their sons, Shawn Jr. and Gary II, play against each other in a college basketball game. Payton, a do-it-all-guard for Oregon State was dubbed “The Mitten” — a spin on “The Glove,” his father’s nickname during his 18-year NBA career. The younger Kemp was a rugged forward who played four seasons for the Washington Huskies.