It is 2 p.m. on a gray Friday in Boise, Idaho, and Antoine Walker isn't answering the door to his apartment.
He lives south of the city, in a generic complex of drab buildings where men take the trash out in their pajamas, old women walk small dogs in slow circles and a newsletter admonishes residents to "PLEASE dispose of cigarette butts properly."
After a second knock on the door, and a two-minute wait, there is the sound of movement in the ground-floor, two-bedroom apartment, outside of which two yellowed phone books are stacked like ancient, withered paperweights. Finally, the door opens a crack, but whoever opened it retreats quickly to one of the bedrooms.
The air is thick with the smell of smoke. The blinds are drawn. A lighter sits on the coffee table, next to a giant jug of Crystal Geyser water. Unlit incense sticks are nearby. On the TV a game of NBA 2K12 is paused in the second quarter—the Pacers versus the Spurs. There is a large box of Cheez-Its on the floor and bagged-up cartons of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the corner. Boxes of Corn Pops and Cap'n Crunch line the top of the refrigerator.
March 19, 2012
In five hours Walker will take the court for the Idaho Stampede of the NBA's Developmental League. For now he has agreed to talk about how and why he came to be here—a three-time All-Star living in a $915-a-month apartment he shares with reserve guard Chris Davis, and playing for a salary of less than $25,000. He has no car, subsists mainly on cold cuts and fast food and plays in front of crowds as small as 155.
After five minutes, Walker emerges from the bedroom, dressed in a T-shirt and sweats, his eyes hazy. He turns off the video game, plops down on the couch and begins to speak.
TRIVIA QUESTION: Entering this season, how many players in NBA history had won an NCAA title, an NBA title and earned more than $90 million as a pro?
Answer: Two. One is Michael Jordan. The other is Antoine Walker.
The road back began in December 2010, when Walker sat at a makeshift podium in the basement of Boise's CenturyLink Arena. Next to him was Randy Livingston, the coach of the Stampede and an old friend. The two men had an announcement: Walker, only a year and a half removed from the NBA, would be joining the team. "I still feel like I have a lot of basketball left in me," Walker said.
At 34, Walker should have been in the final years of his NBA prime. Sure, he'd fallen on hard times, declaring personal bankruptcy in May 2010 after blowing the $110 million he made as a player (as well as the unspecified millions he landed in endorsements) due to a lavish lifestyle, a series of disastrous real estate deals, sizeable gambling losses and well-intentioned largesse—at one point he reportedly had between 30 and 70 friends and family members on his payroll. Most players of his stature looking for a payday head overseas, where they can earn seven-figure salaries. But Walker was choosing the NBDL, a place for young dreamers, never-weres and never-will-bes. The league's average age hovers around 25, and the average NBA experience is 33 games. "He's got some balls, you have to give him that," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told SI recently. "A lot of people, their pride wouldn't allow them to do something like that."
Walker's goal was to return to the NBA—to get what the D-League insists on branding a "Gatorade Call Up"—and he was sure he had a shot. At 6'8" he was a gifted passer who filled the role of a "stretch four," spacing the floor with his shooting. He'd spent the summer working in Louisville with Rick Pitino, his former coach at Kentucky. The results with the Stampede were promising. Walker scored 27 one night, had a double double on a couple of others. In 43 games he averaged 16.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Yet there was no call-up, and Walker watched as, one by one, D-Leaguers were summoned, 20 in all, from unproven players like Zabian Dowdell to veterans like Antonio Daniels. That spring Walker returned to his hometown of Chicago, frustrated and disappointed.
Those close to Walker expected him to move on—maybe take the overseas route for the money or call it a career. Instead, he returned this winter to Boise to ride buses, make 25 grand and play against the dreamers, cheered on some nights, heckled on others.
The question is why.
Go back to Jan. 7, 1998, to the MCI Center in Washington. It is a midseason game, and Walker, a second-year player with the Celtics, is putting on an absolute show, making one spectacular shot after another. Trim and muscular at 240 pounds, he rips down rebounds and barrels down the court, pounding the ball with that awkward-yet-deceptive upright gait. He fakes, hesitates, slinks onto the baseline and flips the ball in the basket, then moments later squares up his defender, goes onto his tiptoes and sinks a three-pointer. By the third quarter he is closing fast on 30 points, and Boston announcer Tommy Heinsohn is practically hoarse: "Anothah incredible shot by Walkah!" Walker finishes with a career-high 49 points on 36 shots, hitting all five of his threes and pulling down 12 rebounds. He will remember it as the best performance of his career, the one in which "I showed every part of my game."
