Kemba Walker: Back to a glorious future
He's single-handedly saving UConn and reviving a nearly-lost New York City tradition
And all but gone. The New York City point guard production line. That great legacy, over. Or at least missing in action right now. The guards who once regularly stepped out of the city's boroughs and changed the way, for better and worse, we look at -- and appreciate -- the game. The flow, stopped.
And all but gone. The concrete on which they were bred doesn't give birth to game-changers like it once did. Archibald, Wilkens, Cousy. From Rod Strickland to "Mr. Chips" (Kenny Anderson) to "The Dancer" (Kenny Smith) to "Mama, There Goes That Man" (Mark Jackson). Never to be seen again? Rafer's madness (Rafer Alston) was the last to slip through. The post-mix tape names mean nothing. A fade into an obscurity unseen, unknown. The ones who survived remain unheard. Of Adrian Walton. Of Malloy Nesmith. Of Kenny Satterfield.
All due respect to the Raymond Feltons and Sebastian Telfairs left in the game, but playgrounds to pros via NY all but dead.
Now they seem to come from everywhere -- just like the great emcee, just like the great chef, just like the great novelist -- but New York is no longer the export of the great one. Chris Paul (Winston-Salem, N.C.), Derrick Rose (Chicago), Deron Williams (Dallas), Russell Westbrook (Long Beach, Calif.), Rajon Rondo (Louisville, Ky.), John Wall (Raleigh, N.C.), Tony Parker (Paris). All from everywhere but.
But. There's still this one: Kemba. It's not that Kemba Walker has to dispel the "death of NY basketball" theory. But just like Wu-Tang Clan saved the great NY emcees from extinction, just like Paul Liebrandt (a Brit who believes in the city) is trying to save the great NY chef from extinction, just like Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticant (transplanted from the Caribbean) are trying to save the great NY novelist from a literary death, Walker right now -- at all of 20 years old -- might be the player to revive the line of New York playground prodigies who transcend Harlem's asphalt.
Walker, by the way he's played thus far during his junior season at Connecticut, just might be New York's basketball savior.
It would be too easy to try to put Walker's 2010-11 season into perspective by using that single off-balance, one-handed, off-one-leg, 35-foot heave he threw up in overtime against Texas. Luck like that is a by-product of a season like this. It comes with the luggage. Notice it's "a by-product," and not "the by-product." Because what comes in seasons like this, when you are second in the nation in scoring (24.4 points per game) and you are the unexpected leader of an unexpected team that has risen to a No.5 ranking, is what Walker did two minutes later in that overtime, when there 5.1 seconds left.
No need for me to describe it here. Google, YouTube or ESPN.com it. What you'll see is Walker's 2010-2011 season synopsized in a time capsule. You'll see everything he is about, everything he has become as a basketball player. You'll also see, if you look close enough, his future.
Yes, him. All over again. Different size, different school, different expectations, but the same out-of-nowhere meteoric rise. I told Walker this while we're sitting in the lobby of the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee before the Marquette game this week. He said he'd never thought about how the last 19 games of his college career so resemble Dwyane Wade's 2004 coming-out party in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
I asked him, "With the life you've had growing up, did you ever see what's happening now ever happening?"
His response is that of a young star almost caught off-guard by his own greatness: "Not at all. Not at all."
Says it all.
"Just from my basketball experiences, I've always played behind somebody through every level of basketball," he said. "I always seem to get better from playing behind somebody. But I never thought I'd be, you know, at the point where I'm at right now. It almost doesn't seem real right now. I don't know, everything just happened so fast."
He is taking college basketball by tsunami, not storm.
Lahaina, Hawaii, in late November. Games three to five of the season. He left Hawaii to a standing ovation from his teammates and coaching staff as he got on the team bus. UConn, unranked going into the Maui Invitational, exited as the No. 9 team in the country. To Wichita State, he gave 31 point; to Michigan State, the then-No.2 team in the country, he gave 30; and to then-No. 9 Kentucky, in the tournament championship game, he gave 29. Aloha.
All of those wins were preceded by the second game of the season against Vermont. Walker gave the Catamounts 42 points.
He no longer plays behind anyone. This is all him, all his. Yet Walker, unbeknownst to him, might have much more in his hands than the fate of UConn men's basketball this season. The promise in Lance Stephenson to save NY is fading. Too little, maybe too late. The audacity put in the hope of the one player who can give NY its basketball life back might be shifting. Little does Walker know now, but possessing Jimmer Fredette's scoring ability (27.4 points per game at BYU) and twice Fredette's NBA promise might not be enough. His calling could be much greater than what will happen to UConn in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
But he does know that everything depends on what he does in those tournaments.
It was Sean Couch, an editor/founder of Bounce, who introduced me to Walker when they put him on the cover of the magazine in 2007. I'd heard about a kid playing for the New York Gauchos who was being labeled "Next of NY," but you know how NY basketball fables go -- it could all be Aesop.
It was Couch, too, who had a problem (although he didn't totally disagree) with a story I did on this site in 2008 about the death of the NYC PG, as he reiterated Walker's name to me, using the kid as the sole subject matter to argue that my belief would one day be proven flawed.
And it was Couch who, when I called him about Walker this week, essentially said, I told you so!
"Kemba is pressure-baked," Couch said. "Meaning, he's ready -- ready to assume the responsibilities that come with winning because he's used to it. That's the one thing where I can say the playground has helped him. The parks in New York have become like arenas. Large crowds, announcers, lights, games at night. Kemba has been through all of that already and he's done a lot of winning on the playground."
Example: In the summer of 2009, Walker was voted the player of the year of the almost-world-famous Dyckman tournament in Washington Heights, N.Y. Couch went so far as to say the backboards in the city playgrounds are now no different than the ones used in NCAA games and that the depth perception is the same from park to arena.
"He already understands championship game -- winning behavior," Couch said. "He's one of the few players that isn't afraid to do in [NCAA] games what he found success doing on the playgrounds of New York. But more importantly, he is unique to these times in basketball because he's one of the few left that knows how to keep basketball as his foundation. That's what makes him rare."
And rarer than Walker's commitment to, and love for, the game would be a future bright enough to lift a city's crumbling basketball tradition off of life-support. Why should the legacy of a city's contribution to basketball be placed at his feet, only to be carried on his shoulders?
Walker, right now, said he knows he can't be bothered with all that. It was unanticipated, but he's become the leader of a young team that all of a sudden believes in miracles: His.
"There's a wall," Walker said, making me fully understand where he is in this phase of his life. "When you first walk into our gym at our school, there's a big wall and they have a bunch of pictures on the wall of guys like Ben Gordon, Caron Butler, Rip [Hamilton], Rudy Gay, Ray Allen. All of those guys are on the wall. I always say to myself, 'I'm going to be on that wall one day.'"
He says no more. Doesn't need to.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.