- Tom Friend, ESPN Senior Writer
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Reunited, and it feels so … curious.
Antoine Walker and the Boston Celtics are arm-in-arm again—this time inside the threepoint arc--and no one except Walker's mom is even asking for an apology. The estrangement lasted 16 months, caused by The Wiggle and other indiscretions, but the GM swallowed his pride and the player swallowed fewer carbs, and a deadline deal was struck that righted a terrible wrong.
It is a case study in You Don't Know What You've Got 'Til It's Gone. In one month, Walker has turned the C's back into a postseason threat and awakened a fan base that used to boo him. He's taken the pressure off a moody Paul Pierce, gained the eccentric ear of Ricky Davis and already become coach Doc Rivers' mouthpiece in the locker room.
Of course, none of this would have happened if Walker hadn't been able to forgive Danny Ainge, and vice versa. Rarely has a player been so misjudged, or a GM been a big enough man to admit it. Rarely has a player been so rude on his way out the door or a GM turned such a deaf ear to what he said. The Celtics got to see life without Toine, and Toine got to see life without the Celtics, and at the 11th hour, a humbler Ainge ate crow and a humbler Walker let it go.
This is a story of a player who is more coachable than people thought and a GM who is more flexible than people thought. It's about a player who stopped shimmying and a GM who stopped stereotyping. But at its heart, it's about a phone call from Walker to Pierce, a minute or two after the trade, and a loud message that changed the Celtics' season: "I'm baaaaaaaaaaaaaack!"
DANNY NEVER did like Toine's game. As an analyst for TNT, he watched Walker play pop-a-shot from downtown and called it cop-out basketball. He said the 6'9" Toine should post up and rebound and utilize his deft passing skills. It all got back to Walker.
Toine thought, what does he know? Ainge wasn't at practice or in the huddle when Jim O'Brien, then the Celtics' coach, gave Walker the green light. Besides, the bombs-away approach worked. In the 2001-02 season, with Toine leading the NBA with 645 three-point attempts and Pierce taking 520 of his own, Boston got to the Eastern Conference finals.
So screw Danny.
But then, in May of 2003, Ainge was named executive director of Celtic basketball operations-a fancy term for GM-and Toine knew he was gone. He wanted a max deal, and Ainge to this day says, "There are few max players." Still, he played the political game, telling Toine he'd always be a Celtic. Toine's mom, Diane, says Ainge told her the same thing when he bumped into her that summer in Walker's hometown of Chicago.
Summer turned to fall, and Ainge says O'Brien and his coaching staff were in his ear the whole time, discrediting Walker. Toine had taken 1,830 three-pointers over the previous three seasons-one every 5 m inutes-and Danny says the coaches preferred not to face the unenviable task of "taking back Antoine's freedom." So they urged a trade. O'Brien, who now coaches the Sixers, isn't talking, but Ainge says, "Whether they deny it or not, that is an absolute fact, and everyone in my office will verify it."
Ainge purposely didn't strike up a relationship with Walker as he mulled the next move. He had a lot to think about. Walker's weight was a central issue. Toine had battled leg injuries the previous season and had ballooned to 267 pounds, 22 over his playing weight. He was a fried-chicken fanatic who could down 20 drumsticks doused in hot sauce in one sitting at Harold's Chicken Shack in Chicago. Plus, Beantown fans had started to boo Toine for his wild shot selection, and had grown tired of the upper-body shimmy dance dubbed The Wiggle, especially when he'd break it out with the team down by 10. "People thought Antoine had gotten too comfortable here," says a member of Boston's front office.
Ainge's word for it was "entitlement." As the season neared, he spoke with Toine and sensed that the player felt it was his right to shoot, his right to dance, his right to earn the max. That did it. On Oct. 20, 2003, Walker and Tony Delk were traded to Dallas for Raef LaFrentz, Jiri Welsch, Chris Mills and the Mavericks' 2004 firstround pick. Upon hearing the news, an assistant gave Ainge a hug and said, "Thank you. Now I can coach again."
