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
In 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
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
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
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
In 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
“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
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
“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.