Basketball in the 1990s had plenty of stars, players that were so exciting to watch that you couldn't miss a game when they were on…
When you first think about these stars, a few names come to mind. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal, and a young Kobe Bryant, just to name a few.
But what if I told you during the mid-1990s, one of the most exciting players to watch, a high-flying act that was certainly must-see TV, was a player by the name, Shawn Kemp.
The “Reign Man”, as Shawn Kemp was known by, was possibly the hardest dunker in NBA history and this isn't just a statement made by a fan, even NBA legends have said it.
Two-time champion and leader of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons, Isiah Thomas, had this to say about Shawn Kemp:
“I don't think we've seen anyone dunk with that type of animosity.”
Thomas is exactly right. Shawn Kemp's dunks felt different and fans in the arenas who were watching felt it too.
At one point, Shawn Kemp's play was so highly regarded that he was compared to Michael Jordan… yeah, for real.
Back in 1992, a sports reporter by the name of Mike Kahn said this about Shawn Kemp:
“The natural strength, quickness, and jumping, plus the daunting expressions after a particularly impressive move, all bear a striking resemblance to Michael Jordan.”
This was high praise indeed, but before we continue with Kemp's NBA career, let's talk about how basketball started for the “Reign Man”.
Shawn Kemp was born on November 26, 1969, in Elkhart, Indiana. He attended Concord High School.
On his first day at the prestigious B/C All-Star Camp, Shawn Kemp outplayed highly regarded prep star, Terry Mills. This gained Kemp a lot of recognition from the community and certainly from the high school basketball coach.
Shawn Kemp would go on to be a four-year varsity starter, and he was regarded as one of the top four or five players nationally his senior year.
Kemp also led his high school team to the state championship finals during his senior year.
The “Reign Man” (or boy at that time) ended his high school career as Elkhart County's all-time leading scorer and the owner of Concord's career, single-game and single-season scoring records.
In 1988, Shawn Kemp was selected to the McDonald's High School All-American team. Kemp played on what is arguably known as the best McDonald's High School All-American team, ever. He played alongside another NBA great and Hall of Famer, Alonzo Mourning.
Even though Kemp's team, the West, lost the McDonald's game, 105–99, Kemp did score a team-high 18 points, showing he could play with the best.
Shawn Kemp would eventually sign a national letter of intent to play basketball at the University of Kentucky, but bad grades would ruin a promising Collegiate basketball career.
Shawn Kemp failed to score the minimum of 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and was forced to miss his freshman year under the NCAA's Proposition 48 rules.
Shawn Kemp's high school coach, Jim Hahn, said this about the idea of Kemp not being allowed to play basketball at Kentucky:
“To have Shawn in a college environment without basketball, the one thing he loves, was, I felt, a big mistake. It even crossed my mind to advise him to go right into the NBA, and the only thing that stopped me was the fact that so few players have done it.”
Well, Coach Hahn, Shawn Kemp would become one of those very few to make the leap from high school to the NBA.
Shawn Kemp would initially attend Kentucky, but he left the team in November 1988 after he was accused of pawning two gold chains that had been reported stolen. The chains belonged to his teammate Sean Sutton, the son of then Kentucky head coach Eddie Sutton.
Sean Sutton did not press charges, but this incident prompted Kemp to transfer to Trinity Valley College in Texas.
Shawn Kemp wouldn't stay long in college, after a semester at TVCC, where he did not play, 19-year-old Kemp declared himself eligible for the 1989 NBA Draft.
Then with the 17th overall pick in the first round, the Seattle SuperSonics selected “the man child” who would later be known as the “Reign Man”.
As a rookie, Shawn Kemp wouldn't “wow” many people, he only averaged 6.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 13.8 minutes. From 1993-1998, Kemp's play would definitely catch everyone's eyes:
- 18.5 Points Per Game
- 10.5 Rebounds Per Game
- 1.4 Steals Per Game
- 1.5 Blocks Per Game
- 51% Field Goal Percentage
- 74% Free Throw Percentage
Along with his teammate, the brash talking, defensive stopper, Gary “The Glove” Payton, the Seattle SuperSonics quickly made it known that they were a team to be worried about in the NBA.
In 1993, the SuperSonics finished with the third-best record in the west (they had the sixth-best record in the west the previous season).
The next year they had the best record in the league with a 63-19 record. The SuperSonics would achieve the best record in the west once again only a few years later in 1996, with a 64-18 record.
Two unfortunate things would happen to those Sonic teams when they had the best record in the league (94) and in the west (96).
First, in 1994, the top-seeded SuperSonics fell flat in a historic upset during their first-round series against the Dikembe Mutombo. The Nuggets became the first eighth seed to beat a number one seed in the NBA playoffs. They won the series 3-2.
Then, in 1996, the Sonics were looking good. Shawn Kemp was playing at the peak of his powers averaging 19.6 points and 11.4 rebounds per game on 56.1% shooting from the floor.
His running mate, Gary Payton won the defensive player of the year award, becoming the only point guard to ever win the award.
