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Shawn Kemp Jr. takes long road to familiar place

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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As his mother choked back tears and his uncle struggled to resist the urge to raise his fists in retaliation, Shawn Kemp Jr. defiantly refused to let the hecklers in the bleachers know he heard their insults.

A group of students from a rival school had strayed well over the line between clever and cruel in an attempt to rattle Kemp during a Georgia high school basketball game his senior year. They serenaded him with chants of "Shoulda worn a condom," a crude reference to the seven kids his dad fathered with six different women by age 28.

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"Shawn said to me afterward, 'Mom, it's just words. I ignore it and you need to ignore it too,'" Kemp's mother Genay Doyal recalled. "I said, 'You are absolutely right.' And from that day, I tried not to let it get to me. I started trying to be more like him."

There's no instruction manual for how the son of one of pro sports' most notorious absentee fathers is expected to behave, but stories like that one demonstrate how admirably Kemp has risen to the challenge. Neither the sting of jokes about his dad's checkered personal life nor the pressure of matching his father's basketball exploits have prevented the eldest son of Seattle SuperSonics legend Shawn Kemp from forging his own path in the sport.

Originally headed to Alabama and then to Auburn because of his desire to attend school close to his Georgia home, Kemp had to alter his plans when he failed to qualify academically for either school. The 6-foot-9 forward took a year off from basketball and worked diligently to pass his remaining coursework online, eventually accepting a late scholarship offer from Washington last month that will enable him to play in the city where his dad once starred.

Whereas other kids might resent only having sporadic contact with their father as a child or enduring taunts and name-calling from their peers as a result of their dad's mistakes, Kemp doesn't harbor any lingering anger. In fact, he has embraced the Reign Man's efforts to become more involved in his life the past few years, frequently practicing his post moves with his dad or seeking his advice.

"He's helped me a lot just by telling me to be my own person," the younger Kemp said. "There's a lot of pressure on me because people expect a lot. I'm not my dad, but I'm trying." {YSP:MORE}

It's especially exciting for Kemp's family to see his relationship with his dad blossom because it wasn't too long ago that the two seldom spoke.

After a job opportunity led Doyal to relocate from Seattle to the Atlanta suburbs when the younger Kemp was 5 years old, father and son seldom had any contact again for more than a decade. The only time they saw each other in person was a 15-minute postgame conversation outside the visiting locker room at Phillips Arena after Kemp Sr.'s Cleveland Cavaliers played the Atlanta Hawks.

Growing up without his dad in his life brought the younger Kemp closer to his mother.

She remained confident in him when others said he couldn't succeed in the classroom, attended all his extracurricular activities and didn't push him into basketball when he wasn't ready. She also patiently answered all his questions when his father's name was in the headlines after Sports Illustrated revealed in 1998 how many kids he had or after he was arrested in 2005 on drug possession charges.

That Kemp can shrug his shoulders and insist his father's absence "really didn't affect me at all" is enough to elicit a slight chuckle from his mom. She remembers a time when Kemp all but boycotted basketball out of the desire to carve a different path than his father's.

Although his dad was a six-time NBA All-Star, his uncle played professionally overseas and his mom also had a passion for basketball from growing up in a hoops-crazed family, Kemp neither played nor watched the sport as a kid. The hoop his mom put up in their front yard soon after they moved to Georgia sat mostly unused until Kemp finally expressed interest in joining his school's basketball team in eighth grade.

"I wanted him to play in fifth or sixth grade, but when I realized that's not what he wanted to do, I didn't push it," Doyal said. "He felt when he was younger that he didn't want to be pushed because of who his dad was, so I just let him say on his own that he was ready."

One of the reasons Kemp became more enamored with basketball by eighth grade was a growth spurt that alerted him to his immense potential. Already 6-foot-5 with size 15 feet that suggested he might approach 7 feet one day, Kemp would spend hours in the front yard practicing an array of high-flying dunks.

Although Kemp's game in high school was less refined than other top big men because he didn't start playing competitively until age 14, it's plainly evident which former All-Star power forward he resembles most. Kemp's not quite the genetic marvel his dad was at the peak of his career, yet the similarities between their style of play and physical characteristics are obvious.

He inherited his dad's familiar gait and facial features. He inherited his dad's explosive leaping ability and penchant for dunking. He inherited his dad's knack for running the floor and soft touch around the rim. And as if that's not enough, he has a tattoo of a basketball with "S.K." and "40" inside on his right shoulder.

