Shawn Kemp is lighting up Seattle again

As the legal weed boom shuts out Black Americans, the former SuperSonics star is vowing to diversify the industry. So why are cannabis activists mad at their hometown hero?
Shawn Kemp, who has been arrested for marijuana possession in the past, now owns a stake in a new Seattle dispensary named after him. But the size of that stake is sparking debate among his former fans. (Lindsey Wasson for The Washington Post)

SEATTLE — He’s not more than three or four pulls into his joint when, standing in a waterfront sculpture park in the middle of the afternoon, Shawn Kemp starts looking around. He’s trying to remember the name of a musicians’ lounge he used to visit in the early 1990s.

“I’ll tell you what it was, man. It was, the name of it was …” he says. “What was it called?”

He shakes his head before taking another drag off his Freddy’s Fuego Animal Gas pre-roll. But it’s not the marijuana that has dulled Kemp’s memory. It’s the years.

“Well anyways,” he says.

The landmark he’s looking for was a 24-hour place where wannabe rock stars could jam, rehearse, record. Kemp, then a young star with the Seattle SuperSonics, got to know some of the musicians and the owner, who learned the 6-foot-10 power forward liked to smoke weed before and after games. But cannabis wasn’t just frowned upon by the NBA; in those days, it could get you sent to prison. So the owner offered Kemp access to the top floor so he could hide out, blaze up, soothe his knees and his mind without worrying about who might smell the smoke.

Now his old hideaway is an apartment building and a symbol of robust commercialism, and Kemp is smoking in broad daylight a few blocks from the Space Needle and his old office, the basketball cathedral formerly known as KeyArena. Both are signs that cities change over time, so do opinions, and —

“The Box!” Kemp says, remembering at last. “For years that kept me away from having a lot of trouble.”

The Jambox, actually, which closed in 2012 after hosting bands such as Blind Melon and Parliament-Funkadelic for decades. Kemp just chuckles at the evolution surrounding him. The Sonics moved to Oklahoma City a dozen years ago, and Kemp jokes that if police smelled marijuana now, they wouldn’t make an arrest. They would smoke with him, then stroll up the hill to the nearest marijuana retail store, where this Animal Gas he’s burning retails for $9 a joint. That store happens to be Shawn Kemp’s Cannabis, which opened in late October and isn’t just a shrine to both Kemp’s old life and a favorite activity. It represents an investment in the city by a favorite son and, to Kemp at least, progress. Shortly before its grand opening, the shop was touted as “Seattle’s first Black-owned dispensary.”

It has been eight years since Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, six since the first retail stores opened. But while the customer base in this $15 billion-a-year business is diverse, the industry itself remains unrelentingly White, including here. According to Washington’s Liquor and Cannabis Board, which issues licenses and strictly regulates the growth and sale of marijuana, there are 485 licensed retail stores in the state. About 3 percent of those store owners identify as Black, and before October, none of Seattle’s 47 stores described themselves as Black owned.

If Black Americans have largely been shut out of legal weed, they remain in the crosshairs of the still-sprawling, often-militarized effort to crack down on the illegal, or quasi-legal, market. The American Civil Liberties Union reported that Blacks are nearly four times as likely as Whites to be arrested for an offense related to marijuana.

Kemp, who used to fear going to jail for weed, says he hopes his store — and his long-term vision for a national cannabis empire — can help alter that. He has vowed to hire Black employees and to train and mentor them as they learn an industry that’s highly lucrative but hasn’t traditionally been equitable.

But it’s hard to change an industry’s culture, especially in a city that’s both progressive and behind the curve. Kemp is learning it might even involve wagering his reputation as the prince of Seattle, at least among some outspoken locals.

An activist group in Washington is suing the state and the U.S. Department of Justice over what it says is systematic inequity in the state’s cannabis business. Two of its members came of age watching Kemp soaring through the air at KeyArena and inspiring hope in Seattle’s Black community. Now, after learning about how his cannabis shop came to life, they’re not just angry with him. They suggest he’s a traitor.

