Al-Farouq Aminu bent his knees and exploded skyward after summoning all the strength his 17-year-old legs could muster. He corralled one of his four rebounds on the day in what began as a routine-enough play and instinctively spun around, looking for a teammate to pass the ball off to.
Instead, Aminu saw his smallest teammate—some kid hailing from New York City’s Soundview Projects in the Bronx—already sprinting down toward the other end of the floor.
Aminu channeled his inner Peyton Manning and lofted a perfect pass to the streaking guard who received it at half court, in-stride.
Less than four seconds later, on March 26, 2008, at the McDonald’s All-American game, the world learned exactly who Kemba Walker was.
Breathing heavily, the wide-open Walker caught the pass as his red, sweat-soaked jersey clung to his frame. He took two steps toward what seemed like an easy basket, but out of the corner of his left eye, saw a defender, Jrue Holiday, quickly gaining ground on him.
At that moment, the words of his junior high school coach, Carl Nickerson, echoed in his head. Nickerson taught Walker to be tough. Coach taught Walker to never let his size be a deterrent, and above all, he taught Walker to leap over any hurdle that appeared before him.
Without hesitation, the tiny point guard decided to go for it all.
He accelerated and with two dribbles and a two-step, took flight. Walker rose up through the air and soared, defying gravity and odds, and threw down a vicious tomahawk dunk over the outstretched Holiday. The crowd of 11,000 erupted after Walker pulled off the feat that was as surprising to occur as it was inspiring to witness.
Even seven years later, he remembers both the play and the game vividly. It was, after all, the night he walked away feeling as though he was truly capable of not only running with, but taking flight with the stars of tomorrow.
It’s a fairly brisk January 2015 afternoon in Charlotte. Seven years later, Walker has come a long, long way since being a McDonald’s High School All American. After enrolling at UConn prior to its 2008-09 season, Walker’s pre-professional basketball career was a resounding success, ultimately culminating in him leading his UConn Huskies to a national title in 2011.
Fulfilling a promise to his parents to always keep his education at the forefront of his priorities, Walker completed the requirements for his degree in Sociology in three years and declared himself eligible for the 2011 NBA Draft.
After months of training, private team workouts and a hectic travel schedule, Walker made it to the date he had circled on his calendar: June 23, 2011. Despite mostly excelling in the pre-draft process, some draft-day projections had him sliding due to a combination of concerns over a mostly phantom knee ailment and his reputation for being a streaky jump shooter.
Despite the concerns, the Charlotte Hornets selected Walker with the ninth overall pick of the draft. The hope was that he could provide youth, stability and All-Star upside at the point guard position—qualities that the franchise believed his predecessors Raymond Felton and D.J. Augustin lacked.
After hearing his named called and shaking hands with Commissioner David Stern, Walker was relieved and excited to head to Charlotte, and his youthful exuberance was on full display when we met for the first time a few hours later.
“This has been such a long process for me and for everyone,” Walker said at the time. “But I’m excited, man.
“And now, Michael Jordan’s given me a great opportunity, so I’m just gonna come in with a great attitude, respect everyone, and try to do everything possible to get that team to the playoffs. I’m so excited.”
That night, Walker spoke a bit about his personal journey. He spoke about wanting to take care of his parents and loved ones and wanting to fulfill the potential that the world saw during his years at UConn.
Above all else, on that night, Walker spoke to me about what was ahead. For many youngsters, being drafted into the NBA and hearing their name called is the highlight of their NBA career. Most simply don’t make it long-term.
Way back in 2011, though, it was evident that Walker understood that this was not the end of his journey—it was a new beginning.
The practice court is bustling with energy. Brian Roberts and Gary Neal are competing in shooting drills while Lance Stephenson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist participate in their own workout.
Walker, now 24 years old, has mostly fulfilled the promise that the Hornets believed he had when they drafted him four years ago. He led the franchise to its second playoff berth since 2004 and is now playing out the final season of his rookie contract. After signing a four-year, $48 million extension with the Hornets about three months prior, though, there is no question that he will continue to be a fixture for the franchise.
When we sat shoulder to shoulder for the first time since 2011, my first question to Walker seemed simple enough.
“What’s life been like since you came into the league?”
