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Kemp's decline telling for NBA

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001

College kids, even high school basketball phenoms, figuring they can be the next Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, opt to kiss off campus life, their young heads bulging with short-range fantasies that glitter with exotic motor vehicles, enormous houses and voluminous bank accounts.

Two-thirds of early leapers become flops. Many never make an NBA roster. Others have short careers, forced by their mid 20s to seek real jobs despite being desperately shy of academic preparation.

Agents can be greedy, misleading and even stupid. With no justification, some tell teenagers, "You're a sure first-rounder. We'll get millions to sign. Check out Kobe and K.G. for what can happen. Do you want to live in a dorm and ride a bike when you can be driving a Mercedes and living in a mansion?"

If agents cared, they'd be honest, supplying real odds. Airing pros and cons. Sounding more parental, less ravenous. Even when bodily talents are ample, assuring a fat rookie contract, pitfalls can be enormous when jocks get too rich too fast while being unblessed by adequate maturity or sensible counsel.

Big-eyed teen athletes should know about Shawn Kemp, with whom a shortage of life preparation is now more obvious than ever at age 31, in his 12th NBA season. This despite an $11.7-million-a-year salary with three seasons remaining on a Portland Trail Blazers contract that promises another $58-million.

Kemp is in drug rehab. Done for this season. Done for good? Treatment he probably could have used years ago. For eight years, after being drafted at 19 by the Seattle SuperSonics, the 6-foot-10 talent was the darling of TV highlights, with extraordinary physical propensities. Leading his team to the NBA Finals in 1996, where only Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls could dam their flow.

Shawn fussed with Sonics coach George Karl. He missed practices. But as long as a petulant Kemp was arousing NBA arenas with alley-oop dunks, his escalating and disgusting off-court habits were kept in a closet.

Sports Illustrated did a deep, disturbing study of NBA millionaires who were fathering nauseating numbers of illegitimate children. Larry Bird was among them, but Kemp was the lousiest example, with his kid count up to seven.

Still, he played on.

Kemp became the poster guy for almost everything that is wrong with the NBA. Still, he moved to the Cleveland Cavaliers and kept making more money. Not becoming any classier or more personally savvy. Not behaving any better.

Now this ...

Kemp's abilities have eroded. Shawn can't fly like in his mid 20s. Once characterized as "Reign Man," his parade now drowns in acid rain. Portland made a three-way deal that brought Kemp from the Cavs, with the Blazers giving up Brian Grant to the Miami Heat. Shawn was miserable this season, averaging 6.5 points and 3.8 rebounds, his worst numbers since entering the league in 1989.

His weight plumped from 260 pounds to 317. He was lethargic. Blazers teammates saw Kemp laboring and worried that he might fall dead on the court. Finally, he admitted to drug dependency. Agreed to get treatment.

Back in Seattle, as long ago as the early '90s, some suspected Kemp was using dope, but nobody would put the hammer down as long as he played spectacular hoops. Why does Darryl Strawberry also come to mind?

In his teens, Kemp was a phenomenon. Hero of a different kind of Hoosiers. Elkhart Concord went undefeated, winning the Indiana high school championship in 1988. Colleges tried everything to recruit Shawn.

Kentucky was his favorite, but that chapter was brief. Kemp's grades were inadequate and went to Trinity Community College in Texas. A year later, the NBA was there with its gold.

"In the NBA," Kemp once said, "they don't teach you. It's not a time to be taught, it's a game to be played." But, from the outside, the Reign Man seemed to be making it in grand ways. Overcoming the missing links of his life.

Misleading, superficial appearances.

Kemp said, when the Blazers brought him from Cleveland, "I see it as a rebirth of my career." Hardly. Who knows, if Kemp had played four seasons at UK, going to class and growing up, if he would've been amply prepared for all the NBA entails. But how could his odds have not been enhanced?

Some jocks are so shy of principles and mores that behavior is nearly certain to go sour, no matter the attempts to counsel. Still, we should expect professional leagues to try even harder. To understand the sins, straining more efficiently for preventions and cures.

Shawn Kemp is 31, wealthy and a sad case.

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