So Shawn Kemp finally wants to talk with the Sonics.
Keep the kids out of the room, Barry Ackerley.
If Kemp’s weekend encounter with a reporter is any indication of his mood and oratory, the Sonics owner is in for the conversational equivalent of a shore-leave pier brawl.
Approached at a kids’ basketball camp for word on his situation, Kemp rebuffed Seattle Times reporter Bob Sherwin by calling him a plucky maggot, or something that sounded like that.
Not a big deal, really. Sports reporters are used to being treated like brown recluse spiders by pro athletes. Years ago, a former Mariners player used to greet me not with a hello, but with a projectile of tobacco juice to the top of my shoe. Sadly enough, the shoe looked better that way, although it turned out the player was more accurate with his slurry than his slider.
Kemp’s obscene outburst, which included a physical threat, was a little different in that it didn’t take place in the locker room or other non-public heckling space, but in front of kids seeking autographs.
Just another one for the wall in the Kemp Museum of Good Judgment.
Speaking of good judgment, Kemp’s agent Tony Dutt told the P-I the petulant forward is now willing to tuck in his pouting lower lip and talk with Ackerley.
Who does the Seattle fan root for in that matchup?
It’s like Tyson vs. Liston, or Bosworth vs. Rodman.
In this case, Ackerley has a rare opportunity to come out the good guy. For a businessman who just lost big when his billboard company was no longer allowed to shill for cancer in the form of tobacco advertising, any advantage is always helpful.
Kemp, who has steadfastly refused to talk to Sonics bosses and insisted in a TV interview that he will “never, ever, ever” wear a Sonics uniform again, now is eager to sit with The Man - even though there is nothing to negotiate, and little to explain.
Kemp knows it too. As Dutt said, “The Sonics have the leverage. We know that. Shawn’s very aware of what he’s doing. He doesn’t like his options, but he knows them. He knows they have the hammer.”
Which makes Kemp’s judgment more remarkable. Some Sonics fans held out the hope that Kemp didn’t understand how pointless and silly his position was, and would eventually realize he was pursuing a dead man’s course. But no. Having discovered the hammer is hard and cold, he continues to get his head bashed by it.
The draft has come and gone, the NBA is more than two weeks into its free-agent signing period, and the Sonics have made no Kemp-related moves and don’t appear on the verge.
He has deeply alienated management and teammates, several of whom stood up for him in the spring when coach George Karl wanted to suspend him until he evinced some shred of responsibility. He has tarnished his marketability for both products and trade. Now, Kemp is taking his Billy Goat Gruff act public.
Despite the depth of this hole, Kemp will try to climb out by persuading Ackerley to OK his trade, figuring that the owner has been here longer than either Karl or team president Wally Walker and knows of any money promises supposedly made and broken.
While that may be true, Ackerley and the Sonics are helpless in the face of the rules of the NBA’s 1995 collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union. Besides the Byzantine rules that severely limit the Sonics in improving Kemp’s contract, the league is strictly enforcing the agreement so that clubs don’t sneak money to players around the rules.
Besides, Ackerley is likely to listen to the judgment of his basketball people when it comes to making the club better by dealing Kemp. If they don’t think such a trade can be made in the short or long term, Ackerley is not likely to accede to a player under valid contract who has compromised and embarrassed his franchise.
Despite the obviousness of all this, Kemp and his advisers persist in seeing doors where there are none.
“This isn’t about bluffing,” Dutt said. “Shawn doesn’t see anything happening anytime soon, and he’s mentally prepared for that. It’s not like if Nov. 1 rolled around, he’d be stuck.”
In fact, stuck is exactly the word. If the stalemate continues into the season, the Sonics will suspend Kemp without pay. Given the weakness of the league, they could still win 50 games without him, although they are probable second-round road kill in the playoffs.
But hey, how far did they get with him last spring?
The Sonics without Kemp will be better off than Kemp without the Sonics. The sports contest of the preseason will be guessing how many strokes of the hammer it will take before that idea gets through to him.
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