Reese Kemp is a 15-year-old from Nicholasville, Ky., and like many his age, a University of Kentucky fan. Reese just completed his eighth grade year at West Jessamine Middle School, but says, in some ways, he owes his life to a few who wear the UK blue and white.
In his short life, Kemp has endured plenty. When he was 23 months-old, Kemp was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Then, at five, Kemp’s father passed away. His mother, Shantelle, says by age eight, Kemp struggled with the will to live.
“He used to tell us all the time, that he’d rather just die,” Shantelle Kemp said. “The doctors would be like, ‘No Reese, you don’t.’ He’d look at the therapists and the doctors, and say, ‘Yes I do, because I’ll be with dad.’”
During one hospital visit, which required Kemp to stay overnight, several UK baseball players visited his room. Soon after, his mother said, Kemp’s outlook on life began to change.
“They stayed for about an hour,” Shantelle Kemp said. “They left, but came back a couple of days later. They brought a bat and that started it.”
“It brought joy to my life,” UK catcher Michael Williams recalled. “It was a blessing for sure, to get to know him. It was an awesome experience and I’m glad I could help.”
Soon, other UK athletes began to visit Kemp. Basketball players John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe were the first. After those guys left for the NBA, Terrence Jones became a big influence in Kemp’s battle. The kid thrived and found a desire to live.
“When I met him, if was after a game. It was just us in there,” Jones said. “He was really funny and I said, ‘I’ve got to hang out with this dude.’”
“I thought it was a dream at first,” Reese Kemp said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I wanted to freak out, but then again, I wanted to remain calm.”
Kemp’s room is dedicated to his love for the Wildcats, decorated with pictures and posters of his favorite UK players.
“It helped lift my spirits,” Reese Kemp said. “It shows what they can do and that they’re not big-headed stars that people think they are, on the court or off. They can be really cool guys that you can hang around. They can turn someone’s life around, like they did mine.”
Kemp began playing sports and enjoying life again, his mother said.
“He thrived,” Shantelle Kemp said. “He had hope. For the first time, I saw hope in him.”
Kemp remains friends with all the UK players. Wall flew Kemp to Washington, D.C. to see a Wizards game. Jones sometimes takes Kemp to UK's women's games.
“I don’t treat them like superstars,” Reese Kemp said. “I treat them like, Terrence Jones, the sophomore at Kentucky.”
The Wildcats say they’ve enjoyed seeing Kemp become a happy, smiling kid again.
“Just to be around him makes my day,” Jones said. “He’s just a good friend.”
“He’s an awesome role model for our guys,” said Keith Vorhoff, an assistant with the baseball Wildcats.
“He’s a character. He likes to give me pointers on the ladies,” Jones said, laughing. “He likes to give me advice. He’s just all-around funny.”
Kemp still takes medication daily, and on occasion, misses school for days at a time. But being up close and personal with the UK athletes has been better for Kemp than any medicine prescribed by his doctor.
“I don’t think anything could ever come close to filling his heart like this has,” Shantelle Kemp said.
“It’s humbling,” Vorhoff said, of UK’s role in Kemp’s battle with the disease. “It’s really cool to hear the positive things that come as a result of some of the stuff that, at the time, didn’t seem like a big deal.”
Reese Kemp now grins when asked about his wish to die.
“I’m glad I never did, because I would never have the life that I do now,” he said.