THEY'D BEEN looking for a scapegoat in all the wrong places.
Not long after the trade, Walker called Ainge a "snake." He claimed the trade had set the C's back three or four years, that the GM wouldn't be in his job for long. He said Ainge had tried to set his career back by sending him to the loaded Mavericks. Ainge, who figured Walker would be excited to play on a 60-win team, thought, He'd rather be the man than win? Interesting.
But when Ainge set foot in the Celtics' locker room, he saw a brooding Pierce who was uninterested in being a leader and too moody to be the face of the franchise, often dodging reporters by slipping on his headphones. Pierce now admits that having to take the heat minus Toine "affected other parts of my life." Plus, living up to the legacy of Larry, Bill and Red was a 24/7 job. "Off the court, I was down. I really didn't want to go nowhere."
Pierce was no example for the sullen center Mark Blount or the flaky forward Ricky Davis, known for wearing a Yankees cap around town. The Celtics quickly became a motley crew: they won only 36 games and O'Brien resigned by midseason. Through it all, though, Toine kept calling Pierce, kept calling equipment manager John Connor, kept checking in.
He'd been the glue in that locker room, but Ainge hadn't known it. Toine was the one who shielded Pierce from the media, taking the hard questions himself. He was beloved by the ball boys, who would fetch him chicken wings at a nearby tavern so he'd have a hot postgame meal and were rewarded with hundred-dollar handshakes. He gave
his sneakers away after every game, home and away, because he was able to afford only one pair of Nikes a year when he was a kid. He gave free basketball camps around Boston, and because he'd been raised by a single mom, he started a foundation for kids with one parent. After the trade, he took out a full-page ad in The Boston Globe, thanking whatever loyal fans remained. So when the Mavericks came to Beantown, Toine got a standing O, and saw signs in the seats that said, "Trade Ainge." Absence had made their hearts grow fonder. His too.
In Dallas, Don Nelson had made Walker fight for minutes for the first time in his life. He couldn't shoot on a whim and tiptoed around the coaches. "I think I did The Wiggle one game, and Nelson was like, `Nah, don't do that here,' " Walker says. "So I didn't do it. Everybody on the team, Dirk, Steve Nash, Mike Finley, used to kill me because I wouldn't dance, because it was like I was scared of Nellie."
He shot only 305 three-pointers-one every nine minutes-and his average dipped to a careerlow 14 ppg. He felt underutilized; soon he'd be feeling irrelevant. Dallas shipped him in August to what Pierce calls the graveyard of basketball, Atlanta. He didn't wiggle there, either. "They don't have nothing to dance about," Toine says. But he put in an honest night's work. And someone took notice.
"It was never personal with Antoine; I just didn't like the way he played,'' Ainge says. "I liked his game more in Dallas and Atlanta-spending more time in the box, offensive rebounding."
Ainge also liked Toine's new body, which had been made over by Michael Jordan's trainer, Tim Grover, and a personal chef. Toine still ate all the chicken he wanted, but now it was without the hot sauce, and by this season's All-Star break he was down to 240 pounds. Meanwhile, the C's were below .500, the Sixers had just acquired Chris Webber, and the team needed a veteran to rein in its hotheaded scorers, Pierce and Davis. Ainge dialed the Hawks GM, Billy Knight.
Knight loved Toine's leadership, loved how he wore custom-made suits and led the team's tsunami-relief fund-raising. But he didn't want to pay Toine the max. Knight was hoarding draft picks, and Ainge was holding five No. 1's over the next three years. Danny was aware by now that Toine had always been the lightning rod of the Celtic locker room. Through Pierce and other team insiders, he learned that Toine was open to coming back. Ainge suspected Walker would thrive in Doc Rivers' spread offense, and when he asked Rivers about a possible trade for Walker, Doc told him, "We'll start him on the elbows or the post. He won't shoot threes unless he's wide open. We'll reverse the way he used to play."
