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Taking care of business
A point to prove
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A point to prove

Tiger guard Willie Kemp prepares to make some noise his senior season.

By Greg Russell

The couch seemed to almost swallow Willie Kemp as he first sat in a lounge area inside the Larry Finch Center on one of those steamy afternoons that Memphis routinely serves up each July. If it is possible to sweat from the outside in, this was one of those days. The air inside the facility may have been working — but just barely — as the makings of a single bead of sweat began to swell up on Kemp’s forehead. But as questions about his problems on the basketball court last season rained down on Kemp like hot needles, the Tiger guard, as usual, kept his cool, kept his composure, kept that same air of dignity as he talked about his disappointing season of a year ago.

“I put it all on me,” says Kemp. “I held myself accountable.”

If you know Kemp, you knew those answers were coming.

“Willie is that kind of kid, he is not going to say anything negative,” says Rick Rudesill, who was Kemp’s coach at Bolivar (Tenn.) Central High. “He does and says what he is supposed to.”

But was there more to it than just a lack of self-confidence, a label routinely pinned on him by media? It was certainly puzzling to know how a player who helped lead his team to the Elite Eight as a freshman starter came to consistently ride the pine last year, save for a cameo here and there.

A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the Forum

KempIn the high-pressure business of college basketball, there is often a fine line that separates the amount of playing time an athlete receives. In elite programs, such as the University of Memphis, that line is even sharper as athletes with worlds of talent jockey for minutes on the court. For Kemp, that fine line last year turned into a high-wire act where a single misstep was cause for a free-fall to the bench.

“Coach Cal (John Calipari) always held his players accountable,” Kemp says. “There were some games I checked in and I wasn’t doing the right thing and I wasn’t ready to play.”

And out of the game he was, often for good.

Kemp came to the Tigers as a celebrated recruit: Scout.com rated him the 46th overall best player in the country while rivals.com ranked him the No. 6 point guard his senior season and rightfully so. In a game in his final year, Kemp showed signs of brilliance: in a loss to Poplar Bluff (Mo.) High, Kemp stole the show from Tyler Hansbrough, outscoring the future North Carolina star 36 points to 28. Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee were among the schools that wore a path across Kemp’s welcome mat.

As a freshman at Memphis, he started 36 of 37 games and was set to be the Tiger point guard his second season until Calipari signed Derrick Rose, this year’s NBA Rookie-of-the-Year. But even that second year, Kemp came up big: his four 3-pointers rallied the Tigers against Mississippi State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. “We wouldn’t have made it to the championship game without Willie,” Calipari said.

But last year turned to disaster, the tightrope even shakier. Kemp was often being yanked from the game after one or two miscues. By season’s end, Kemp was playing sparingly, getting only three minutes in the Tigers’ 102-91 loss to Missouri in the NCAA West Region semifinals.

Whether Calipari held Kemp to a higher standard or if he simply lost confidence in him, the former Bolivar star wasn’t given much room to breathe: other players were on a longer leash.

“I wanted to play through that mistake but at the same time, I should have been ready to play and not making stupid mistakes, turning the ball over,” he says.

Adds Rudesill, “You can’t relax and play well if you are constantly worried about messing up — you are going to mess up more.

“Cal is very demanding. I think it hurt Willie’s confidence. And confidence is Willie’s game. He has to have that air of confidence. I think that was kind of deflating when he would come out after one mistake.

“It is hard to get back. It is especially hard to get back when you are constantly being chewed on. I think it was a conflict of personalities.”

Kemp doesn’t completely buy into the “no confidence” tag. He explains it this way: “Coach had more confidence in the other players that were playing in front of me. That was between him and the players playing, but still in my heart I knew I could play great and help this team win.”

But Kemp never complained. “I knew I couldn’t show I was mad by coming out being selfish or nothing like that or it could lead to other players being selfish or mess the team up. I just tried to play through all that.”

Rudesill said, too, that the dribble drive offense might not have helped Kemp as it became more firmly entrenched in the Tiger offense.

“He was just trying to find a niche in that (dribble drive) offense last year. That’s not for Willie. The guy that created it says you need two point guards. I don’t think you need any. You just need slashers.

“Willie’s style, he needs to be a playmaker. He’s good at setting up, getting guys in the right spot. Running an offense. I am not sure what Coach (Josh) Pastner is planning on running. If it is more of a traditional offense, I am sure Willie will shine.”

Pastner has said that while he plans to use some elements of the dribble drive, he also plans to incorporate “my own style.” Put on your track shoes because he says it will be an even more up-tempo offense compared to past seasons.

And on Kemp, Pastner says, “Willie has a new lease on his basketball life. I am expecting big things from him on and off the court. We are counting on him to be a leader.”

Close to home

KempIn Bolivar, which is about an hour’s drive east of Memphis on Hwy. 64, Kemp gained celebrity status while leading the school to two state championships. At Joe’s Restaurant, on the edge of this town of about 6,000, owners Lynn and Lisa Hodge are huge University of Tennessee fans — even their business cards are orange. But after Kemp as a senior took their freshman son under his wing and mentored him, the Hodge’s took down one of the orange walls in their restaurant and replaced it with a “Willie/U of M” wall.

And Bolivar Central assistant principal Helen Johnson said Kemp took a special interest in his kindergarten teacher who was dying from cancer, “often writing her letters and visiting her.”

But there may be no bigger fan than his mother, Maxine, who is battling polycystic kidney disease.

“I try my best to be at all the home games,” she says. “I do dialysis, but I get off the machine if they have a game on that day, I get off and go home and get a couple of hours sleep and then go off to Memphis to the game.

“He has made me one proud mother. He makes sure that when he comes home, he goes to the school to check on the children. He brings them t-shirts and makes sure they are not getting into trouble. He is always doing things like that for people. He don’t forget where he comes from.”

She feels that Pastner will treat her son more fairly. “He called me to introduce himself and to ask how I am doing. He is a nice man. I think Willie will do better under him.”

And it is not just Bolivar. Kemp and his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, have gone to New Orleans the past two years to work with Habitat for Humanity, building homes for the needy.

“It is not all about basketball for me,” he says. “I feel I was put on this Earth for a purpose. I am just trying to make other people happy. Just going to New Orleans and helping the people down there was a great experience for me.”

One more and done

Kemp says he has spent the summer “working on my ball-handling skills and jump shot.” He says he is excited to play for Pastner.

“I think Coach Pastner is a very down-to-earth type guy. He is going to push us and push us. During practice last year, as an assistant coach, he was one of the first coaches in the gym, making sure the players got extra shots up, making sure the players were going to class and staying out of trouble on and off the court. I think it will be a great year for coach Pastner and for us. I can’t wait to get into practice and play for him.”

But there is something else Kemp is looking forward to.

“I feel like I have something to prove. Like I said, these last couple of years, I haven’t been playing much. I have been the shadow behind someone. I just feel like if I put the work in I need to do this summer and be ready for the upcoming season, I feel like I can prove something.”

A U of M billboard last year read, “Where there is a Willie, there is a Way.” And chances are this upcoming season, there will be.

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