Speedy UConn sophomore Kemba Walker emerging as natural leader
STORRS, Conn. -- The navy blue Nissan rolls inside the black gates to Storrs Memorial Cemetery and swerves onto the grass on the first Sunday evening in October. Two UConn Huskies --
"No," says Doran, who will track time on a cell phone. "We run as a team."
Forgive Walker. The New York hustler sped onto campus as a freshman backup to
At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, Walker, who leads the Huskies into Wednesday's NIT semifinal against LSU, is the Big East's biggest misnomer. UConn coaches were sold on the hot knife-through-butter efficiency of his penetrations, but his perimeter play left them perplexed. "E-Z Pass", as Walker is known at Rucker Park, could blow into the lane, not even concerning himself with the initial defender. Once inside, he powered up. It was his outside shot -- foiled by a lack of confidence -- that failed him. "I just never felt comfortable," Walker says.
Three-point accuracy (27.1 percent) eluded him during last year's Final Four run. Over the summer, Calhoun and associate coach
Walker never questioned his role as Price's understudy. The most difficult adjustment during his transition came on fastbreaks when he attempted to throw alley-oops to players like 7-2 center
The Huskies also welcomed him into their kennel of attack-dog defenders. Whether with Price or former football player Dyson, Walker frustrated ballhandlers. "Jerome and Kemba are like pit bulls chasing meat," says assistant coach
Calhoun saw a chance to accelerate Walker's development in the Elite Eight win over Missouri last March. A day earlier, the coach told him "stop enjoying the ride." The Tigers would look to run, and Calhoun saw a chance for Walker to assume a greater role. In the second half, the Huskies lost their lead and Walker, who tied a career high with 23 points, told Price and senior
At Intermediate School 174 in the Bronx, Walker first learned what it was to be a substitute. He tried out for the team as a sixth grader, but coach
Fisher was not the only one to take notice. Rice High (Harlem, N.Y.) coach
Getting to Rice required more than taking a bus over the Willis Avenue Bridge. Nickerson informed the family of Student Sponsor Partners -- a program that matched families with patrons willing to defray private school tuition costs. One benefactor was
He was equally unaware that he'd be helping a Division I prospect. When he met the family for dinner at the Rice cafeteria, Black felt somewhat awkward. "I'm sure Kemba and his parents were wondering who I was," Black says.
He shifted the conversational onus. "What activities interest you?" he asked.
"I'm good at basketball," Walker said.
Black dismissed the statement as cockiness, but Walker's mom said, "No, he's really good."
For each of Walker's four years, Black's donation allowed the family's tuition contribution to be no more than $100. Black attended a few games, but realized his effect on Walker when he received a handwritten thank you note his senior year. "He needed a kick in the butt academically," said Black, who still exchanges text messages with Walker. "But you could tell his character."
Walker's legs were always his best means of ascent. He'd pushed pulse rates since dancing for dollar bills outside his family's Bronx housing project building as a toddler. His father,
For all his city-wide recognition as a dancer, Walker needed to prove himself on the basketball court when he got to Rice.
One evening last summer, Walker returned to his neighborhood for a Watson Classic game. He was on a fast break with a two-point lead and 30 seconds left. The playground, which has an announcer who refers to him as the Prince of Zamunda (
When Walker first visited UConn's pastoral campus four years ago, he drove past an apple orchard, open fields and questioned what life outside the city would be like. "Are those cows out there?" he asked.
Comfort has come over time. His mother frequently drives north 130 miles with her fried fish, oxtails, chicken and scallop potatoes in tow. Every two weeks or so, she brings
Cemetery Hill can twist that grin into a grimace. At the end of the sprints, Walker, slowed by a tightening lower back, gathers his team.
"Huskies on three," Walker yells. "All hands in together."