So Ainge pulled a mulligan, reacquiring the now 28-year-old forward for Gary Payton, Tom Gugliotta, Michael Stewart and a conditional No. 1 pick. "Put it on me," he says. "I feel like I made some mistakes evaluating the whole element of what Antoine brought."
If that's not an apology, it's awfully damn close.
BUT DIANE Walker wanted more. She was the one who took the forlorn calls from her son over those months of exile, and the one who bristled at Ainge's quotes about how Antoine felt "entitled" to do what he wanted in Boston. "It took a big man to bring my son back," she admits, but she also says what her son will not.
"I don't know Danny Ainge, don't know anything about the man," she says. "All I know is when he came to Boston, my son had been carrying that team on his back for six years. I'm only speaking as a mother, but don't sit there and say Antoine thought he was bigger than the team. That's a lie."
Ainge's response: "That's how mothers are supposed to feel. I'm just trying to do what's best for the Celtics."
Anyway, theirs is not the relationship that matters most. The day of the trade, Toine and Danny made their peace. When Ainge tried to explain the deal that started this whole mess, Walker told him to stop: "I was like, 'All right, I understand. I'm beyond that now.'"
A much slimmer Walker showed up for his first game in Utah on Feb. 25. It didn't take long for him to identify the Celtics' problems. Ainge had done a masterful job of drafting useful young talent (Tony Allen, Al Jefferson, Delonte West), but someone had to get them to calm down. The rooks responded to Toine right away. Jefferson, who was wearing Walker's former No. 8, said he could have it back under one condition: if he took the kid under his wing. Done.
Then there was the glum Blount, and Pierce and Davis grappling over fourth-quarter shots. Toine turned out to be the right mediator for each of them. Walker sat down Blount and Davis for one-on-one chats, and he and Pierce continue to have the heart-to-hearts they'd had for years.
In fact, Pierce spent a portion of last summer at Toine's downtown Chicago condo, and they're chummier now than when they played together the first time. "Opposites attract," Pierce says. Walker still has some work to do on his friend: in a five-day span in March, Pierce nearly fought Bob Sura and Tim Thomas. But there is already little doubt about who's the leader of this crew. During a late timeout against the Jazz, Toine pounded his fist in the huddle and promised the group they were going to win. "Every eye was fixed on him," Rivers says. "I didn't realize he carried such a big stick."
After Utah, the Celtics beat the Suns on the road, and then Toine returned to a home-crowd standing O against the Lakers. They won that game, then defeated the Pistons in OT, won in Houston (with Walker guarding Yao at times) and tore off 11 wins in the first 12 games after the deal, until their lack of size led to three straight defeats. Pierce, says LaFrentz, is reenergized now that he can slip on those headphones in peace. Toine is posting up almost exclusively, taking only one three-pointer every 9.9 minutes. "I've got perspective now," he says. "Atlanta will do that to you."
On a recent road trip, Walker sits in a hotel room, chuckling at the irony of it all. He was sent away as an undisciplined egomaniac and summoned back as the sober glue. When he's a free agent this summer, he'll surely point that out to his new pal, Danny, who's hoping Walker won't ask for the max again. Toine's sounding as if he won't, but with a wan smile he says, "They still got to pay me. They ain't avoiding that."
Asked whether The Wiggle will ever be seen again, he promises yes. "I felt like doing it in Charlotte after we won late, but I didn't," he says. "Because it was Charlotte. It's a more mature wiggle now. In the playoffs, though, I might not be able to hold back."
His teammates have begged for it, especially the rookies, who had never seen The Wiggle in the flesh. So recently, Walker broke it out in his most sacred place: the locker room.
When Danny wasn't watching.
Seems like a miracle, but somehow Antoine Walker is back where he belongs