The story of Shawn Kemp takes many twists and turns. He achieved tremendous success in the NBA as one of the league’s most exciting dunkers. He also squandered away an All-Star career due to addictions to cocaine and alcohol. However, before Kemp’s personal demons become public, he was no stranger to controversy. Of course, that’s what happens when you get kicked out of the University of Kentucky’s legendary basketball program over $700.
Kentucky’s strong NBA ties
When it comes to college basketball programs, few churn out future NBA players and coaches like Kentucky. While younger basketball fans remember Karl Anthony-Towns, Julius Randle and DeMarcus Cousins dominating for the Wildcats, older generations can appreciate the number of impact coaches and players who originated from the powerhouse program.
Before Shawn Kemp prepared to join the Wildcats, he would have joined a long list of success stories. Five-time NBA champion coach Pat Riley starred for the school in the mid-’60s and earned SEC Player of the Year honors in 1966. Current Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey was a team captain and played a pivotal role in Kentucky’s 1978 NCAA title.
And let’s not forget about 7-foot-1 center Sam Bowie. The man infamously drafted before Michael Jordan actually entered the 1984 NBA draft with a strong collegiate resume. The Pennsylvania native was an All-American and three-time All-SEC selection for the Wildcats.
Shawn Kemp could have been a Kentucky legend
Coming out of high school, Shawn Kemp could have gone to any college he wanted. He wisely chose the Wildcats. The prized recruit had the talent to become the best player in school history. Yet, the opportunity vanished due to a controversial and recently-debunked incident involving two gold chains.
Kemp infamously got booted from Kentucky before ever suiting up after he allegedly stole and sold two gold chains that belonged to one of his teammates. Of course, that teammate happened to be Sean Sutton, the son of head coach Eddie Sutton.
“I wish I never filed that report,” Sean Sutton says. “Not worth it at all for the ways it impacted his life and the negative publicity it brought to him and the way it hurt our program. Looking back, I wouldn’t have done it. I think the person who took the jewelry was dishonest with Shawn about who it belonged to, and he talked Shawn into selling it for him. Otherwise, knowing Shawn, I just don’t believe he would’ve done that. It was such a bad deal. My dad was sick about it, and so were all the players.”
While Sutton’s recent comments certainly help reshape the narrative, the damage was inflicted decades ago. Rex Chapman, who overcame his own demons, told Tucker Kentucky missed out on a historic opportunity by dismissing Kemp:
“We would’ve been the greatest team ever at Kentucky,” Chapman says. “Maybe not, but it’s fun to think about, and nobody can prove we wouldn’t have.”
And so, Shawn Kemp’s Kentucky career ended before it started.
Dynamic dunker still became an NBA star
Despite his unceremonious Kentucky career, Kemp still became a first-round NBA draft pick in 1989. The Seattle SuperSonics selected him with the 17th pick in a class that featured future stars like Glen Rice, Vlade Divac and Tim Hardaway.
Even after missing so much time off the court, Kemp wasted no time asserting his athletic dominance. He made six straight NBA All-Star teams from 1993-1998. In a league that still valued physicality, his tone-setting presence was a sight to behold.
The 6-foot-10, 240-pound flyer retired with career averages of 14.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. It turns out that the $700 gold chain incident at Kentucky didn’t cost him much after all. Shawn Kemp earned more than $90 million in his 14-year NBA career.