Kemba Walker looks at the hoop and lofts a basketball through the net. His next shot falls. And the next.
To be fair, the defense Walker faces on this slow weeknight in December is minimal—nonexistent, really. So Walker launches again at the Pop-A-Shot net with a backboard adorned with the Hornets logo. On this night, the two-time All-Star is tucked into the back corner of a Dave and Buster’s in Charlotte‘s suburbs. The restaurant and arcade hosts more blaring neon lights than patrons. Walker and four children he has mentored for a year-plus are drifting among the games after finishing plates of burgers and pasta. Meeting with the kids washes some of the distaste away from a rare subpar performance two nights earlier against the Lakers.
“He set the record the last time we were here,” whispers Jeff Wilson, a Big Brother to one of the children Walker mentors. “Can you imagine being a kid who plays this game the next day with no idea that Kemba set the record?”
Walker, 6’1″ (small, by NBA standards), blends easily into the surroundings, dressed largely in threads approved by his boss—a crisp pair of Jordan 1s, a gray Jordan sweatsuit and a skullcap with “Bronx” scribbled in cursive. He notices heads turn occasionally. Someone offers a double take, no doubt wondering, Is that…?
The few who do recognize Walker keep it moving. No one asks for a selfie or an autograph.
Walker prefers it this way. On the court, his game is the embodiment of the New York City product he is, full of pull-ups, hesitations, crossovers and dimes. Off the court, he would rather be as he is now, in a familiar setting and out of the spotlight.
“I love it,” he said of Charlotte during a conversation the previous week before repeating himself for emphasis. “I love it. It’s perfect for me. The pace of the city is pretty slow, which I love. It’s not fast-paced like New York. … I’m able to just live pretty much a normal life. I’m able to go out and eat and not really be bothered. Go to the mall and walk around, not really be bothered. That’s what I like, personally. That’s the kind of life I like to live.”
He sinks his final shot. Soon, the two boys he’s mentoring, Miles and Caleb, are at the Pop-A-Shot, mimicking Walker’s tried-and-tested shooting form, leaping into the air and splaying their legs.
Walker asks them about their grades in school. They ask about the guards he schools.
“What’s that smell?” Miles asked at a recent meeting. Walker looked at him questioningly. “Smells like 60 points,” Miles cracked as they both broke into grins.
In mid-November, Walker dazzled with an NBA-season high of 60 points. The effort came in an overtime loss to Philadelphia.
Kent Smith/Getty Images
Walker’s posted a lot of eye-opening scoring totals this season in losses. There was the 47 he tallied against Washington. And the 37-point night in another game against Philly. Or the 41 he rang up on opening night against Milwaukee. Walker has scored more than 30 12 times this season; Charlotte has lost seven of those games, according to the Charlotte Observer‘s Rick Bonnell.
All those gaudy totals are setting up a summer of choices for himself and the organization as Walker enters his career’s first unrestricted free agency. Walker is in the last season of a team-bargain $12 million-a-year deal. Charlotte can extend a supermax contract offer for five years and about $220 million if Walker lands on an All-NBA team. If not, the Hornets can still max him out at five years and around $189 million. Doing so, however, likely would limit the Hornets’ ability to land the additional assets needed to make Charlotte a contender. While the roster carries a few of the kind of team-unfriendly deals winning teams are forced to carry, many would be hard-pressed to name Charlotte’s second scoring option.
The Hornets tread in no man’s land. Walker alone affords Charlotte the ability to compete for one of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spots. Indeed, the Hornets hit mid-January eighth in the East despite being under .500. But without the assets to trade for another star, or the losses to nab a sparkling draft pick, Charlotte appears stuck behind the Torontos, Milwaukees and Bostons of the East. Meanwhile, stars across the league are chasing winning situations over the comforts of familiarity. Given those realities, some have speculated the most practical situation is a separation, allowing Walker to flourish with another organization as Charlotte rebuilds without him. Several other top-tier free agents this summer—a crop that includes Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson—already flex championship resumes. Walker is intent on winning but has not ventured beyond the playoffs’ first round during his career.
Slowing Walker’s potential momentum out of town is his affection for his adopted hometown as well as the prominent backer he has within the franchise.
“The guy who owns the team, he loves him,” said Paul Silas, who coached Walker as a rookie, through Charlotte’s dismal lockout-shortened 7-59 performance in 2011-12 and still sits near the Hornets bench during games.
That affection from the owner’s suite was evident last season as rumors grew that Walker, producing another All-Star season for a team that wasn’t headed to the playoffs, would be dealt at the trade deadline.
Jordan’s stance likely hasn’t changed with Walker primed to reach his third consecutive All-Star Game next month when the midseason spectacle arrives in Charlotte. Through two rounds of fan balloting, Walker is third among Eastern Conference guards. In a campaign for his inclusion, the organization proclaims: HIS CITY. HIS TIME.
