Now 41, former Sonic Shawn Kemp returns to the scene of his prime and faces his demons.
Macklemore, a fast-tracking local hip-hop artist, is on stage at KeyArena for Bumbershoot, when a familiar roar comes from the stands the way it used to tumble from the upper deck in the mid-1990s.
The Reign Man is in the building again and he is joining Macklemore on stage and, judging from the jolt of electricity in the building, you would think Shawn Kemp had just dunked on Karl Malone one more time.
A couple of weeks later, the Storm is fighting for its WNBA playoff life against Phoenix. A timeout is called and the KeyArena spotlight falls on Kemp. He stands along the sideline and whips a towel over his head and again, the arena rocks the way it did when Kemp was a Sonic.
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Fourteen years after he left Seattle in a trade to Cleveland that followed an ugly contract squabble, Shawn Kemp is more visible in Seattle. And, once again, The Reign Man reigns.
“It’s so touching when you have a connection like this with the city,” Kemp said last week, sitting in the back of his Lower Queen Anne restaurant, Oskar’s Kitchen. “You see a reaction like that and it reminds me that the people here never got a chance to see enough of me. I never really thought I was anything special on the basketball court or anything special as a man, but the one thing I always thought I could do is give out an extra effort.
“But what I’m really proud of now, is being able to get outside of basketball and still reach outside to the community and give the extra effort there like I gave on the court. When I hear the cheers now, or talk with people, it keeps me on a straight path.”
This is the renaissance of the Reign Man. These days he seems ubiquitous. He holds season tickets to the Seahawks. He plays in two flag-football leagues. He owns a restaurant.
He holds clinics. He works out locked-out NBA players like Spencer Hawes. He helps Marvena, his wife of 11 years, with her fundraising efforts.
He’s on stage. He’s on the move.
All these years later, there may not be a more popular athlete in the city than Kemp. Wherever he goes, he is his own force field. At his restaurant, thirtysomethings tentatively ask him for his autograph and he generously poses for pictures.
At his free clinics, kids come up to him as if he were LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, or some other superstar they regularly see on television.
They know Kemp. They know his dunks. They watch them all the time on YouTube. Kemp’s career still lives on the Internet.
But in places like KeyArena they are cheering him, not because of his dunks. They’re welcoming him back. They’re thanking him for returning to the city. They want him to stay.
“It’s been amazing the last few years, how people have welcomed me back in this area. And I surely appreciate it,” he said. “It’s unfortunate the Sonics aren’t here, but the fans have been great to Shawn Kemp here.”
After Kemp was traded to Cleveland in 1997 his star fell rapidly. After the 1998 lockout, he put on weight. He bounced around the league from Cleveland to Portland to Orlando. A six-time All-Star, he never again found the magic of that 1996 NBA Finals run after he left Seattle.
His personal life spiraled downward. He was the focus of a Sports Illustrated story about NBA dads, and it talked about his nine children from multiple partners. Twice he was arrested for marijuana possession.
After his NBA career, he lived in Houston, but always a part of him wanted to be in Seattle. He just wasn’t sure Seattle wanted him.
“Absolutely I was nervous about moving back. Absolutely, man,” Kemp said. “I’m still nervous a little bit. I think, as an individual, when you look back and you question some of your judgments, you look at yourself and you try to change things. You try to better yourself. You try to be smarter.”
He came back six years ago, but only in the last couple of years has Kemp felt comfortable returning to a more public life.
“This has been a real blessing. Really I didn’t think it was going to happen,” he said. “You can live in a warm place like Houston, but you can’t have a smile on your face if you don’t have a connection with the community.
“I was always sad because I never thought I would get the opportunity to come back and express how I felt about the fans. This city had no reason to welcome me back or to work with me.
“When you go to jail, that’s hitting bottom. When I experienced those things, I said to myself, “You’re either going to go up or you’re going to go down. We’re either going to change our life around and do some positive things or we’re going to do the same things we’ve been doing.’ I decided I had to be accountable for who I am. I wanted to let people see what’s inside me. My change is real, but every day is a battle.”
Kemp is a good guy who has made some bad decisions. Now 41, he’s become more introspective. He came to Seattle when he was 18. He was given money and fame early. He made poor choices.
He was embarrassed about his weight gain and how it affected his game. He was embarrassed about the Sports Illustrated story. He said he felt as if he were a target. He didn’t know what direction to take his life.
“I never abused drugs or had an alcohol problem,” he said. “I had a Shawn Kemp problem. That’s what you find out. When you’re unhappy with yourself, you do unhappy things. I just expected so much of myself, and when those doors that were open to you fall down, you have to find yourself.
“Sometimes we get labeled as being a bad person when we’re not. I’ve never been a bad person. The only bad things I’ve really done, I’ve done to myself. I really hurt myself. I put myself in a very negative position. But when I looked at the Sports Illustrated story, well, some of my actions were negative. It was up to me to change things.”
Kemp is a great storyteller. When he jokes about a fan in Golden State who called him “Krispy Kreme,” his laugher rumbles through the restaurant. But the smile fades and he quickly turns serious when he recalls “rock bottom.”
“I felt pressure because I knew that I had put myself in bad situations,” he said. “When you put yourself in those situations, you fight yourself so much. It’s hard to go forward.
“As a professional athlete, when things go bad, as they did for me, as they did for Tiger Woods, as they did for Michael Vick, the best thing we can do is take a break. The worst thing we can do is try to quick fix it and act like there’s nothing wrong and get back to it.
“I was so busy getting caught up in getting back and being great. I was fighting myself, and that’s tough. You can’t move forward. I was married and I had other kids and you can look at your situation, and it can be overwhelming. But I put myself in these situations and I have to take care of them. I took a break and I realized I could turn my life around. One of the things I realized was that I had to better myself before I could help my kids be better.”
Of his nine kids, four live in Seattle. One son, Shawn Kemp Jr., will be a scholarship freshman on the University of Washington’s basketball team.
I asked him if he thought he was a good dad.
“I’m a work in progress. My life will remain a work in progress for the rest of my life. But I think I’m a pretty good dad,” Kemp said. “Obviously, I could be better. My kids say I’m a little bit strict and I say there’s reasons for that. I’m on them, all of them, but I think I’m a fair dad and I think that I listen to them.
“I wish I could have changed things around years ago, but I don’t carry that around with me. It’s not a burden on my shoulder. I don’t walk around and think I shoulda, woulda, coulda. You can’t dwell on the past, man. I had to learn how to move on. If you’re always looking back behind you, you don’t feel so good.”
Kemp speaks at schools. He gives free basketball clinics. He has worked on projects with the mayor’s office. He says he has learned the importance of being part of the community. He stays involved in his restaurant.
“I think the highs and lows in my life have grounded me,” he said. “I have these little reminders, like that Krispy Kreme guy, that I kind of keep in my head and replay every so often to try and keep me on the right track.”
He gets quiet and shakes his head, momentarily reliving the melodrama of his life.
“My grandma told me, ‘Just don’t grow up to be no old fool. You know better,’ ” Kemp said. “Sometimes I think about the kind of difference I could have made if I had stayed on the right path. How much stronger my voice could have been.
“Look, I’ve made mistakes, and I’d like to say that I wish I could change things, but in the end what I’ve learned and what I know now, it’s a lot. And I think, because of that, I can help a lot of people.”
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists