As the beads of sweat rolled down his forehead, he began his routine before an empty gym. The bright lights beamed down upon him. He shot step-back jumpers, crossing over from side to side. With an intent focus, as the gym filled up, he’d lost track of time before being reminded that tip-off was nigh.
And as Kemba Walker prepared to play his first game since being named an NBA All-Star for the first time, it was quite appropriate that Madison Square Garden—the biggest platform in his hometown—would be his stage.
The long journey to this point—from the Sack-Wern housing projects in the Soundview section of the Bronx, all the way down to the house that Michael Jordan built—Walker was now where he always dreamed he’d be. He was in his hometown, serving as an inspiration to a city which boasts a proud basketball tradition.
Minuscule as he may be, Walker is tiny in stature alone. In more important ways, he’s become a giant.
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I’ve only known Kemba Walker for six years, but I’ve known of him much longer.
With the explosion of the digital media marketplace, it’s easier than ever to hear what a player said after a game or find out how many points he scored in his previous contest. For someone who has been blessed to have a front row seat to the game and access to some of the world’s great athletes, the best and most rewarding part of the job is having the opportunity to know NBA players as men. Walker, as a person, is perhaps the finest specimen.
As he completed his warm up at Madison Square Garden, I sat perched on the scorer’s table at midcourt, like a player waiting to check into the game. The plan was for Walker and I to connect after the game, but when his pregame workout regimen took longer than expected, our rendezvous occurred.
Since the night of the 2011 draft, Walker’s life has changed dramatically. From a starry-eyed neophyte hoping to supplant incumbent starter D.J. Augustin to being the unquestioned franchise player, in many ways, he remains the same humble sociology major who graduated college in just three years. Walker, now just the seventh Hornets player in franchise history to make an All-Star team, had finally achieved something he’d seemingly been working toward since his days at Rice High School in Manhattan.
“You know me,” Walker said as his eyes opened widely. He shook his head as he sighed.
“I’m just grateful that the coaches put me in.”
And when reminded that he should have made the All-Star team last season, Walker was quick to respond, humbly and politely. With a shrug of the shoulders, he served a quick reminder.
“With me, it’s never been about the individual accomplishments. I just work hard and try to be the best player I can be. That’s gotten me to this point, so I’m just gonna do me,” he said.
The son of Caribbean immigrants, from the time we met, Walker and I shared a common story. My parents emigrated from Jamaica in the 1970s, while his mother (born in St. Croix) and father came by way of Antigua. Most often, when people from the Caribbean seek greener pastures in the United States, they do so with nothing but summer clothes, aspirations and values that they pass on to their children. In every way, shape and form, Walker has carried not only the Bronx with him on his back. He has also done everything within his power to be a good sibling and son—both to his parents and to the Hornets.
A fiery competitor, Walker may be minuscule in stature and humble in spirit, but that underlies the fire that burns deep down within.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I thought he was just ‘another’ small guard,” one member of the Hornets franchise told Basketball Insiders. “But honestly, he’s a franchise player. He’s the first guy to show up and the last guy to leave and he’s not one of those guys that do things and say things because it’s the ‘right thing’ to do. It’s just who Kemba is.”
On the night in question, despite the Hornets controlling the game through the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter, the Knicks got some heroic basketball from Courtney Lee and managed to turn a late deficit into a three-point win. In front of his hometown fans, Walker turned in a 31-point, 10-rebound effort and was clearly the standout performer of the night.
After the game, however, he blew off a question about his finally earning the first All-Star nod of his career.
“I’m not thinking about that right now,” Walker dismissively said to the assembled media when asked about the honor afterward.
Of course, anyone who knows Kemba Walker, what he stands for and what his motivations are knows that the last thing he would want to do is spend time speaking about an individual accomplishment after his team suffered a disappointing loss that doesn’t help his team to retain one of the Eastern Conference’s playoff seeds.
Walker always had and always will be team first. There may be a “me” in “Kemba,” but his entire existence has been dedicated to inspiring others. Even if he didn’t take the opportunity to extol his own virtues in public in his hometown, there’s no questioning that he has scratched and clawed his way toward being revered as one of the game’s more underrated floor generals.
* * * * * *
It’s been a while since I’ve visited Charlotte. In January 2015, when head coach Steve Clifford and I discussed Walker and the four-year, $48 million extension that the team signed him to, Clifford assured me that Walker would become an All-Star and a pillar for the franchise. Now, just two years later, the premonition has proven true. He now joins the likes of Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Glen Rice.
Back in 2015, it was all just a dream.
Then, Walker was only a few years removed from being a standout high school player. He revealed that he had been told that he was too small, too nice and too raw to ever become a meaningful point guard at the professional level. It wasn’t until he began seeing his name in mock drafts after he performed admirably in the McDonald’s All-American game in 2008 that he believed he actually had an opportunity to go pro.
On the night of the 2011 draft—the night we spoke for the first time—Walker said that he was grateful for Michael Jordan taking a chance on him and vowed to work tirelessly to maximize his potential and reward the faith that was shown in him.
In 2015, when I visited him in Charlotte, he told a story of a small kid from the Bronx who listened to his parents, worked hard and never stopped believing in himself. And on this night, about two years later, Walker found himself in one of the buildings that were most influential to his development. This was the very court that saw his UConn Huskies capture the Big East Championship in 2011 behind one of the greatest tournament performances in history.
So yes, it was quite appropriate that Walker found himself in Madison Square Garden, once again. It’s funny how circuitous life can be. In a familiar place, Walker had found himself surrounded by familiar faces. Many things remained the same, but one thing was different.
Kemba Walker. New York City kid. NBA point guard.
Before tip-off, as we bid one another adieu, Walker jogged back to the Hornets locker room while I found my seat in the press box. As I have had over the six years of his NBA career, I had a front row seat.
Seeing players fulfill their potential—it’s what we hope to witness. And consistent with his past practice, Walker has taken those hopes and has made all that root for him as proud as can be.
His inspiring journey is far from over, but to this point, it has been as successful as it has been overlooked.
In 1990, in New York City, the Big Apple’s next great point guard was born. And on January 27, it was quite fitting that he happened to find himself in the very arena that, no doubt, inspired him along the way.
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