“They’ve propped one of our local heroes up as a puppet,” says Aaron Barfield, a member of Black Excellence in Cannabis and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “He’s definitely being used.”

Back in the sculpture park, Kemp shrugs and says he doesn’t see it that way. Maybe it’s just the relaxing effects of the Animal Gas. But he chuckles and says that, not for the first time, outsiders are assigning labels to Shawn Kemp without all the facts.

He takes another long drag as masked-up joggers pass on Broad Street. Occasionally their eyes catch sight of the giant man casually smoking a joint as he tells stories in that deep, raspy delivery. One stops a few paces down the hill and doubles back.

“What’s up, Shawn?” he says.

Kemp greets him with a smile. He makes no effort to hide his pre-roll.

“Could I get a picture?”

Kemp nods, walks toward the sidewalk and drapes a long arm around the skinny jogger.

“How’s the shop doing?” the jogger says.

“It’s working, man,” Kemp says.

“I’ve got to stop by.”

“Just one block,” Kemp says, sounding like a salesman. “Straight down and to the right.”

The inside of Kemp's shop is an ode to both the decade that defined Kemp, the 1990s, and the substance that helped him get through it. (Lindsey Wasson/For The Washington Post)

The inside of Shawn Kemp’s Cannabis isn’t just a high-security celebration of all things herb, although it definitely is that: concentrates and edibles and jars of high-potency bud with names such as Space Face’s Mac & Cheese, Phat Panda’s Inzane in the Membrane, Burnwell’s Meatbreath. There are also Cookies, former Sonics teammate Gary Payton’s signature strain, plus cannabis-infused lotions, creams and bath bombs that well-versed budtenders, each wearing a green T-shirt emblazoned with Kemp’s jersey No. 40, ring up on iPads.

It feels, at times, like a bizarre dream that takes place entirely in the ’90s. Two “NBA Jam” arcade machines sit near a window, and Erykah Badu’s caressing voice floats through the speakers.

Oh, my, my, my

I'm feeling high.

The walls are decorated with a neon sign and photos of the kinds of skull-rattling dunks that made Kemp a six-time NBA all-star. Outside, there’s a giant mural of Kemp in various poses. And in the store’s center, behind a check-in station where identification cards and body temperatures are checked, stands a monument to the decade when the Pacific Northwest came of age: the big man himself, wearing a dark gray sweatsuit, a black neck gaiter and colorful Jordans.

Kemp smiles, greets customers, signs autographs. Especially for Seattleites of a certain age, this is like meeting Santa Claus, if Santa wore green studs in his ears and had a sneaker deal with Reebok.

“He just brought so much joy,” says Jeff Ament, one of the founders of Pearl Jam and a Sonics fan during a decade when Kemp and Payton led the team to eight consecutive playoff appearances and the 1996 NBA Finals. “He really folded into that put-your-head-down, work-hard, be-humble ethos, and I think that’s why Seattle people still love him so much.”

Looking back, Ament says, “It was just like being around magic.”

Kemp played with power and an edge that made him a sensation. But after a Sports Illustrated story raised questions about his parenting, he refused to show anger during photo shoots, he says, worried about perpetuating racist stereotypes. (Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images)

Though Kemp was from rural Indiana, it always felt as if he belonged here. He lived in Queen Anne and walked the city’s hills. He played in a kickball league, performed Shakespeare in the Park, spent nights working at a diner because he hoped to someday open a restaurant. He arranged midnight basketball games for at-risk kids, then scheduled a fleet of ice cream trucks to arrive as the games ended. He bought a pickup truck, some days tossing his bicycle in the back, others driving to the hardware store to help a neighbor load drywall.

