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Shawn Kemp on why he left the Sonics: 'They weren’t going to pay me $100 million'

When Kemp moved to Cleveland, money was no longer an issue, but the Reign Man was not only about dollars.
Shawn Kemp

Shawn Kemp

Whenever we talk about Shawn Kemp, we remember the electrifying and sometimes disrespectful in-game dunks. But apart from it, some of us also couldn't help but wonder why a championship-caliber Seattle Supersonics team let go of one of the most athletic power forwards in the game.

It's all about the money

Nowadays, NBA superstars inking hundred-million-dollar deals has become a norm. Back then, top-grade players such as Kemp did not have that luxury. In 1994, the Sonics were reportedly committed to paying Kemp $45 million throughout nine seasons. Apparently, Kemp seemed ok with it as he agreed to a deal that would see him earn about $20 million by 2002.

However, things began to get rocky in 1996 when the Reign Man thought he should make more than the above figures. But as per the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players, a player doesn't have the right to suggest altering a contract until three years after signing the latest extension, meaning Kemp can't renegotiate his current deal until October 1997.

Unhappy with his situation, Kemp began showing a lack of interest in playing for the Sonics and went to a lengthy no-show during the team's training camp ahead of the 96/97 season. When quizzed for comments, Kemp came clean outright and said it's all about the money.

"When you play for seven years, and you've proved yourself to be an All-Star, then you see guys who haven't proved themselves sign for millions of dollars, you have a right to be upset,″ Kemp told AP News in 1996.

There was also the narrative that Kemp did not like how some of his Sonics teammates had better contracts. Jim McIlvaine, for example, a backup center, signed a $33 million free-agent contract with the Sonics. On the other hand, Kemp's fellow All-Star Gary Payton inked a staggering $87.5 million deal during the summer.

However, Kemp insisted that his teammates had nothing to do with his issue.

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"It has nothing to do with Jim McIlvaine or any of my teammates,″ he pointed out. "It's not anything personal."

Despite being dissatisfied with his salary, Kemp and his performance in the 1996/97 season did not even hint at what was going on off the court. He still finished the year with an impressive tally of 18.7 points, 10 rebounds, and one block per outing. But right after that season, Kemp and the Sonics have figured enough is enough.

In the offseason, Seattle shipped Kemp to the Cleveland Cavaliers via a three-team trade that also involved the Milwaukee Bucks. The Sonics received Bucks big man Vin Baker, while the Bucks got Terrell Brandon and Tyrone Hill. How much was Kemp's deal with the Cavs? a seven-year contract worth a whopping $107 million.

Having signed a lucrative contract, Kemp showed Cleveland what they paid for and gave the team three wonderful seasons.

"It wasn't about SK [Kemp] making $100 million," Kemp said on The Knuckleheads Podcast with Darius Miles & Quentin Richardson in 2020. "It was about breaking a barrier because I thought we should be making more money. … In my heart, I kind of knew I was going to have to leave because they [Seattle] weren't going to pay me 100 million dollars. I had six years left on my contract. I was the first athlete ever who got 100 million dollars and still had six or seven years on my contract."

Kemp lost his desire to play

When Kemp moved to Cleveland, money was no longer an issue, but the Reign Man was not only about dollars. Being a perennial All-Star who has come inch-close to an NBA title, Kemp was also about winning, something he never tasted when he parted ways with the Sonics.

Kemp gave everything he got in his third and final season with the Cavs, having played all 82 games with a work rate of 17.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. But with no Payton-like All-Star-level teammate, Kemp was disappointed as Cleveland only managed to win 32 games.

In 2000, Kemp joined the powerhouse Portland Trail Blazers team composed of Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire, Steve Smith, and European legend Arvydas Sabonis. At the time, Kemp was no longer in his peak form, but Portland was winning. However, the team always fell short-handed in their chase for an NBA title, something that got Kemp exhausted and frustrated.

"You realize that it takes a lot more concentration, a lot more focus to play basketball," Kemp admitted. "Basketball is not as fun anymore 'cause you're not winning. Winning is what makes basketball fun."

In 2002, Kemp left the Blazers and teamed up with one of the most highly-touted duos of the early 2000s- Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill of the Orlando Magic. However, the outcome was worse as the promising Magic team never played out as advertised.

Looking back, it's hard to say if Kemp made a mistake and he did so, at what point did he exactly make one. The only thing certain is that the Kemp-Payton tandem has become one of the biggest "what ifs" in the NBA. 

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