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Deepness in Seattle
L. JON WERTHEIM
July 09, 2012
Before the Thunder there was Reign Man and his Sonics. Shawn Kemp's NBA career was clouded—but a return to Seattle, believe it or not, brightened things up
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July 09, 2012

Deepness In Seattle

Before the Thunder there was Reign Man and his Sonics. Shawn Kemp's NBA career was clouded—but a return to Seattle, believe it or not, brightened things up

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Come on, man," Shawn Kemp says in an impossibly deep and rumbling voice, followed by a rich laugh that originates somewhere deep in his belly. "This doesn't even count as rain."

No? Those drops falling from Seattle's bruise-colored sky this spring morning? That's not rain?

"It's nothing," he says. "Let's go."

And with that, Kemp bounds up from his seat at Oskar's Kitchen, the restaurant he owns in the Lower Queen Anne section of Seattle, unfolding a 6'10" physique that's appreciably slimmer than last recalled. Bereft of an umbrella, wearing baggy jeans, a black hoodie and a Nike cap, he ambles out the front doors and begins a walking tour of the neighborhood.

Outside of Dick's Drive-In, a local hamburger institution since the 1950s, an older couple spot Kemp and wave warmly. "Known them forever," he says. At the Seattle Center, at the foot of the Space Needle, a pair of women exchange Hey, isn't that ... looks. Kemp confirms their suspicions, smiling and tipping his cap. At KeyArena—the basketball venue where Kemp worked diligently for most of the '90s, now occupied only by the WNBA's Storm—security guards and dock loaders shout his name. With comparable enthusiasm he shouts theirs back. Walking on Valley Street, a slacker dude straight out of Seattle central casting—soul patch and wool hat, armed with a coffee cup—looks up, sees Kemp and deadpans, "What's up, Reign Man?" The two slap five without breaking stride.

Kemp is less a celebrity or a glad-handing politician here than he is a fixture, a taller-than-average neighborhood regular. He is recognized, but not once is he besieged for an autograph. And this absence of interruption enables Kemp, the restaurateur, to riff on everything from the importance of positive Yelp reviews ("Social media in general can make or break you as a small business!") to the virtues of fried Brussels sprouts ("Don't knock 'em till you've tried 'em").

The only mention of past athletic glory comes when he walks past Memorial Field, site of his flag football games. Kemp plays quarterback for teams in two local leagues and fancies himself the Tom Brady of Seattle's recreational sports crowd.

"Check this out," he says, fanning his palm to display a crooked right index finger. "I fractured it when it got caught on someone's hook. And I can still throw the ball close to 100 yards. I throw long, and I can throw it through your chest. I'm the best July quarterback you've ever seen."

The walk ends back at Oskar's Kitchen, a cross between hipster lounge and hospitable neighborhood joint, wedged between a head shop and, inevitably, a coffee shop. Kemp doesn't just own the place; he stops in on most days, sometimes playing deejay, sometimes tending bar. Not that you'd know it otherwise. D/b/a Reign Man, Kemp may have been a six-time NBA All-Star who played a few blocks away, but his name is nowhere to be seen. (Oskar, the restaurant's eponym, is a yellow tang who swims in a tropical aquarium behind the bar.) The walls feature no jerseys or memorabilia, covered instead with mermaids and 1950s pin-ups.

The only indication that Kemp is the proprietor: Oskar's signature drink, the Reignman, is a mix of 151-proof rum, melon liqueur, pineapple juice and orange juice that somehow comes out a green-yellow that combines the colors of the former Seattle Sonics' jerseys.

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