Sunday, March 16, 2003

Kemp overcame demons to salvage career

Florida Today

ORLANDO, Fla. - Shawn Kemp has been to hell and back and somehow lived to tell about it. Now, he knows deep down that he is one of the lucky ones.

Once trapped in a spiral of drug use, overeating and mild depression that caused his otherworldly basketball talents to wither, Kemp has managed to regain control of his life. No, he's no longer "The Reign Man" who jumps over power forwards in a single bound. But as he's shown throughout this season he's still a serviceable center and savvy veteran for the Orlando Magic.

For that, he considers himself tremendously lucky. He knows that things could have turned out much worse. For so long he was headed nowhere fast, but he somehow was able to get a life that was careening out of control back on track.

"It was something that happened a couple of years ago, but really I'm very fortunate now," Kemp said Thursday of his past drug use. "Really, I was able to walk away from it without having to put a lot of time and effort into it. I've met people and I know people who have to constantly go into counseling, care and treatment, but I feel fortunate that I'm not one of those people. I don't wake up every morning thinking about that. That's not something I think about every week.

"I'm fortunate, I really am. A lot of people who have used drugs, they can't get a hold on it. The athletes who have really battled it like Darryl Strawberry and Lawrence Taylor, those are the guys who had a real problem. I was fortunate that I had strong family support. We were able to grab it right away and correct it. I live a positive life and I plan to keep it that way the rest of my life."

The Magic have witnessed that firsthand this season. Though they were understandably leery when he was brought to training camp five months ago, Kemp has won the respect of coaches and teammates with a work ethic second to none.

For so long, Kemp gave the appearance of being the poster boy for excess in pro sports. Overeating had caused his once-svelte, freakishly talented body to swell to 330 pounds. All the drugs and partying sapped his focus and intensity. And the seven-year, $107 million contract he originally signed in 1997 made him arguably one of the most overpaid players in the NBA.

But the demons of his past are just that now - in his past, he said. For all his faults, he is still a man of great pride. To this day, he is almost embarrassed by the opportunities he let slip through his grasp.

Pride is what led him to sacrificing some $15 million of the $46.5 million that Portland owed him so he could go elsewhere to play and restore his reputation in the NBA. Pride is what led him to practically beg coach Doc Rivers and general manager John Gabriel for another chance last September.

Pride is what had him working on the Stairmaster after morning practices and again after games in order to shed some 40 pounds. Pride is what has him wanting to play at least another two seasons.

"I think I've let people know that I still want to play," said Kemp, 33.

"There was never a doubt about that with me. My play has been up and down, but I think I've restored the idea that I want to continue playing basketball. I haven't always played at the highest level, but by watching me I think you can see that I can still play.

"I'm a very prideful person. I've played a long time and I still think I can do something, so I'm willing to take chances. Everything I've done is because of my pride."

Kemp's pride was basically crushed to tiny bits a month ago when the NBA suspended him for what it termed to be a violation of the anti-drug policy.

The initial fear, of course, was that Kemp had a drug relapse.

Word of Kemp's suspension quickly became national news - and looked to be just another sad chapter to a seemingly sad story. Kemp had past and current teammates feverishly calling, trying to find out what happened.

Some in the Magic organization even wondered why he would have had a misstep after working so hard to reshape his body and regain his game.

"He was just disappointed because he had done so much work just to get back to some kind of respectability and he felt people kind of condemned him before knowing the truth," said Rivers, one of the first to reach Kemp by phone. "I even got calls saying, 'How can Shawn let you down like that?' I told them, 'Hold on, he hasn't let us down yet.' But they think that way because of the past. But the good thing about the whole thing was that he got a chance to prove to everybody that he was clean. We knew that he had always been taking tests, but we didn't know that he was clean. He resolved that."

As it turns out, Kemp was suspended for simply rescheduling one of the twice-weekly drug tests he's required to submit to so that he could return to his home in Seattle during the NBA All-Star break. He's done that numerous times before, he said, but this time he was suspended. Initially, he was crushed because he feared that he had been set back to ground zero in the public's eyes. But the mature side of him refused to blame anyone but himself.

"That really hurt me," he said. "But I often tell myself now that I put myself into that position a couple of years back. It hurt because I didn't do anything wrong or anything I hadn't ordinarily done before. But I allowed them to take advantage of me because I put myself in that situation a couple of years ago. As bad as that hurt, it still constantly reminded me that I had a lot to do with it. If I would have never put myself in that position in the first place, I wouldn't have had to go through it."

To help Kemp get through the rough times, support from his teammates and coaches is never far away. Assistant coach Mark Hughes, who has worked the most with Kemp, will ask out of the blue if he wants to have dinner together. Rivers will occasionally slip notes of encouragement into his locker. Team captain Darrell Armstrong, is seemingly always at his side, joking with him and being there to talk.

And then there's Magic superstar Tracy McGrady, trying to soak in some of Kemp's experience. For much of the early 1990s, Kemp was to the Seattle SuperSonics what McGrady is to the Magic now. He was the young, energetic, high-flying face of the franchise. He was seemingly the prototype at his position - quick and springy like a youngster and strong and tough like a veteran. He got the Sonics to the NBA Finals in 1996 and his future seemed limitless.

"He has those leadership abilities and he's a guy who gives good advice when things aren't going so well," McGrady said. "Watching him over the years, you look at what he used to do and how good he used to be. Guys tell me they used to be scared to guard him because he was so good. But he's come a long way, overcoming the problems he's been though. He's around a great group of teammates now. He's been a real good influence to this team and I'm glad he's here."

Averaging just 7.3 points and six rebounds in 21.7 minutes a night, Kemp's leadership might be the thing he has the most to offer. Considering everything he's been through and everywhere he's been, it's a role he takes seriously.

"I cherish that because when I started, I wasn't a lottery pick and everything I got I had to work for," the 14-year veteran said. "Things that happened made me respect the game even more. That's why I wanted to carry myself in a positive manner. I've gained a lot from basketball, but I think I've given a lot, too."

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