Kemp wasn’t perfect, and that’s partly why people here loved him. He smoked weed, liked music, got famously fat. But these imperfections were sometimes weaponized against him. Alongside his 8,834 career rebounds came another inescapable and frequently cited statistic: He fathered a reported seven children (it’s actually nine) by six women. In 1998, a Sports Illustrated cover story investigated professional athletes who had conceived children “out of wedlock.” It went so far as to name an NBA “All-Paternity team” that included Kemp, eight other Black players and Larry Bird.

The article, written by a White reporter, leaned hard into ugly stereotypes about Black fatherhood — a “trope that puts Black men down,” says Elijah Anderson, a sociologist and ethnographer at Yale University. It was a portrayal, Anderson says, that suggested dads such as Kemp “really didn’t care about babies and all that. You just have them and you go on your merry way.”

Kemp smoked a lot of marijuana back then, to tune out the criticism or relieve his aching joints. The NBA didn’t start testing for it until 2000, when a mere 2.8 percent of players tested positive. Then again, Kemp and presumably others discovered a workaround. Precisely 31 days before Kemp reported for training camp, he would stop smoking in advance of teamwide drug tests. Passing those, he says, meant you wouldn’t be subjected to random tests throughout the season.

“The worst 31 days ever,” he says with a laugh. “But you go through it.”

He smoked in secret, even keeping it from his mother and sister back in Indiana. Another relic of the ’90s, after all, is the “War of Drugs,” which terrorized a generation of Americans into believing cannabis was a gateway to harder stuff and prison time. Around the time Kemp was reaching his athletic peak, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Now known simply as the “crime bill,” it injected $12.5 billion in federal funds to dramatically increase incarceration. Depending on jurisdiction and prior convictions, simply possessing marijuana could lead to a 15-year or even life sentence. It was, as Anderson puts it, “open season on Black men.”

In 2005, two years after Kemp retired from the NBA, he and another man were arrested in a Seattle suburb after a police officer discovered a small amount of cocaine, a pistol and 60 grams of marijuana. A year later, a sheriff’s deputy stopped Kemp outside Houston, where he lived part of the year. There was less than two ounces of marijuana in his vehicle, and Kemp again became one of the 8.2 million Americans arrested between 2001 and 2010 on a marijuana charge. Kemp was taken to jail, and though he bonded out for $500, the incident scared him. What if he hadn’t been able to afford bail or an attorney?

“There are so many of these guys that have been arrested. What did they do to them?” he says. “I realized, down south, s--- can change fast.”

So a month after his court appearance, he says, Kemp left Texas and returned to the only place that ever felt like home. He lost 75 pounds and opened a sports bar, named for his pet goldfish, Oskar. He played quarterback for one flag football team and wide receiver for another.

He dreamed of opening a cannabis shop in Seattle, not in some dimly lit neighborhood but on its tourist track. And he didn’t just smoke the good stuff. He thought about how it is grown and packaged. Eventually, he would visit collective gardens, pick cannabis flowers and get to know farmers. He would research zoning laws, real estate, licensing. When retail stores opened, he noticed how few Black employees there were.

“We smoke it, but we don’t own it,” Kemp says. “Let’s see if we can change that.”

A few months ago, it was time to make his move. But even with name recognition, connections and capital, Kemp says, the process of opening a cannabis shop at times felt “undoable.” He nearly gave up.

“They make it so tough for people, man, that it drives some people away,” he says. “The state has just put up walls, if you see what I’m saying.”

In case you don’t, he just says it: “It’s definitely discrimination.”

Black Excellence in Cannabis co-founders Aaron Barfield and Peter Manning are frustrated with Kemp for partnering with Main Street Marijuana, which owns a 95 percent stake in Shawn Kemp's Cannabis. (Lindsey Wasson for The Washington Post)

Back in the ’90s, Peter Manning lived in a rundown stretch on Seattle’s south end. Police raids and drug busts were common, he says, and Manning knew neighbors and uncles and cousins who disappeared into prison sentences.