That game could be transcendent. Walker was a forward who could handle it and pass it like a guard, who possessed a seemingly endless variety of post moves and a soft shooting touch, skills that endeared him to Celtics fans. As the years passed, those fans chafed at his inconsistency. One night, he'd put up a triple double; too many others, he'd have no assists. It didn't help that he was putting on weight or that he was brash—talking trash to opponents, occasionally yelling at teammates—not to mention handsomely paid, signing a six-year, $71 million contract in January 1999 that led Pitino, then Boston's coach, to say his star player would "never have to worry about money again." Walker's signature shimmy, a wriggling dance he performed after big shots, annoyed as many as it delighted. The ghosts of Celtics past hovered, men like Larry Bird and Danny Ainge who both wondered when Walker would play defense, when he'd stop jacking so many shots from behind the arc. Walker responded by launching an astonishing 645 attempts in 2001--02. When asked why he shot so many threes, he responded with a phrase that would come to define him in the eyes of many: "Because there are no fours."
Despite his bluster, Walker was hurt by the criticism. One night in Boston, after a particularly vicious round of heckling, he nearly cried in the locker room. Other times he got angry, firing back. Walker was a sensitive man, a self-professed mama's boy who grew up on the South Side of Chicago but went to private schools while his single mother, determined to provide him with a structured environment, put in long hours as a clerk for the city. He cooked for his five younger siblings and acquired from his grandmother a love of soap operas. At Kentucky he set up his class schedule around All My Children; in NBA locker rooms he always switched the TV to his beloved soaps. He doted on his family and was generous to a fault with friends. A Celtics ball boy would bring him a $4 bag of McDonald's, and Walker would tip him $40. In all his years, one ball boy says, no player treated him better.
Walker is a different player now. On Wednesday, two days before the meeting in his apartment, the Stampede played a game against the Texas Legends in Frisco, a 45-minute drive north of Dallas. Ten minutes into the first quarter, Walker checked in for the first time. Last season he was at least in shape, or close to it. This year, he is a good 40 pounds above his playing weight. He is impossible to miss on the court, with his wide hips, ample rear end and sloped stomach. Within 60 seconds Walker began grabbing his shorts, forcing his breath out in great gusts. By the middle of the second quarter he looked as if he'd run a marathon.
The competition included such NBA talents as Daniels and Sean Williams, but Walker was the clear attraction. His face graced the ads for the game. In the courtside seats a thirtyish man holding a beer stopped cold when Walker first checked in. "Holy s---," the man said, turning to his friend. "Is that...?" The friend stared, then nodded, amazed, as if having discovered Steve Perry playing at the local dive bar. "It is! It's Toine!" Immediately both men lifted up their iPhones, like lighters at a rock concert, and commenced filming. Soon they began yelling, "Give us the shimmy!"
Ah, the shimmy. There hasn't been one game in two seasons during which someone hasn't beseeched Walker to do it. This season he's only pulled it out twice, both times on the road, largely because there's so little to celebrate. On Wednesday night's game against the Legends, it took Walker three quarters just to score. He missed layups, threw entry passes into the stands and clanged three-pointers off the front rim. Upon grabbing one rebound, he went back up with two hands but got little lift, and released the ball from so low, and so haphazardly, that it appeared he was tossing confetti. In a 93--84 Stampede loss Walker had only six points on 2-of-9 shooting and four turnovers. By hitting two of six threes, he actually raised his shooting from beyond the arc to 21.7% for the season.
The high point? That was June 20, 2006, when Walker won his ring, with the Heat. In Game 6 he went for 14 points and 11 boards as Miami completed its comeback from an 0--2 Finals deficit against the Mavericks. Afterward, the Heat players partied in Dallas's American Airlines Center until they were kicked out. Then they partied at the Ritz-Carlton, where team president Pat Riley had rented out an entire ballroom. At 5 a.m. the team voted to fly back to Miami to party some more. It was, Walker says, "the moment you work your whole career for."
It was time to enjoy life. Walker played golf, drank cocktails and flew around the country to party with Jordan. They had become friends in 2001, when Jordan had cold-called Walker in Chicago, looking for a game while preparing to make his second comeback.
The two lived like kings, drinking and smoking cigars and spending long nights at casinos, an eight-year run that Walker now describes as "an honor." If Walker got sucked into Jordan's way of life—wagering enormous sums at the tables—he doesn't blame it on MJ. He insists he never gambled with Michael; he either watched him or played at a different table because "anyone who knows MJ knows he gambles by himself."
