Back To The Future: Kemba Walker's search for NBA playoff magic
This story originally appeared in the April 11, 2016, edition of Sports Illustrated. Get all of Lee Jenkins's columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
Visitors to Kemba Walker’s spacious two-story home in the South Park section of Charlotte are greeted by a framed photograph, about as big as a regulation backboard, of a buzzer beater the owner made five years ago for UConn. They pass another blowup, of a layup he sank for Connecticut, followed by snapshots of the Huskies celebrating the 2011 Big East tournament championship, hoisting the NCAA tournament trophy three weeks later, posing with President Barack Obama at the White House a month after that. There are magazine covers, all from ’11, and UConn collages, which Walker crafted himself. There is also a photo of one of his fellow Hornets on the walls, Kentucky alum Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but you might not recognize him because he too is wearing a Huskies T-shirt as part of a lost bet.
Upon touring this southern branch of the Connecticut Hall of Fame, visitors are shown to the guest room, where they sleep on UConn sheets and drool on UConn pillowcases. “I’ve got a big Husky on the bedspread,” Walker beams. More logos emblazon his UConn Snuggie, which keeps him warm on the many winter nights when he mutes Martin reruns and watches the entirety of Connecticut’s 2011 postseason in his three-TV man cave. “I like to start at the beginning with DePaul [in the Big East tournament],” Walker says, “and go through all 11 games.” If time is short, he just queues up his favorite, San Diego State, or his second favorite, Syracuse. Or he opts for the school’s hourlong highlight video, A Run for the Ages.
“Never graduate” instructs the ESPNU commercial, and even though Walker earned a degree in sociology, he ought to star in that spot. “I miss it,” he says. Playing DJ Hero and Rock Band in his apartment. Cooking on Taco Tuesday, with the phone pressed to his ear, as his mom walked him through the recipe. Forming a circle with teammates in the locker room, gyrating in the middle and then yanking someone else by the shirt to replace him. “The fans right on top of the court,” he adds, “so close you can hear all the noise.” In the summer he occasionally hits nightclubs with former UConn guard Donnell Beverly and whispers in his ear, Remember that time. “It’s always about campus,” Beverly says, “or a party, or something UConn.”
Beverly, now a Realtor in Los Angeles, has reason to be nostalgic for his playing days. Walker is an NBA point guard, a lottery pick, with a four-year, $48 million contract and a home movie theater. At 25 he is enjoying the best season of his pro career while leading the Hornets to their best season of this millennium. Michael Jordan, his boss, calls him weekly. So why, when marinating in old game tape, can Walker sound as wistful as a former rush chair flipping through party pics from the toga bash of ’92? “It was his high,” says his cousin Kedow Walker, who lives with him. “It was his best.”
Five years ago Walker took a freshman-laden UConn squad seeded ninth in the Big East on his back and led them on an unforgettable 28-day romp, winning five games in five days at Madison Square Garden and six more from D.C. to Anaheim to Houston, where the Huskies beat Kentucky and then Butler in the Final Four. The superstitious junior refused to cut his hair (“So what if it looks nappy on national TV,” he told friends) or change his shoes, sticking with the same black-and-turquoise Jordans. “The ball feels different in my hands,” Walker thought, as he splashed 36 points against San Diego State, 33 against Cincinnati, 33 against Syracuse and beat the horn with a step-back J against Pittsburgh, capsizing the poor center who switched onto him after a high screen. Teammates gave him ovations on the bus. “With Kemba Walker,” former Huskies coach Jim Calhoun says now, “everything is possible.”
He was 20 and famous, a freestyling, stutter-stepping product of the Sack-Wern Houses in the South Bronx whose pearly grins and jitterbug moves were traced to a childhood spent dancing for dollars outside a laundromat. His move of choice, a gyrating number called the Bogle, was passed down from his Caribbean parents. Walker never scraped 6 feet, despite what the media guides claimed, but his legend was giant. His dance troupe, Future Flavors, performed at the Apollo Theater. His AAU team, the New York Gauchos, went a year and a half without a loss. He felt a beat inside of him whether dancing or dribbling. Through Student Sponsor Partners—a program that matches underprivileged kids with bene-ficiaries who help pay private-school tuitions—Walker met Arthur Black, an investment adviser. “What do you do?” Black asked the shy freshman in the cafeteria at Rice High, where Walker would eventually deliver a city title. “I play basketball,” Walker said.
“Are you good?” Black asked.
“Oh, I’m good,” Walker cooed.