It wasn’t always bad, such as when Kemp showed up to play catch with kids or strike up conversations with grown-ups. He shot baskets and paid for groceries and made everyone feel important.

“The Black Robin Hood,” Manning says now. “We all love him, man.”

The years passed, Kemp and the Sonics left town, and along the way, Seattle became one of the most gentrified cities in the country. Washington was among the first states to legalize medical marijuana, and Manning was granted a license to grow cannabis and sell to dispensaries.

In 2014, two years after Washington and Colorado legalized recreational weed, Manning heard early-morning rapping on his front door in a rural part of the state. The cops were outside with a search warrant.

Manning says they searched his property and discovered 410 plants and clones, which are branches of a mature plant that grow into a new one. Manning says the authorities confiscated or destroyed his crops and frightened his wife and newborn son. He was arrested for manufacturing and distributing marijuana, though because he had been charged while the state was still determining what was legal and what wasn’t, a court dismissed the case in 2015.

Manning says his wife nonetheless lost her job and they spent $12,000 fighting the charges. They lost their house, he says, and their marriage fell apart. He traces it all back to that morning in 2014.

“They made us look like just terrible people,” Manning says. “I was growing weed, and they knew I was Black. That was illegal in Washington, even though that was legal.”

There are stories like this across the country as the United States, despite widespread support for legalization, continues to find its legal footing with marijuana. Even now, cannabis — legal in some states and decriminalized in others but illegal everywhere beneath the umbrella of federal law — remains a massive gray area. Before Kemp opened his shop, he was nervous to tell his family in Indiana, where cannabis is illegal, and he says his mother believes selling it is “dangerous.”

In Washington, cities and counties can override state law, blanketing the industry — and those hoping to break into it — in red tape. Manning and his business partner, Barfield, allege those regulations favor White applicants and deny Black entrepreneurs a slice of a potentially enormous pie.

A "Black Lives Matter" mural is painted in front of Uncle Ike's, a White-owned dispensary in Seattle. (Lindsey Wasson/For The Washington Post)

Manning has tried in recent years to open his own retail store. But he says his applications have been tossed for various reasons: missed deadlines, incomplete paperwork, outstanding taxes. He says none of those reasons are legitimate and the same standards aren’t applied to White applicants. Barfield says he has applied for 10 retail licenses and been denied each time. But when a White business partner submitted the same paperwork, he says, the application was approved.

Rick Garza, director of Washington’s Liquor and Cannabis Board, doesn’t deny that people of color have been left out of the state’s weed boom. He insists, though, it hasn’t been deliberate. He blames confusion and a rush on licenses when the state merged the medical and recreational cannabis markets in 2016.

“That created a very small pool of opportunity for everyone, including Whites,” says Garza, who identifies as Mexican American. “A lot of people were left out, including communities of color. … There is disparity there for sure. It wasn’t intentional is what I guess I would say.”

A few months ago, Kemp fell into another workaround. The two founders of Main Street Marijuana, a pioneering Washington retail store that has brought in nearly $100 million in revenue since 2014, approached him about opening a store in Seattle. Neither of the founders is Black. One of them, Ramsey Hamide, grew up attending Sonics games and saw Kemp as a symbol of nostalgia and a reminder of his experience growing up in the 1990s.

They had already secured a location, Hamide says, a 4,000-square-foot furniture store that was closing in the shadow of the Space Needle. Near the end of a process that took 2½ years, Hamide says, they pitched Kemp on a partnership. He would get $350,000 in first-year compensation and stock, Hamide says, primarily to act as a “brand ambassador.” Kemp also has a chance to learn the industry and get his name on a retail license. Though the Liquor and Cannabis Board has paused the issuing of new retail licenses, Garza says new stores can open if they’re part-owned by someone with an existing license.