The pictures of past Hornets players greet Walker every time he walks inside the Spectrum Center. Walker has seen the pictures so many times over the years that he associates most of the players eternally in their teal jerseys. Most of them, however, share their exploits with another franchise.
Larry Johnson? Played in the Finals as a Knick.
Alonzo Mourning? Won the Finals with Miami.
Baron Davis? Moved with the franchise to New Orleans before starring as a centerpiece for the We Believe Warriors.
Dell Curry? Walker surpassed him as the franchise’s all-time scoring leader last season. Besides, he’s more often referred to as Steph’s dad these days.
None have had their number retired by the franchise. Only the late Bobby Phills holds that honor. Will Walker join him? If he has his way, he would.
“I just hope everything will work out for him,” Silas said. “I believe it will, but I just hope it does.”
Andrea Walker beams with pride from a corner at Dave and Busters. She tells a story about how though her son admires tattoos, he doesn’t have one. He shares the same blood type with his mother, and Andrea requested that he refrain from getting any, in case an emergency happened and she needed blood. (In most cases, according to the American Red Cross, one can give blood immediately after getting a tattoo as long as it “was applied by a state-regulated entity using sterile needles” and fresh ink).
“He took that to heart,” Andrea says.
In Charlotte he’s expanded his family to include these kids. Walker meets with them several times a year. In the wake of the 2016 police killing of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old unarmed black man in northeast Charlotte, Walker watched news footage as people broke into the Hornets team store during subsequent protests. He reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas, asking to be paired with four children he could meet with regularly and be invested in.
“This is his way of giving back, because he doesn’t have a high school to go and give back to because the school was closed down,” Andrea says.
Harlem’s Rice High School shut its doors for good in 2011. But when Walker went there, he helped the Roman Catholic boys school capture a city title in 2006 while averaging better than 18 points per game for his career. It was then that Kemba first saw the benefits of being a mentor. Many students at Rice were paired with sponsors throughout the city. Walker was among them.
Attending Rice also offered a sense of self.
“That’s where I’m from,” Walker said of New York. “That’s the reason why I’m here. The reason why I am who I am. The reason why I work the way I work. The reason why I have the passion for this game is because of where I’m from. Being from New York made me tough, made me fearless—just playing with a lot of the older guys. Me on the court is definitely 10 times different from me off the court.”
Kemba had visited Charlotte as a kid. An aunt lived in the city. “When you from New York, or from the city, you think everything is country,” Walker said.
Different as it was, the “country life” seemed to suit Walker, who seamlessly adjusted in rural Connecticut when he joined coach Jim Calhoun at UConn.
“He’s New York, but he’s not,” Calhoun said. “If you see him down in Times Square, you might get a nod from him. I always thought when he came to UConn—out in the country in Storrs, Connecticut—he always seemed very comfortable there. He felt comfortable with the people. He felt comfortable with his teammates, with all of us.”
The ability to adapt to his surroundings, to adjust to his circumstances (and, to be honest, almost single-handedly lead UConn to the national title in 2010-11) is what led Walker to Charlotte, for which then-general manager Rich Cho drafted Walker ninth overall. “From an intangible standpoint, there was something about him that really stood out,” Cho said. “He had all the things you would typically look for: high character, high basketball IQ, he’s always a good teammate. Unselfish, but he also had that it factor. His competitiveness and toughness were off the charts.”
The losses, though, quickly piled up. With a team just beginning a rebuild, Walker found little help. The quickness that allowed him to cruise past guards in college created only fleeting glimpses at the basket in the NBA. Defenses sagged off him. Less than a year after walking off the floor with an NCAA championship, Walker was walking off the floor for a team that endured separate losing streaks of 16 games and 23 games while shooting 36.6 percent. “I just wasn’t playing well,” Walker said. “I was a young guy, of course, didn’t really want to step on anybody’s toes or anything like that. Wasn’t trying to do too much. I think I just might have been playing a little bit timid.”
Michael Perez/Associated Press
Walker recalled a conversation with Jordan early on that helped boost his morale.
“He kind of told me just to be myself, basically,” Walker said. “Told me he drafted me for a reason and he could see what I was doing. He didn’t want that. He wanted me to elevate my game someway, somehow. Continue to get better, but he wanted me to be myself. Play the way that I played in college.”
Walker listened. And improved. His shot, once a weakness, has become consistent enough that opposing defenders are ill-advised to go under any picks against Walker.
“He’s so small, so quick he doesn’t need much space to get to where he needs to go,” teammate Marvin Williams said. “But over the years since I’ve been here, he’s become an incredible shooter, all the way out to three-point range, off the catch and off the dribble. He’s becoming a great passer. He’s a very, very good finisher still at the basket. He definitely does add different things to his game each year; that’s why he’s so great now.”
Silas has had a good view of Walker’s progression, first as his coach and then as a spectator when his son, Stephen Silas, coached Walker.