Walker's fall began a year after the championship, when the Heat traded him to the lottery-bound Timberwolves, who in turn shipped him to the Grizzlies, then one of the worst teams in the league. It was no place for a vet. Walker accepted a buyout in December 2008 and, at 32, left the league. A year later, in 2009, he was charged with a DUI. That same year, the Red Rock, Caesars Palace and Planet Hollywood casinos in Vegas filed a complaint after Walker passed bad checks and unsuccessfully tried to bargain for what he calls a "discount" on his gambling losses. Walker pleaded guilty to felony bad check charges and is currently on probation and saddled with a non-interest-bearing debt of roughly $770,000, which he likens to a "student loan or a house note."
To get back in the clear, all he needs is one more one-year NBA contract, but that appears highly unlikely. Ask G.M.'s, coaches and front-office execs about Walker, and they will tell you that he isn't on their radar. He's not a role player, not young enough, not a defender. They worry about his effect on the locker room, about the example he might set. "Let me put it this way," says one Western Conference executive, "if you have the pick of the bunch and could get Ryan Bowen, who was always a model teammate, or Antoine Walker, which one would you take?"
His current teammates and coaches are kinder. To a man, they say they like Walker. He is described as "99% good" and possessing, according to assistant Joel Abelson, "the best basketball IQ in the D-League by far." But they also worry about him. "This is a safe haven for Toine right now," says Livingston, his coach. "When you're done here, no one's going to care that you're an All-Star." Livingston would know. Once considered the best high school point guard in the country, he suffered a run of injuries and became one of the most acclaimed grinders in NBA history, playing for 10 teams in 11 years and setting a record with 19 call-ups from the D-League. The Stampede players now live their days hoping for that call. They invoke the story of Jeremy Lin and other less renowned cases of 10-day guys who hit pay dirt, the guaranteed contract. "There are a hundred Jeremy Lins in the league," Livingston says. "They just need a shot."
Walker is not one of them, though. Livingston instead sees a man adrift. "I keep telling Toine that you need an exit strategy," the coach continues, "but he can't do anything till he gets that paper. He has one and a half years left for graduation. He could have been doing that these last two years, but he hasn't." Stampede guard Tony Bobbitt, the former Cincinnati sharpshooter who once played two games with the Lakers, is sitting nearby and chimes in. "Hey, man, we all make mistakes," he says. "People don't understand that with athletes, a lot of us have big hearts, and people take advantage of that. How would you feel if you lost $100 million? Think about that."
The interview is Walker's chance to explain, to show that he's changed his ways, that he's ready for another shot, either as a player, a coach or a scout. He agreed ahead of time, knew the plan: A reporter would follow the Stampede for three days, traveling from Frisco back to Boise. Come 5:15 a.m. on Thursday, however, Walker's teammates are in the US Airways terminal of DFW, but Walker is nowhere to be found. In 15 minutes the team is to board a commercial flight to Phoenix, where the players will spend a three-hour layover draped over gate-side chairs, trying to steal a few more winks before squeezing back into coach for the flight to Boise. It is the end of a three-week road trip full of long bus rides—Sioux Falls to Des Moines, Des Moines to Tulsa, Tulsa to Frisco—and crappy weather. Everyone is bleary-eyed and grumpy; some didn't sleep the night before.
Still, they are here, assembled amid the fluorescent glow of gate E37, a collection of towering, headphone-wearing zombies. Center Mikki Moore, a 12-year NBA veteran, looks at his phone, troubled. "Toine musta slept in," he mutters. Then he turns to his teammates. "Yo, should we stall the plane?"
Bobbitt looks at Moore, eyes heavy.
"Nope," he says. "I just want to get home."
That afternoon Walker sends a text. He is on a later flight that lands in Boise around 7 p.m., and he is burnt out. The interview will have to wait until Friday.
On Friday afternoon, at his small apartment that is paid for by the Stampede, Walker is sitting on his couch, cradling a jug of Crystal Geyser and flipping on SportsCenter, which is showing a near-continual loop of Jeremy Lin, the NBDL poster boy who in the span of a week went from dreamer to international sensation.
Slowly at first, Walker begins to talk about his life. He is open, at ease and amiable. He says he is still in love with the game, that he's a huge NBA fan, but there's a problem: He can't get the NBA package at his apartment. So instead Walker heads to local sports bars in Boise—Old Chicago with its 31 beers on tap and army of flat screens, or The Ram or Buster's—and sits on a stool, watching the teams he used to play against. He especially likes watching his old buddy with the Celtics, Paul Pierce, who is only a year younger than him. "I'm happy for him," Walker says of Pierce, with whom he has lost touch. (Asked to discuss Walker for this story, Pierce declines, saying through a Celtics spokesman that he "would rather not go back in time.")