Kemp was not involved in the licensing process, Hamide says, and he received a 5 percent ownership stake. Of the six owners of Shawn Kemp’s Cannabis, Shawn Kemp has the second-smallest stake.

“Obviously they wouldn’t let no Blacks in this business, so I had to go around the corner to get in this joint,” Kemp says. “I found a way.”

Hamide says he and Kemp approved a news release that marketed the store as “Black-owned.” The release has since been retracted, Hamide says, but members of Black Excellence in Cannabis say the damage is done, the public already duped into believing Seattle’s cannabis industry is a little closer to equitable.

“We’ve been fighting for inclusion for years,” Barfield says. “And we see one of our heroes being manipulated to exploit a situation that’s exploiting us.”

Manning puts it more plainly. He says the big man got played by savvy cannabis barons who knew Kemp’s name and face on the building would draw in customers, especially those privileged enough to remember the past fondly.

“I felt betrayed,” Manning says. “I’m like: ‘Dude, we’ve got a real issue going on here with this. We should all stick together here.’ By him putting on that ruse that Black people are actually owning a store, that somebody had rectified this and did something right, that was completely misleading. And at what cost? For a few dollars?”

Manning sighs.

“I looked at him different,” he continues. “I’ve looked at him as a hero, but I don’t look at him like that anymore. I think he sold us out.”

Kemp takes a photo with customers at Shawn Kemp's Cannabis in Seattle. No matter the size of his stake, Kemp is the shop's star. (Lindsey Wasson for The Washington Post)

Kemp is in the basement of his cannabis shop, lounging on a sofa as employees check inventory and construction workers prepare the store’s second phase. Talking over the clang and shuffle, he says not everything is how it appears.

“It’s none of their business,” Kemp says. “They didn’t deserve to know, because they never asked me.”

For the moment, he’s not talking about the present. His mind is back in the ’90s.

In the years after Sports Illustrated’s fatherhood story, Kemp became private and more suspicious. He became increasingly sensitive to racist stereotypes, he says, even refusing to do “the mean face” during photo shoots.

“The perception of a guy on the basketball court dunking and yelling and screaming and having fun is that he’s probably a pretty mean guy,” he says. “But it’s just the opposite.”

Eventually, he says, Kemp stopped trying to change the minds of outsiders, stopped caring whether the rest of the world bought into a caricature. Seattleites saw him coaching his children during AAU basketball tournaments. They knew him, he says, and they knew the truth about how involved he was in his kids’ lives.

Kemp knows he has made plenty of mistakes. But fatherhood, he says, isn’t one of them.

“That s--- made me grow up,” Kemp says. “It always amazes me how some people can look at something as being so bad when it could change a person’s life around and make life so much better for them. If it wasn’t for my kids, man, I’d have probably been reckless as hell. I would’ve really been one reckless-ass dude.”

He has been married for 20 years to the mother of his three youngest sons, he says. His nine kids are now grown, and Kemp points out that he put each of them through college. All but one, a college student in Louisiana, live in the Seattle area.

“My kids is what made me accountable for every damn day I had to get up,” he says. “Because they look at you.”

Kemp declines to arrange interviews with family members, saying he wants to protect their privacy. It’s a sensitive subject, one he has litigated many times, as he makes clear after The Washington Post contacts the mother of one of Kemp’s daughters about an interview. The woman doesn’t respond, but Kemp does.

“Not cool,” he writes in a text message. “Not sure what your trying to do, but thats enough.”

In the basement, he changes the subject back to the store. Unlike the showroom upstairs, the basement is dank and cluttered, very much a work in progress. In time, Kemp says, this will be a sleek employee lounge and the store’s nerve center. But few people know that because almost nobody comes down here.

Again, he says, outside critics are making assumptions about him and his intentions. Only this time, they’re Seattleites.

After announcing the shop as Seattle's first Black-owned dispensary, Kemp and his partners retracted that claim. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

“What they’re saying is not necessarily wrong,” Kemp says, referring to the activists associated with Black Excellence in Cannabis. “What they’re saying is — they don’t know everything.”