“He didn’t handle the ball as much as he does now and score,” Paul Silas said. “He would throw the ball to someone else, and then they would give it to him every now and then and he would shoot the ball. But now, when he has the ball he’ll just go over and just score as much as he possibly can.”
The Hornets have not evolved as quickly. Only twice in the Walker era have they reached the playoffs, and both were short stays. After finishing 10 games under .500 last season, Charlotte hired James Borrego off the Gregg Popovich coaching tree. Soon after accepting the job, Borrego reached out to cultivate a relationship with Walker. They talked life first before merging the conversation into basketball. Borrego could sense Walker’s disappointment in how the team had performed in recent seasons.
“The frustration that he’s had the last couple years has only made him more hungry, more driven,” Borrego said. “He wants to work even harder to push and elevate his team. It’s not even a selfish thing. He really wants to do this out of his core to win games, and I think that’s where all this is from. That’s what pushes him, ultimately. He wants to win.”
The night outing at Dave and Buster’s is approaching its end. Walker presents the children with gifts shortly before the holidays.
A few months earlier he addressed his impending free agency at the team’s media day and made his stance known.
Kent Smith/Getty Images
“This is where I want to be,” Walker told reporters. “I don’t want to be nowhere else.”
Walker said recently he knew speculation would increase as the season went on and wanted to circumvent it.
“That’s nothing I’m even thinking about right now,” Walker said. “I can’t. It’s nothing that can be done right now until the summer when it needs to be talked about. It’s like why talk about it now when I got to play a full season? That’s not something I want to have in my mind while I’m playing this game. I know when I went to New York to play in the Garden—I knew at some point everyone was going to ask me about free agency when I go there.”
Walker has given every indication he enjoys Charlotte and prefers forming a long-term partnership with the Hornets. He signed his expiring deal in a different NBA economic climate. But the fact that he is the 21st-highest-paid point guard in the league, behind the likes of Brandon Knight, Jeremy Lin and Jordan Clarkson, according to Spotrac, likely isn’t lost on him.
“Kemba is a bit of a mellow guy, and I think he likes the laid-back attitude of the city,” said Jeff Schwartz, Walker’s agent. “I think he’s just really comfortable. Think about where Kemba grew up. He grew up in New York, and Charlotte is really different. I think Kemba is completely comfortable in New York, but from a lifestyle and growing up and becoming an adult and having a life outside of the gym, I just think he’s really comfortable. I think it’s symbiotic with the way Charlotte has treated him and the way he reacts to Charlotte.”
For his part, Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak said last summer that while he understood retaining Walker will be a challenge, the team’s intention was for Walker to finish his career in Charlotte.
“This fits him, personally,” Andrea Walker says of her son’s connection to the city. “He’s just so laid-back. He likes to just be low. If he could just get away from it, as far as when he’s not playing, or having to work, and just relax and just stay at home and play video games all day, [he would]. I think that’s why he loves Charlotte so much. ‘Cause he can be himself.”
Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images
Back at Dave and Buster’s, goodbyes are shared. “When I’m around him, I just feel good,” says 13-year-old Miles, who wears a backward hat signed and given to him by Walker.
Hane Tarris, a Big Brother to Caleb, explains what Walker has meant. “When you have an adult in your life who cares about you, you listen to them,” Tarris says. “When that adult is also an NBA star, you take that person’s view a lot more seriously, and that’s the reality for Caleb but I think for all of them.”
Walker promises to meet with them soon.
Next month, he’s all but certain to join Glen Rice (won a title as a Laker) as the only Hornet to make an All-Star team at least three times. “I don’t think people really know about Charlotte until they get to spend some time here,” Walker said of what he wants first-time visitors to the city to take away during All-Star Weekend. “It’s a small city … but it’s cool. It’s a cool little city.”
Around the league, only a handful of NBA franchises remain wherein franchise legacies can be carved out and milestones accomplished. Walker knows. He also knows the Hornets have never played in a conference finals. He was there in the organization’s darkest days and wants to be there when things turn around. Bismack Biyombo recalled when the two would share the practice court late at night, discussing a brighter future.
“I remember my rookie year, we were the only two on the practice court, because it was a short season,” Biyombo said. “We just keep working and working and working, and we were just laughing that someday we’ll be able to talk about this and be able to deal with it. And now, we’re here again, and I’m just excited. I’m excited for the journey that he has done and what’s left to be done.”
Despite the organization’s struggles to win consistently, that goal isn’t lost on Walker.
“That’s a lot of the reason why I wanted to be around here,” Walker said. “I do want to be the first to accomplish a lot of the goals that have never been accomplished around here. Yeah, I do think about that. Just because I know a lot of things haven’t been accomplished here, and this is my eighth season here now. Just important because I want to help build that. I want to help build that. I want to help accomplish those goals and help get this organization far—as far as possible.”
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.