Some of the baggage and burden of Shawn Kemp Jr.’s basketball life has been assigned, and some has been courted.
He didn’t pick his name, for instance – that came from his father, the former NBA superstar. But he did choose his dad’s game, and when it came time to pick a college, he elected to attend the University of Washington in the same town where the senior Kemp polished his star with the Seattle SuperSonics.
And for good measure, he opted to wear a Huskies uniform with the number 40, the same as pops did.
So there many who watch him play do so with the anticipation and expectation that he will reveal himself to be a second coming – running, posting, generally having his way with opponents. The Reign Kid.
They’re still waiting – in part because of other burdens and baggage.
There was the year he spent in basketball limbo after high school, taking online classes to bump his grades in order to get into UW. A fitful freshman season followed as he grappled with the demands and challenges of Division I basketball, and then a knee injury cost him seven games early in his sophomore year. Still feeling his way in early January, Kemp finally broke out when he was inserted into the starting lineup over the last 14 games, averaging 8.4 points and 3.4 rebounds.
More anticipation bubbled up for his junior season, until his energy level took a nosedive during the summer of 2013 and his weight plummeted 20 pounds in the space of two weeks.
Then came the diagnosis: the 6-foot-9 forward had Graves’ disease.
“Everybody thought I was out of shape,” Kemp said, “but it was like my body was shutting down.”
An autoimmune condition, Graves’ disease releases antibodies that stimulate the production of thyroid hormones. An acceleration of the body’s metabolism is one of a number of wide-ranging symptoms. Olympic sprinter and hurdler Gail Devers suffered from the condition, as did former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Bobby Engram.
When Kemp played 30 minutes and scored 10 points in a season-opening win over Seattle University, the diagnosis didn’t seem like much of a setback. But his condition wavered and his minutes plunged into the single digits over the holidays.
“It’s always hard to deal with something you can’t really control,” Kemp said, “and that was the biggest part for me. I wanted to be out on the court doing what I can do, but because of my condition I couldn’t go all the time. Trying to get the medication right was a battle – I’m still going through that with the doctors every once in a while.
“The big thing for me was, when I finally did feel better I was trying to do everything at once. You want to score all the points, get all the rebounds you didn’t score when you couldn’t play. I had to accept it would take time to get back to where I wanted to be, and it was frustrating.”
In time, Kemp did make it back to the starting lineup. But his season numbers – 4.4 points, a mere 1.8 rebounds a game – spoke to his ineffectiveness.
Which only means more in the way of expectation this season, amplified by need.
Kemp’s struggles at UW have dovetailed with the program’s general underachievement. The Huskies haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2011. They did make it to the NIT semis in 2012, then were bounced in the first round of that event the following year. After a 9-9 finish in the Pac-12 and a first-round loss in the league tournament last year, the Huskies simply sat out the postseason.
“That first year, we felt like we might have got a little cheated (by missing an NCAA bid),” he said, “but these past couple years have been rough. And this is my last chance. I would love to be in the big dance my senior year.”
And for 2015, he is the most veteran presence up front. Jernard Jarreau did play significant minutes as a freshman, but missed all of last year with a torn ACL. Sophomore 7-footer Robert Upshaw is a budding talent, but he too sat out 2014 after transferring from Fresno State.
Kemp said the sense of urgency throughout the team is palpable.
“We all decided to stay here for the whole summer and that hasn’t happened in recent years,” he said. “I think that created a strong connection for all of us. As for me, I worked on everything – from post moves to jump shots, getting in perfect condition.
“I feel I’m going to be the most dominant person on the court. This is it for me, and there’s a lot I want to get done.”
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