Walker seemed startled by the question, perhaps even confused. He looked at me and then looked away, chuckling and raising his eyebrows, shaking his head. For a moment, I felt a bit self-conscious, wondering if my question struck him as silly for some reason.
But finally, after a few uneasy moments, the words came.
“It’s been everything I expected,” he said, simply. “Life has been great. Just being able to live my dream, play basketball for a living, being able to take care of my family; it’s been everything I expected.”
And in that moment immediately preceding his pensive gaze and broken silence, Walker looked much more like the college kid I first met in 2011—one who was just caught off guard by a professor posing a tough question.
Indeed, for Walker, life in the NBA has been everything he expected—except for the constant traveling.
“Yeah, the biggest thing that surprised me was the travel,” Walker said. No doubt, he was recalling a recent stretch that saw his Hornets play five games in eight days in Orlando, Boston, Charlotte, Toronto and New York.
“That was one of the tougher things to adjust to when I got here,” Walker said. “Just going to all these different cities, getting in super late and sometimes having to play the next day.”
Still, for him, the long NBA road trips are a cakewalk compared to the arduous journey he had already endured. Madison Square Garden may be just 10 miles from the Sack-Wern courts in the Soundview projects in the Bronx, but the route between the two is littered with dashed hopes and crushing pressure that many of Walker’s predecessors couldn’t navigate.
And there, where it all began for Walker, was worlds away from the stardom and fortune that he knew potentially awaited in the NBA.
“I never really knew, honestly.”
After sighing and thinking about it, his candor got the best of him. It wasn’t until well into his high school career that Walker even seriously considered pursuing basketball professionally. Growing up, he’d routinely been discouraged from doing so since small guards do not often make it big in the NBA. Often, even when they do, their careers are short-lived.
Officially listed at 6’1, Walker measured in at the 2011 pre-draft combine at 5’11.5 without shoes. The concerns over his size, statistically, were well-founded. When asked how often he’d heard his size would preempt his aspirations, Walker didn’t hesitate.
“All the time,” Walker said. “I’m ‘too small, not strong enough, can’t shoot… That’s stuff that I’ve heard for years, but it’s never bothered me, because I know how to play. I just play based off of straight-toughness. I just knew—I always knew—that would get me over the hump. I always took the criticisms as motivation.”
From time to time, though, doubt would creep in. How could it not? As a young man attempting to defy odds, if you hear enough people say that you’re not good enough, or that you’re too small or too weak, you may eventually begin to believe it yourself. That can be especially true of a youth growing up in an underprivileged neighborhood where hope and optimism don’t necessarily reign supreme.
That’s probably why Walker needed the validation of playing varsity basketball to help him believe that he had an opportunity to be great. But even after that, it would take a few more years for him to believe that he had NBA potential. When he first laced up his sneakers for Rice High School’s Varsity team, Walker’s prime focus was earning a scholarship to attend college, not to one day play in the NBA.
“I really started to take [basketball] seriously my sophomore year of high school,” Walker recalled. “That was my first year playing varsity, so when I made that team I was just like, ‘Hey, I could probably go to school for free.’ That was my goal.”
It was a goal that is indicative of the values that Walker’s Antiguan parents, Andrea and Paul, instilled in him from an early age. Even as his stock climbed and the NBA began to seem an attainable aspiration, Walker’s mother continued to stress the importance of an education. His playing days would be limited, but an education would last a lifetime.
Before long, though, his on-court contributions ceased to fly under the radar. By 2008, he had become ranked as one of the top high school players in the country, earning an invitation to the 2008 McDonald’s All-American game where he would share the court with other future NBA lottery talents such as Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Greg Monroe, Ed Davis and, of course, Al-Farouq Aminu—the one who assisted Walker on the play that would make all the difference in the world for him.
“After the McDonald’s All-American game, I started to look at all the mock drafts and stuff like that, and I saw that I was up there,” Walker said when he asked when he realized the NBA was an option for him. “Just for my name to be up there, it gave me some hope and some confidence that I could be a pro.”
And the fateful play over Holiday? It was an exclamation point that underscored many things about Walker’s game—his athleticism, his fearlessness and his determination.
“I played well,” Walker recalled, proudly. “[The] big time dunk that game, on Jrue Holiday… I had a big time dunk on him. That was definitely, by far, the most memorable play of that game for me.”