"Everything about little Shawn's game and his dad's game is similar, except his dad took it to another level with his intensity and athleticism," said Kemp's uncle Harold Doyal, a former Western Washington star who worked with his nephew during the summers when he returned home from playing professionally in Europe. "Shawn is made to be a power forward. Is he going to windmill on three guys just like his dad? Probably not. But he can be a great player someday."

As Kemp blossomed into one of the state of Georgia's top big men and climbed into the top 100 in Rivals.com's Class of 2009 rankings, scholarship offers poured in from the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss and Washington.

Kemp signed with Alabama his senior year at Cherokee High and then flipped to Auburn the following year as a prep student at Hargrave Military Academy, but both times he failed to meet the NCAA's minimum academic eligibility standards. The setbacks were especially frustrating for Kemp's family and teachers because they knew it wasn't a lack of intelligence but rather a lack of confidence and focus holding him back.

To illustrate that point, Susan Buice, an English teacher at Cherokee, cites a conversation she had with Kemp during one of their daily tutoring sessions in high school. When Kemp adamantly insisted to her that she'd never catch him crying, Buice scoffed and asked him, "What about if someone close to you passed away?"

"He said, 'Then I'll weep. There's a difference between crying and weeping,'" Buice recalled. "That's my favorite Shawn Kemp story. I'm an English teacher, and he schooled me on the difference between those two words."

What changed for Kemp academically during the year he took off from basketball was his maturity and work ethic. Whereas he sometimes lacked focus in high school and he didn't respond well to Hargrave's strict disciplinary style, the realization that his dream of playing college basketball was slipping away was the motivation he needed to snatch it back.

Having originally accepted a merchandising position at Coca Cola after moving back to Seattle last October, Kemp quit three weeks into it because the 12-hour workdays didn't leave him sufficient time to focus on his studies. Instead, he shifted all his attention to the classes he was taking via an NCAA accredited online program, often staying up as late as 3 a.m. reading or getting a paper done.

"To be real honest, there were many times I wanted to give up, but I knew I couldn't because I love to play basketball," Kemp said. "There were many times I thought I wouldn't be able to play in college because I wouldn't be able to finish, but I finally did it."

The strides Kemp made academically didn't go unnoticed by the Washington coaching staff.

Even though Kemp rejected the Huskies' overtures the first two times he selected a college, Washington assistant coach Paul Fortier continued to periodically check in with Kemp or his mother to monitor his progress. The combination of the good impression Kemp made and Washington's desire to add at least one more big man to its perimeter-heavy roster amplified the Huskies' interest, especially after they missed on recruits Angelo Chol, Norvel Pelle and God's Gift Achiuwa this past spring.

Kemp was weighing walking on at Washington or looking elsewhere when Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar surprised him with a scholarship offer the first week of July. Many Washington fans thought the program might be better off saving that scholarship for the class of 2012, but Romar valued Kemp's upside, resilience and work ethic.

"There's something special about him that will allow him to be successful in life," Romar said. "I'm very impressed with the way he worked his butt off and eventually made it in. He even quit his job with Coke, and it wasn't like he was making 50 cents an hour. He was making pretty good money. There are not a lot of kids who'd be willing to do that. It's a testament to how hard he was willing to work and how much it meant to him."

For Kemp, finally earning the chance to play college basketball is particularly special because he's now able to share his accomplishments with both his mom and his dad.

Kemp Sr. has gradually grown closer to his eldest son since first contacting him in hopes of reentering his life before his junior year in high school. The former NBA star declined to be interviewed for this story through his son, but Kemp Jr. said his father reached out to him "because he knew the kind of pressure that would be put on me because of what he accomplished."

From advising Kemp Jr. to focus on his schoolwork, to teaching him to improve his footwork on the low block, to running stadium steps or mountain trails with him, the elder Kemp has been a positive influence since his son's return to Seattle. Now Kemp Jr. hopes to make his father proud by having immediate success at Washington on the court and in the classroom.

The first priority for Kemp is getting into basketball shape and trimming down to a svelte 245 pounds, a goal made easier by a bacterial infection that prevented him from eating much solid food for two weeks in July. If Kemp adds muscle and conditions properly during the offseason, Romar envisions the same kid who once wasn't sure he'd ever play in college challenging for a spot in the Huskies' frontcourt rotation as soon as next season.

"Everyone takes a different path to their success," Kemp's mother said. "Some people's paths are going to take longer, but what matters is they eventually get there."

And for those Pac-12 student sections looking forward to razzing Kemp about his famous father, here's a helpful hint: It's not worth the effort.

Whatever clever jabs you concoct, he's already heard far worse.

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