Uh-huh, Black thought. Every kid in the Bronx thinks he’s good.
Walker’s mother, Andrea, sensed the philanthropist’s skepticism. “No,” she interjected. “He’s good.”
Uh-huh, Black thought again. Every mom of every kid in the Bronx thinks he’s good.
E-Z Pass, as Walker was known, shone on outdoor courts like the Jungle at Soundview Park, where jumpers take a backseat to drives. He would race end to end until he reached the rim or someone knocked him to the asphalt. He once scored 80 points without a single three. “He was a ninja,” says Emanuel (Book) Richardson, his AAU coach. Once, Beverly visited Walker in the Bronx during UConn’s summer vacation, and gunfire rang out in a park where they were playing. “I looked around for Kemba, and five people surrounded him like a tent,” Beverly recalls. “Then they threw him into a car. They wouldn’t let anything happen to him. I walked back to his apartment alone.”
Such stories spread like folklore in March 2011. After the Final Four—after Walker was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, after he waved to Black in the stands at Reliant Stadium, after he rested his head against Calhoun’s chest as they embraced on the court—Walker slept on the floor of the plane heading back to Storrs. He was at the top of the basketball world. When he awoke from that dreamlike spring, he was at the bottom.
The Charlotte Bobcats beat the Bucks on opening night of the 2011–12 season. “This could be a pretty good year,” Walker thought. Less than two months later they were 3–26, having lost 16 in a row. “It was hard,” Walker says. “It was so hard. It’s not just losing. It’s losing before the game really starts. It’s being down 20 immediately.” Every night he deluded himself into believing the Cats had a chance, before being brutally reminded that they didn’t.
Charlotte had drafted Walker ninth, partly because Jordan saw a bit of himself in the fearless driver who attacked 7-footers and savored last-minute shots. But coach Paul Silas kept Walker on the bench behind D.J. Augustin. “I’ve shown the world I can win,” Walker told Kedow on walks home to his condo in the TradeMark building, four blocks from Time Warner Cable Arena. “I’m not getting a chance to do what they brought me here for.”
Kedow tried to coax him out of the condo, even to Walmart. “I’m not going anywhere,” Walker protested. “I’m not showing my face.” Cam Newton, the Panthers’ rookie quarterback, also lived in the TradeMark. He was blowing up. Walker was falling flat. Charlotte assigned player development coach Chris Whitney to counsel the troubled rookie. “How are you dealing with this?” Whitney asked him. “It’s killing me,” Walker responded. Whitney took him to dinners on the road, along with other young Bobcats, and tried to put his predicament in perspective. “If you weren’t here, you’d be working at Bank of America and playing at the Y at 5:30.”
The Cats finished the lockout-shortened season 7–59, the worst winning percentage (.106) in league history, and when Walker fled to New York City for the summer, he discovered just how irrelevant they were. “People told him, ‘I’m proud of you, but what the hell are the Bobcats?’ ” Kedow recalls.
Year 2 wasn’t much different. Walker led the team in scoring (17.7 points per game) and assists (5.7), but he settled for mindless jumpers, in part because he had no other options. “If Kemba didn’t score, we’d lose by 40 instead of 20,” recalls former Charlotte assistant coach Rick Brunson. “So many guys in that situation are like, ‘Who cares, f--- this, I’ll just bulls--- around until they trade me.’ ” Walker’s eyes did wander at the trade deadline, but he found that the best way to cope was to work. He studied the Spurs’ Tony Parker, making floaters, and the Clippers’ Chris Paul, manipulating screens. He cut Buffalo Wild Wings from his diet. He learned the definition of efficiency, even if he didn’t implement it.
The Bobcats still went 21–61, and Walker still turned melancholy when he retreated to losing locker rooms. No one danced. No one hosted Taco Tuesday. “They need that smile and that laughter and that whole Kemba Walker thing,” Whitney implored. Whitney didn’t invoke Connecticut—“Your teammates won that championship for you anyway,” he kidded—but Jordan did. “I want that guy from UConn,” he pleaded. Walker dusted off the college videos, all the way back to his freshman year against Gonzaga, when he chucked a shot off the glass and moaned to the bench: “I don’t think I can play at this level.” The footage proved that metamorphosis was possible.
“I think that’s how he gets his drive back,” Kedow says, “how he gets his swagger back.” The images entertain him, but they also remind him, that there was a time he couldn’t lose.
In April 2013, during his exit interview with general manager Rod Higgins, Walker brought up a list of potential free agents on his phone. “Something had to change,” he says. “It had to.”