Yes, it was an exclamation point that underscored Walker’s virtues. That one play epitomized the belief that Carl Nickerson—Walker’s junior high school coach at Intermediate School 174—instilled in him from his days as a young teenager.
“[Coach Nickerson] is the one who kind of helped me develop a toughness that nobody could take away from me,” Walker said. “He always pushed me. He made me super tough, and he was always hard on me. He just made me go and he was the one who got me really serious about basketball.”
Nickerson also played a key role in Walker finding his way to Rice High School and it was there that he attained national recognition playing for coach Moe Hicks. Like Nickerson, Hicks helped Walker’s development, instilling the key defensive principles that he needed to truly become an impact player at the next level.
With his national championship and a trove of awards and accolades under his belt, it’s clear that Walker has capably met each challenge he has faced. Now, in his fourth year as an NBA pro, Walker can proudly wake up each morning and lace up his sneakers knowing that he is an inspiring and improbable success story.
En route to this point, he has overcome social, economic and physical obstacles and epitomizes the spirit of New York City—tough, rugged, defiant and hard working.
With a rich basketball tradition and some of the most famous courts in the country, Walker, the city’s own, has emerged from among his peers as the torchbearer for New York City point guards. Perhaps the best point guard prospect to come from the five boroughs since Mark Jackson, Walker seems poised to join Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls as the only active NBA player to become an All-Star after playing high school basketball in the five boroughs.
Unlike Noah, though, Walker spent his entire childhood in New York City. Truly, he is a son of the Big Apple. And now, on the cusp of greatness and with his city on his shoulders, Walker again finds himself approaching a new beginning.
The “next” Kemba Walker is out there, somewhere. He is minuscule in stature, but gargantuan in heart. He needs tutelage and encouragement as much as he needs practice and repetition.
Walker knows that well, because long before he was an inspiring professional and a role model by default, he was a young teenager taking directives from Coach Nickerson, sneaking out of his apartment behind his mother’s back, developing and honing his skills on the basketball courts at the Sack-Wern housing projects where he grew up.
That’s why Walker returned to the court in 2013, armed with his stardom, fortune and support from both Under Armour and the NBA to refurbish the courts that helped him rise up out of the underprivileged neighborhood from where he came.
Somewhere, Walker knows, there is another future torchbearer. And if they were to ever have a conversation, for Walker, the words would be easy to find.
“I would ask him if he thinks he’s good enough to make it and I would definitely expect him to tell me ‘Yes,'” Walker said. “I would ask him what he’s going to do to make it, and [I would tell him] there’s only one thing you can do, and that’s outwork everyone around you.
“You got to put in the extra work to become a pro basketball player, you got to work extra hard.”
He knows a thing or two about that, as well.
So, as much as Walker pays respect to his former coaches and the tough playgrounds for his development, he also honors the example that his parents set for him many moons ago.
“My parents always worked hard to try and provide for my siblings and me,” Walker said with a smile and tone of admiration. “I remember there were times where my parents, mom or dad were sick and shouldn’t have even gone to work, but they went anyway. Rain, sleet, snow—whatever the weather conditions were—they went to work to try and provide for me and my siblings and to make sure that we had food on the table and clothes and sneakers to wear each and every day.”
Walker paused for a moment. With his eyebrows raised, he nodded.
“My hard work definitely comes from my parents.”
With Tim Hardaway as his hero and the Sack-Wern courts as his lab, Walker has improbably risen as the face of an NBA franchise. The Hornets are currently attempting to qualify for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and with the 24-year-old Walker leading the way, brighter days are ahead.
Seven years ago, when he received Aminu’s pass at half court, he could have opted to delay the potential fast break. Instead, he accelerated and met his challenge, head on.
Seven years ago, Walker mustered his strength and courage and he leapt.
Seven years later, he is still ascending.
In the four years that have passed since he first entered the league, Walker’s physical appearance has changed, albeit slightly. He has a bit more facial hair, a few more pounds of muscle, a couple more wrinkles and a more confident, relaxed demeanor.
Still, through it all, even after four years, he’s the same person with the same values, same spirit and same heart.
Through it all, he’s still minuscule in physical stature, but a mammoth with miles and miles of heart.
Still ready to hurdle any obstacle, hailing from the Sack-Wern courts in the Bronx to Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena, some things never change.
And as it relates to his approach to defying odds and meeting challenges, neither has Walker.
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