Kemp acknowledges owning a small stake of this store and that the news release should have said it was “part Black-owned.” But he says a second Shawn Kemp’s Cannabis will open in early 2021, with additional franchises in mind not just here but in California, Colorado and Nevada. He says he will be the majority owner of each of those. Hamide says he doesn’t plan to be involved with subsequent locations.

Before you can be an all-star, Kemp says, you have to be a rookie and learn. He says he’s learning not only how to navigate the state’s licensing process and sell but also how to compile and analyze data and retain customers. This — all of this — is practice, he says, pointing out that you have to be in the game before you can change it.

“It ain’t about being in Washington selling weed. It’s about doing this s--- all over the country,” he says in that 40-grit snarl. “People kind of get a little mad and a little attitude. But in about 10 years from now, people will understand. They’ll understand I knew what the f--- I was doing.”

Kemp says he plans to take Black employees such as Tom Mvududu, 23, with him as he expands his cannabis footprint across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. (Lindsey Wasson/For The Washington Post)

A month after the store opened, employees at Shawn Kemp’s Cannabis are beginning to recognize the daily routine. There are lunchtime and after-work rushes and a just-as-predictable slow period in the mid­afternoon. On this day, Kemp is passing the time by playing “ghost basketball” against a young, Black budtender named Tom Mvududu.

Mvududu, 23 and thin, has the invisible ball and is charging through the phantom lane. Kemp sets his feet as Mvududu goes up for a fadeaway shot, then swats it away.

“I block his shots all the time!” Kemp says with pride, though the young man smiles and protests. Kemp shrugs because that’s what happens in the big leagues, when you go up against an opponent this powerful.

When Mvududu took the job here, he had to research the man whose name is on the building. He was barely out of kindergarten when Kemp retired in 2003. He learned about the dunks and the rebounds, the arrests and the kids. He read about Kemp’s second act, becoming more private, refusing to open doors.

And he read about the 1990s, a peculiar time for many reasons. Most incredible was that the boss and so many Americans of color once feared what would happen if they got caught with marijuana. Kemp had to hide out in a musicians’ lounge? Seattle residents had to flush their stash or fling it out the window if they saw a cop?

“They kind of looked on weed like crack almost,” Mvududu says. “It’s just weed.”

Mvududu says he has been using cannabis for years and hopes to someday open his own shop. He has identified a few locations he likes. He knows he wants to partner with his brother. But he’s not deep enough into the process to know how difficult it will be to make it a reality.

Maybe by the time he’s ready, it will be easier. Washington state has commissioned a task force to investigate disparities in the state’s legal cannabis trade, Garza says, including looking for ways to direct some of the nearly $400 million in annual tax revenue toward people and communities directly affected by the “War on Drugs.”

Garza says 34 licenses have been returned to the state and that regulators have set those aside for social equity applicants. He says he expects those to be assigned and the task force to deliver its recommendations sometime in 2021.

“We want to do everything we can at the state level,” Garza says, “to make this right.”

In the meantime, Kemp has insisted on staff diversity. Mvududu is one of several Black employees, and when Kemp opens his second location next year, he plans to bring Mvududu along to run the office.

“That’s what I want to do: get more Black people involved, more Asian people involved, all cultures,” Kemp says. “That’s what sometimes people don’t understand. I’m not doing this just to make it all-Black, either. It’s just to make it all fair.”

It’s a little after 3 now. Kemp looks toward the window to see that, after the lull, a bunch of customers are waiting in a line outside. Time for everyone to get back in character. Mvududu and the other budtenders take their places behind the glass case, and Kemp walks toward the entrance. The big man approaches the door and pushes it open.

“Come on in,” Kemp says with a smile, and the eyes look up and recognize him as the line starts to move.

Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti; design by José L. Soto.

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