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Friday, April 6, 2001
Talented Kemp wasting his talents

By Frank Hughes
Special to ESPN.com

I'm not really sure how to feel about the news of Shawn Kemp checking himself in to a rehabilitation facility for cocaine abuse.
Shawn Kemp
Kemp's not been the same player this year, which to Hughes is a shame.

Part of me wants to feel high-and-mighty, chastise him as yet another example of a professional athlete who chooses to indulge himself, even overindulge himself, with no regard for himself, his teammates, his coaches or his overpaid job.

But that would be the easy thing to do. The uneducated thing.

Because I don't know Shawn Kemp other than the few times I've interviewed him. I don't know the circumstances for which, if all this is true, he has been abusing drugs.

And so the other part of me feels compassion, because in amateurly trying to psychoanalyze the situation, this seems like an obvious cry for help.

We didn't hear him when his weight ballooned out of control, and we didn't hear him when he went through all that emotional instability in Seattle, where meager things like making less money than the next guy sent him over the edge, to the point where he felt like he no longer could stay.

But mostly, I feel like this: What a waste.

That is probably a selfish notion on my part, I'm not sure.

But I remember back in 1992 or '93, I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, not covering the NBA. I went to a Washington Bullets game. They were playing the Seattle SuperSonics.

And the thing that I still remember is that I could not really pay attention to the game because I was riveted on Kemp. He seemed to glide around the court, lithe, graceful, unbelievably athletic, and his windmill jams and aerial moves and blocked shots, they all looked so effortless, as if he was made specifically to play basketball.

That was the beginning for Kemp and Gary Payton and George Karl, when the game was the thing of import rather than the other stuff -- contract squabbles and respect and carrying the team and all the egotistic garbage that doesn't really matter but somehow becomes more significant before eventually tearing apart a team, like it was straight out of a Shakespearean tragedy.
And the thing that I still remember is that I could not really pay attention to the game because I was riveted on Kemp. He seemed to glide around the court, lithe, graceful, unbelievably athletic, and his windmill jams and aerial moves and blocked shots, they all looked so effortless, as if he was made specifically to play basketball.

It is the time, probably, that when all those members of the team are old men, they are going to remember most fondly.

That was when the Sonics were the Sonics just because they were great, because they could go out on a court and completely dominate another team. In that game, the Bullets never had a chance. Rex Chapman may have made a few jumpers, but who really remembers the particulars of one meaningless game in the middle of an 82-game season?

But what I do remember is Kemp -- and it saddens me to think that the man that intrigued me then has come to this.

It would probably sadden me even more if I knew him personally. Everybody in Seattle that dealt with him said he was a sweetheart, a good guy who eventually got a bad rap because of how he left the organization through such a public spectacle.

One of the stories behind the Kemp saga is that he was unhappy about his contract because of all the child support he had to pay. It is well documented that he has multiple children out of wedlock with multiple mothers. He was the poster child of that Sports Illustrated story a few years back, "Where's Daddy?" He has become the butt of Father's Day jokes nationwide.

And I think that is why it is easy for people to get on Kemp, because he is a victim of his own irresponsibility. Children out of wedlock have become almost an afterthought in the NBA, a rite of passage. There are probably more illegitimate children of NBA players than there are NBA players. Hell, Kemp nearly has a team of children to himself.

Which led to his money problems, which led to the displeasure about his contract in Seattle, which led to feelings of ill will about the contract given to Jim McIlvaine, which led to his demand to be traded.

Kemp was interviewed for a story last season, when he was with Cleveland, and he expressed regret that he ever asked to be traded, said he wished at the time he had realized what he had, how important -- and how fleeting -- winning was.

At the time, it gave me at least a semblance of satisfaction to hear that at least he realized his mistakes, had taken the time to reflect on what he had had and lost.

But now I wonder. Because he clearly is not taking steps to get back to the level at which he once performed. It seemed that initially when he arrived in Portland, he was striving to do that. But then he fell back into the self-destructive routine he has adopted. It's almost as if he still is that kid out of high school, the one they called the man-child.

It's an interesting moniker to place upon him, when you think about. The body of a man, yet the emotions of a child.

And it dawns on me: At 31 years of age, after 12 years in the NBA, Shawn Kemp is still the man-child.

Perhaps this is the first step in growing up.

Around The League
Continuing along our uplifting story theme, we touch on the astonishing revelation about John Croce, brother of Sixers owner Pat Croce, allegedly stealing money from Allen Iverson.

Barry
Barry

"I think the only thing I am surprised about is that it was somebody related to Pat Croce," Sonics guard Brent Barry said. "There are things that go on in this league all year long that maybe never get made public about guys getting stung in the locker room by ball boys or somebody wandering in."

Here's the process most teams use: Players wrap their money, their jewelry and any other valuables in tape. They place it in individual zippered pouches. They give it to the equipment manager or trainer. That person gives it to the security personnel and the security person is supposed to lock up the valuables in a safe. Occasionally, if stuff cannot be locked up for whatever reason, the valuables will be carried out to the bench.

But not all players put away their money or their valuables in pouches, especially on the road, which is strange, because you would think that is where things are most likely to be taken. Often, players simply keep their valuables in their pants pockets.

In Denver a few years ago, six Seattle players had money taken out of their pockets.

"Whoever did it knew what they were doing," Sonics equipment manager Marc St. Yves said. "Because they only took $100 from each guy, thinking nobody would miss one bill from a stack of money."

Rockets forward Walt Williams said he has heard several times over the course of his career players having money stolen. Earlier this season, Pacers guard Jalen Rose had jewelry stolen from the locker room. And Sonics coach Nate McMillan said a few years ago, somebody was stealing players' jerseys from their lockers.

So having something stolen certainly is not unprecedented, but ...

"He was getting his stuff stolen from his own organization," Vin Baker said. "The owner's brother. That is outrageous. Ludicrous."

Frank Hughes covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune. He is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.