Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl glanced up at the clock on
his office wall last Saturday and politely told the reporters
gathered around him that his postgame interview was over. It was
3:10 p.m., which gave Karl just enough time to make it to his
13-year-old son Coby's 3:30 basketball game. "Can't be late,"
Karl said, uttering the three words the Sonics no doubt wish
Shawn Kemp, their All-Star power forward, had said to himself on
several occasions recently.
If he had, the Sonics might not have found themselves in such
turmoil last week, less than a month before the start of the
playoffs. In a span of seven days Kemp, 27, was tardy for almost
every team function imaginable--late for the cycle, you might
say. His absences caused coaches and teammates to become
alternately irritated and concerned about him, while radio
talk-show callers from Aberdeen to Yakima filled the airwaves
with theories about the reasons for his bizarre behavior. Kemp
arrived 15 minutes after the team flight to Phoenix took off on
the morning of March 29 and missed practice that afternoon. He
was late for a team meeting on April 2 and missed practice last
Friday. After each offense Karl removed Kemp from the starting
lineup in the following game, and for the Friday incident the
Sonics fined him an undisclosed amount.
An eight-year veteran, Kemp has never been the kind of person
you set your watch by. He has a long history of being late for
flights, buses and practices. However, his latest cluster of
violations occurred with so little explanation that it left
Seattle players, management and fans baffled. "We talked [to
him] about some personal issues," said Sonics president and
general manager Wally Walker, "but I would not say I have a
clear understanding of everything he's going through." Kemp,
whose nickname is Reign Man, became so unpredictable that the
joke in Seattle was that his new alias should be 50 Percent
Chance of Reign Man.
But Kemp wasn't laughing. He offered no public explanation for
his behavior, refusing all interview requests on the subject
before finally speaking with SI after the Sonics' 113-101 loss
to the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night. Although he didn't
reveal the cause of his late arrivals--he made vague references
to personal problems and family issues but would not discuss
them further--he did deny that there was any truth to two of the
most widespread rumors about him, saying he does not have a
drinking problem and that his repeated failure to show up on
time was not a protest over his contract. "Anytime things are
going wrong and you don't offer an explanation, people make up
their own explanations," Kemp said. "Many people thought when I
missed practice on Friday that it was because I had a baby being
born, which isn't true." Kemp, who is not married, did say that
he is due to become a father this summer. He declined to name
the mother and said the impending birth has nothing to do with
his recent behavior.
"I've just been late," he said. "I'm always running late. I've
been that way the last two or three years." He then made a
declaration that the Sonics and their fans may want to clip and
save: "The only way to correct the problem is for me to start
being early. That's what's going to happen."
Kemp insists that his biggest personal problem is unhappiness
with his own play. During the second half of the season he has
looked nothing like the player who led the Sonics to the NBA
Finals last season, when he appeared to have matured into the
best power forward in the league. Before this year's All-Star
Game, in which he started for the fourth consecutive year, the
6'10", 256-pound Kemp was averaging 21.1 points on 52.1% field
goal shooting, with 10.9 rebounds per game. Since the break his
stats have slipped to 14.9 points, 48.4% shooting and 8.1
rebounds. "People ask me, 'What's wrong, Shawn? What's wrong?'"
Kemp said. "And I say, 'Man, I'm playing bad.' I consider that a
personal problem. When I look at that stat sheet and see five
points, 10 points after my name, I know I haven't helped the
team, and I take that very personally."
He also takes exception to some of the media reports about him.
A Feb. 8 story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said that Kemp
had been served nine to 10 alcoholic drinks with dinner at a
Seattle restaurant the night before he turned in a subpar
performance in a game against the Chicago Bulls. Subsequent
stories amended that number to seven drinks--four shots of
whiskey and three beers. The original story said Kemp could not
be reached for comment; he says the story was inaccurate and
shouldn't have run before he had a chance to respond. "I did not
have that much to drink," said Kemp, who didn't remember how
many drinks he did have. "I was with three other people. Just
because I sat there and ordered those drinks doesn't mean that I
drank them all. I'm not stupid enough to drink like that with so
many people around, with waiters and waitresses watching your
every move. But the drinking rumor is the one I worry about the
least, because the people who know me know I'm not a heavy
Kemp doesn't deny being dissatisfied with his contract, which
pays him $3 million this season and $40.4 million over the next
seven years, a deal that pales in comparison to the contracts
signed by Shaquille O'Neal and other top free agents last
summer. But he says his decision to report 22 days after the
start of training camp last October was the extent of his
protest. "It wouldn't make any sense for me to suddenly start
being late now because of that," he says. "How is that going to
help in negotiations when you're trying to get $100 million?"
The collective bargaining agreement prohibits the Sonics from
renegotiating Kemp's contract until October (three years after
the deal was signed), and Walker will have to do some masterly
maneuvering if he wants to clear enough salary-cap room to offer
Kemp the kind of deal he is looking for. However, the more
immediate question for Seattle, 52-24 through Sunday, is, Can
Kemp begin playing like his old self in time for the playoffs?
If not, the Sonics are vulnerable, and they know it. Their loss
in Sacramento on Sunday night, when Kemp made only one of eight
shots, was their fourth in seven games. "He's got to know I'm on
his side," says Karl. "We have no illusions that we can win a
championship without him."
Kemp will have to restore his teammates' confidence in him off
the court as well. "We're 100 percent behind him," says guard
Hersey Hawkins. "But at the same time, there are only so many
ways and so many times you can talk to a guy about being late.
We can't babysit him."
Kemp insists that no one will have to worry about him anymore.
He cut short his interview on Sunday night because the team bus
was scheduled to leave in a few minutes. Shawn Kemp didn't want
to be late.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [Shawn Kemp]