Antoine Walker begins new chapter

12/17/2010 - NBA

PORTLAND, Maine -- Antoine Walker made his first start of the season Thursday night for the Idaho Stampede.

Yes, it's a start. In the NBA Development League, dreams know no bounds, whether it's in the head of a non-drafted 22-year-old with no real chance or a 34-year-old who has played in 893 NBA games plus three All-Star Games and has a championship ring as a member of the 2006 Miami Heat.

Walker hasn't graced an NBA floor in nearly three years. He has no idea how this latest comeback will end up. He has a very specific idea of how he hopes it will end up -- back in the NBA within a couple of months on a playoff-bound team.

He said he felt he owed himself one more shot.

"I left the game way too soon and I want to get back,'' Walker said after the Stampede's morning shootaround at the Portland Expo Center before their 105-99 loss to the Maine Red Claws in which Walker had 25 points and 8 rebounds in 33-plus minutes. "I still believe I can play. … I'm a very unique player. There aren't many guys in the league who can do what I do, at my size, to be able to space the floor, take you off the dribble, make plays. I think there are only a handful of guys who can do that. And I have the experience. I've played in big games. I've won a championship. I think I bring a lot of experience to a team."

When we last saw Walker in the NBA, he was coming off the bench for a truly horrible Minnesota Timberwolves team in the 2007-08 season. His last NBA game was on Feb. 19, 2008, an eight-minute stint against Philadelphia in which he had zero points, 2 rebounds, 1 turnover and 2 fouls. Twenty-five days earlier, he made his last appearance in Boston -- where he had been a member of the Celtics from 1996 to 2003 and again in 2004-05 -- playing 15 minutes for the Wolves.

Minnesota traded Walker to Memphis on the night of the 2008 NBA draft, but he never appeared in a regular-season game for the Grizzlies, who released him in December 2008. Until signing with the Stampede on Dec. 7, the only competitive basketball Walker played since February 2008 was this past February and March, when he went to Puerto Rico to play for the Guaynabo Mets.

That didn't go over well. He was out of shape. He was unfamiliar with the international rules. He had only one American teammate (Marcus Fizer). But the experience made him realize how much he missed the game.

"I got my hunger back,'' Walker said.

He also was able, he said, to finally deal with his numerous financial difficulties of the past two years, including an embarrassing arrest by Las Vegas authorities for failure to pay a gambling debt of more than $800,000. He also lost an arbitration case after he failed to pay his former agent. But with a new agent (Mike Higgins) and a better set of confidants -- "I [have] good friends around me now; I didn't always,'' he said -- Walker said he is only looking forward.

"Everyone goes through trials and tribulations in life. Some are harder than others. Some [people] are stronger than others,'' he said. "I just try to make wise decisions in all aspects of life. You live and learn.

"My life is not predicated on money. I spent the first 18 years of my life without money. I'm gonna have money. Am I gonna have 10, 20 million dollars? Those days may be over for me, I don't know. Or maybe I will be able to make that kind of money again. I don't know what the future holds. But right now, I am comfortable and happy that I have the situation off the court under control."

To prepare for his re-entry to the game, Walker spent four months earlier this year in Louisville, working out for his former college and pro coach, Rick Pitino. Then, it was all about finding the right situation. He considered Europe but said, "When you go overseas, you kinda get out of the loop.
This way, teams can still follow me and I can be watched.

"I was just sitting at home for a year and a half, and teams want to know if I can still play and compete at a high level. This is the best way to do it because you have so many guys trying to get back. It's the best route for me."

Even if Walker is clueless about his new hometown, Boise, there are familiar faces on the Stampede. Walker already knew coach Randy Livingston; they were high school phenoms at the same time, and Livingston was a second-round draft pick of the Houston Rockets in 1996 (he also played for several other NBA teams). A former Celtics teammate, Greg Minor, is an assistant coach. A fellow lottery pick (Luke Jackson) is a teammate.

Livingston said Walker has been "fantastic" with both the players and the coaching staff since joining the team. He thinks that as long as Walker keeps up the good work, some NBA team will give him a shot. The D-League usually starts to see call-ups in January, once the NBA allows 10-day contracts to be signed.

"Someone will give him a chance,'' Livingston said.

An NBA personnel executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed with Livingston, adding, "I would think so. He provides a veteran presence and he will be in decent shape. I don't see why not. But beyond the second 10-day, it's really beauty is in the eye of the beholder.''

Walker averaged 10.7 points in 24.3 minutes a game in his first three games with the Stampede. He said his timing was still off, an understandable circumstance given his time away from the game.

There's also the adjustment to a completely different lifestyle, ranging from the pay (a few hundred dollars a week) to the accommodations (no Four Seasons or Ritz-Carltons) to the travel (to get to Portland, the Stampede flew commercial from Boise to Denver, then Denver to Boston, and then took a bus to Maine).

"It's definitely a humbling experience,'' Walker said. "But basketball is the same in that guys love to play and are working hard. … I want to give it one more shot. I don't know if it's going to work or not. I'm going to put forth my best effort and if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. If it does, it does."

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.