Their problem was: They met in the finals against the greatest team ever, led by the greatest player ever… Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Those Bulls won 72 games that year and seemed to be on route to an easy championship, especially after winning the first three games of the finals.
But the Sonics didn't quit. Shawn Kemp didn't quit. Kemp, who played well in the first two games in Chicago (32 points, 29 points), came up short in Seattle with only 14 points on 7 shots.
As I stated, Shawn Kemp didn't quit. He scored 25 on 12-17 shooting to save the series. The Sonics won game 4 in runaway fashion, winning 107-86.
In-game 5, the Sonics once again held off the Bulls as Shawn Kemp scored 22 while grabbing 10 rebounds. The Sonics won 89-78.
Shawn Kemp and his Sonics heroic comeback attempt would ultimately fall short in game 6 as the Bulls won 87-75. Kemp played well with 18 points and 14 rebounds, but that Bulls team was too much.
After the loss against the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals, everyone had high hopes for Shawn Kemp. His play in those Finals opened a lot more eyes from critics to fans alike, but this is where the downfall of the “Reign Man” would begin.
In the 1996-1997 season, it was observed that Shawn Kemp was going through the motions in practice like he didn't care the way he used to.
There were reports of Shawn Kemp showing up to practice drunk. Also, there were reports of Kemp staying out late drinking the night before a game.
The most notable incident of this happened the night before the most anticipated matchup of the year: February 2nd, 1997 vs the Chicago Bulls. This was the rematch of the finals to be played in Seattle.
The night before the game, the “Reign Man” apparently was throwing back drinks late into the night at a local Seattle bar named The Keg Steakhouse and Bar.
Employees of the bar said Kemp stayed till two in the morning and that he consumed nine to 10 drinks over a 3-hour, 15-minute period, mixing single shots of Crown Royal whiskey with Corona beers.
Shawn Kemp appeared to still be drunk at tip-off against the Bulls, and he didn't attempt a single shot in the first 18 minutes of the game.
The “Reign Man” would only take 11 shots in the game, scoring 16 points. His body language didn't show that he was truly invested in the game. The Bulls won 91-84.
Shawn Kemp grew frustrated with the Sonics after the organization didn't offer him a new contract. The following season, Kemp did sign a massive contract, but with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Would the “Reign Man” be reborn in the city that's home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? The answer to that is no.
The Cavaliers almost instantly regretted giving Kemp a seven-year, 107 million dollar contract. The “Reign Man” wasn't reigning over anything when he entered training camp overweight and out of shape.
Shawn Kemp spent the entire 1997-1998 season trying to get back into playing shape. The explosiveness that made him popular in Seattle appeared to be gone in Cleveland.
Things would continue to get worse for the “Reign Man” the following season. The 1998-1999 NBA season did not start on time because of the lockout.
The season eventually would start on February 5, 1999, and Shawn Kemp came into training camp 50 pounds overweight.
On top of being incredibly out of shape, a Sports Illustrated story claimed that Kemp had fathered seven children with six women.
To make things worse, the “Reign Man” fell into the world of drugs. Kemp's once positive image was going down the drain, and his play on the court was starting to suffer as well.
Kemp was traded in 2000 to the Portland Trail Blazers, where he averaged only 6.5 points per game. During the 2000-2001 NBA season, Kemp checked himself into a drug rehabilitation program for cocaine abuse.
Less than a year later, Kemp would be suspended for five games for not complying with his aftercare agreement.
Shawn Kemp would go on to play two more seasons, averaging less than seven both years.
The “Reign Man” played his last season in Orlando for the Magic, but he was let go the following season. No NBA team would offer him a contract.
The personal life of Shawn Kemp didn't get much better after the Magic let him go. On April 4, 2005, Kemp was arrested in Shoreline, Washington for drug possession.
Shawn Kemp and another man were found with a small amount of cocaine, 60 grams of marijuana, and a semiautomatic pistol, according to the King County Sheriff's Office.
On April 29, Kemp pleaded guilty to his charges. Then on July 21, 2006, Shawn Kemp was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession in Houston, Texas.
Shawn Kemp attempted to make a comeback to the NBA a few times, but it failed. Even though he'd never play in the NBA again, the “Reign Man” finally seems to be getting his life together.
Kemp currently owns a part of Amber's Kitchen on 1st Avenue in Seattle. He also controls an interest in several Seattle venues.
Just recently in October 2020, Kemp opened a cannabis dispensary in Seattle named Shawn Kemp's Cannabis.
Shawn Kemp's career is often forgotten, but if you truly look at it, the “Reign Man” truly did reign for most of the 1990s.
Shawn Kemp's Career Stats:
- 14.6 Points Per Game
- 8.4 Rebounds Per Game
- 1.6 Assists Per Game
- 1.1 Steals Per Game
- 1.2 Blocks Per Game
- 48.8% Field Goal Percentage
What do you think? Do you believe Shawn Kemp was one of the best players of the 90s? Do you think he was one of the most exciting players?
If you don't believe the latter, then go watch the “Reign Man”, Shawn Kemp's highlights on YouTube… you won't be sorry.