It wasn’t just one thing. It was everything. In the summer of ’13, Walker recruited center Al Jefferson at a dinner in New York City—“I don’t watch college basketball,” Jefferson says, “but I watched him”—and won over Steve Clifford, his third coach in three years, during a workout in Charlotte. In ’14 the Bobcats became the Hornets, and blue and orange became teal and purple. Last summer the franchise overhauled one more piece of its identity, swapping an outdated low-post offense for snipers and spacing.
Clifford grew consumed with one stat. The four conference finalists last season, plus the Clippers, comprised the top five in made three-pointers. The Hornets were 26th. In response they acquired a handful of sharpshooters—headlined by Trail Blazers swingman Nic Batum—but they also developed one. Last season 210 players made 100 or more jumpers, and Walker ranked 178th among them in effective field goal percentage. When shot doctor Bruce Kreutzer joined the staff last July, Walker informed him that he was positioning the ball in the middle of his face, impeding his line of vision. As a result, he was missing left and right, rarely front or back.
Kreutzer shifted Walker’s release two inches to the right, a subtle change that significantly altered the outlook in the East. Since Jan. 30 the Hornets are 22–7, the best record outside Golden State and San Antonio. At week’s end Walker was averaging 21.1 points, but more impressive, shooting 42.9% from the field (compared with 38.5% last season) and 37.5% from three (compared with 30.4). On March 25 in Detroit, Pistons coaches decided to go under screens against Walker, daring him to let fly. He scored 25 points in the first half on 9-of-14 shooting, 6 of 8 from three. The Pistons changed defenses.
“He looks quicker to me,” says an opposing coach, “but maybe that’s just because he has space to move for the first time.” With Batum and forward Marvin Williams drawing defenders to the perimeter, the paint is finally open for Walker’s headlong drives and contortionist flourishes, the stuff that captivated the Jungle and the Jumpman in the first place. “I think Steve Clifford saved Kemba’s mind,” says Brunson.
Clifford stands apart from modern coaches who constantly cancel practices and shootarounds. “Here we are, end of the regular season, and we’re going for an hour and a half with a ton of five-on-five,” Batum says. “But I feel like I can do this for another two months.” Two months? Batum considers the turmoil at the top of the East standings and the jumble in the middle, with the Hornets sitting a half-game out of third, fifth in the league in made threes. “Why not?” he asks. “Why not us?”
Batum, who spent his first seven years in Portland, does not bear the same scars as Walker. When the Hornets dropped seven games in a row this winter, prompting a pep talk from Jordan on the practice court, Walker wondered if they’d ever win again. A week later they trailed the Magic by 15 points entering the fourth quarter, and Walker refused to take his standard rest. He finished with 40 points in 46 minutes, warding off Bobcats flashbacks with an overtime win.
Sixteen-year-old Louis Rolland, a junior at Rochester High in suburban Detroit, is waiting for Walker by the Hornets’ bus at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Rolland is wearing a navy Connecticut hoodie and mimicking in his dress shoes the step-back that Walker put on Pitt in 2011. “It’s what I’m known for,” says Walker, who autographs the sweatshirt. He doesn’t mind. He appreciates that he still gets tagged on Instagram with the clip. “But I am trying to change that around a little bit.”
When he watches current game tape, he sees a different player, smarter and more efficient. “But the spirit is the same,” he says. He carries on an iPhone group chat with friends from high school and college, plus his cousin Kedow and older brother Akil Nesbitt, who is living near him in Charlotte. They see the dances Walker records in the mirror, the head bobs he throws after threes, the way he mutters “Nobody can f--- with me” through sweet smiles. And they are taken back five years, to the best month a college player ever had, with apologies to Danny Manning. “We talk about whether it can be duplicated,” Kedow says. “The NBA is different than college, but the players aren’t different. They’re just older. If you owned them then, why can’t you own them now?”
Kemba Walker—the Walking Bucket, as his cousin calls him—strokes his beard and cracks his knuckles as he ponders that question. Charlotte has not won a playoff game in 14 years, and when the Bobcats reached the postseason two springs ago, Jefferson tore his plantar fascia in the opener against the Heat. Now, for the first time since the Final Four, Walker is about to ascend the big stage with an opportunity to stay awhile. As he searches for the right words to handicap the Hornets’ chances, he reflexively returns to tournament parlance, a phrase familiar from Storrs to Tobacco Road: “I think we can make a run.”