As for his own NBA dreams, Walker says he no longer expects a call-up, though he hasn't given up hope. "It would have to be the perfect situation," he says, adding, "Honestly, I don't feel like the guys in the NBA are that much better than me." He says he received some overseas offers last fall—Poland, the Middle East—but nothing that blew him away. Anyway, he had legal stuff related to his debts to take care of in the States, and he's comfortable in Boise. He trusts Livingston, the weather's "not too bad," and it's cheap. He gets a $40 per diem on the road, and he's never expected to pick up a check; when the team goes to Applebee's or Chili's, the players get separate bills.
"This has been a safe haven for me—being around the guys, having a structure, having a schedule, having to get up early, having to be somewhere on time, compared to just sitting at home," Walker says. "All those things are good, the little stuff you never think about when you're playing and everything is great."
He bristles at how he has been portrayed, saying that his gambling was "misunderstood," that the media created a "black cloud" over his reputation and that it was a "misconception" that up to 70 people were on his payroll. "I did nice things for my friends and family," he says. "That's how I was raised."
He admits to regrets, too. "Sometimes it makes you slap yourself over the head," he says of the bad decisions, loans to friends and investments gone wrong. "But at the same time I can't cry over spilt milk; I got to keep going." He pauses, rubbing his forehead as if palming a basketball. "Believe me, I've had many a day where I just look at myself in the mirror, like, Damn, how you get into this situation?"
Instead, Walker's trying to find the silver lining. He says that through his bankruptcy he's learned who his true friends are and realized that "those who don't have good intentions for you weed themselves out." Some, like former Kentucky teammate Nazr Mohammed, who has loaned Walker money, have stood by him. Others have stopped calling or, like Jordan, have drifted away. Still, now he gets to spend Thanksgivings at home and has become more involved in the lives of his two daughters. (Walker and his fiancée, Evelyn Lozada, split in 2009, after he filed for bankruptcy; she's now engaged to Chad Ochocinco, the NFL receiver.) When talk turns to the future, Walker says he's starting to do his "due diligence" and deciding whether to pursue his degree online or go back to the classroom. He's also involved with a start-up consulting company. The idea, which came from a Boise businesswoman, is to serve as a watchdog for pro athletes in the management of their finances. "It's a way to give back," Walker says, "so that other guys don't make the same mistakes I made."
A little before 5 p.m., Walker heads to his bedroom, where a box spring and mattress lie on the floor, half-covered by a comforter. A bed frame rests in the closet, but Walker hasn't gotten around to setting it up. He pulls a pair of giant brown jeans from a bag and places them on an ironing board, then warms up his iron. Walker is wearing them to the game tonight, and he wants them to look well-pressed.
Why does he keep going?
It is 10 minutes into the game against the Reno Bighorns on Friday night, and CenturyLink Arena is rocking, at least by D-League standards. The game is on local TV and also being simulcast on the NBDL website, which is as big as it gets around here. Nearly 3,000 fans are in attendance, and there is hope among the Stampede staff, for a few minutes at least, that Mitt Romney, who was in the attached Grove Hotel for a fund-raiser earlier in the afternoon, might be one of them. (He is not.) As with all D-League home games the arena includes innumerable distractions: a giant inflatable bouncy house that looks like a castle, a clown-shaped playpit, a row of pop-a-shot machines, an inflatable blimp flying overhead dropping coupons. The smell of popcorn is overwhelming.
With the Stampede up by 15 in the second quarter, there's a genuine buzz. Walker hits a three, then makes a beautiful entry pass and, a few minutes later, swishes another three. With the Stampede up nearly 25, he catches the ball on the break and throws a lefthanded, no-look, behind-the-back pass to a trailing Reggie Larry. Larry, a young, athletic forward, throws it down with prodigious force. The crowd goes nuts; the bench goes nuts. The lead is nearing 30.
During the next timeout, Walker jogs over to the bench, breathing hard, sweat streaming down his bald head. His teammates rise to congratulate him, patting him on the back, rubbing that slippery dome. Walker finishes with 12 points (all on three-pointers), six rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes. Afterward he will head out into the night, looking for companionship, a little affirmation, maybe a free drink.
For now, though, he remains frozen in a moment, in this moment: a hero to his teammates. A hero in Boise, Idaho. A man you can cheer for.