- Matt Ehalt, ESPN New York contributor
- 0 Shares
Memories of the city swarm Kemba Walker's mind in the same way a wave of defenders rushes at him on a basketball court.
Maybe it's a Friday night in the Catholic High School Athletic Association and Walker is handling the point for Rice High School at the Bronx shoebox that is Gauchos Gym.
Perhaps it's a practice for the AAU New York Gauchos and Walker is playing alongside some of the elite high school talent in New York City.
Either way, Walker -- a University of Connecticut junior and a leading candidate for national player of the year -- is not about to forget where he came from.
"It was always packed, a lot of people, a lot of my friends and family," Walker said about playing at Gauchos Gym. "A lot of people are talking trash. It was always a pretty intense atmosphere.
"It took me a lot of nights and a lot of early mornings like that to get better."
It was here in New York where Walker developed the skills that have established him as one of the best college basketball players in the country, and Thursday night he'll return home when the ninth-ranked Huskies take on St. John's at Madison Square Garden.
"I think from just playing street ball and stuff like that I was always able to play up with the older guys, and I think that got me physically and mentally prepared to play on a high level of basketball," Walker said. "[New York City] has been a huge part of my success."
• • •
Moe Hicks sent his assistant to check out the kid.
The former Rice coach, now the director of basketball operations at St. John's, had received a call from Intermediate School 174 coach Carl Nickerson about a raw but intriguing player named Kemba Walker. Nickerson told Hicks that Walker could be interested in attending Rice, so Hicks dispatched one his associates to watch him.
"My assistant comes back and is telling me I gotta see this kid play," Hicks said. "'You gotta see this kid, he's going to be the next Rice point guard.'"
At Rice, Walker played varsity for three seasons, two as the starter and one as the backup for former Louisville point guard Edgar Sosa. Walker helped the team to the 2006 New York City CHSAA title and three CHSAA divisional championships. He averaged 18.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 3.3 steals.
Hicks helped develop Walker's game, showing him how to be a shifty point guard and a better defensive player. Walker always had blazing speed, but didn't know how to harness it. He could get out of control and become erratic at times. As Hicks said, Walker just had one gear to his engine.
Instead of allowing Walker to turn basketball games into track meets, Hicks stressed a half-court set. He taught Walker how to use a stutter-step and stop on a dime and hit a pull-up jumper.
With different weapons in his arsenal, Walker became a more explosive offensive threat.
"We taught our players different gears, and that's what he does extremely well," Hicks said. "It's why it's so hard to guard him. He's explosive, he can hit a jumper. It's the little things that gives him an advantage."
While at Rice, Walker became a McDonald's All-American. He also developed a reputation as a clutch player who came up big in pressure situations, a flair for the dramatic he showed this season with game-winning shots against Michigan State, Villanova and Texas, to name a few.
His coaches easily remember his big plays in the state tournament. In 2006, when Hicks had to take Sosa out of a game, Walker came off the bench to galvanize the team and turn a small deficit into a lead.
Current Rice senior Jermaine Sanders remembers watching Walker score 39 points against St. Raymond star Darryl Bryant -- now a West Virginia guard -- in a crucial game.
"That's what makes him go," said Drexel guard Chris Fouch, Walker's best friend. "The bigger the game, the better he is."
• • •
Emanuel "Book" Richardson had to be honest with Walker.
At the end of each AAU season, the former Gauchos coach and now assistant at Arizona would have a heart-to-heart with his players about recruiting and where they might play someday.
It was the summer of 2006 in Orlando, Fla., and Walker was about to be a junior. He informed Richardson that he wanted to go to Storrs and play for UConn. The coach had some bad news.
"I said, 'I don't think you're good enough to go there yet.' I was honest with him and I said, 'I don't think it's impossible for you to go there, but there are some different things you have to work on,'" said Richardson, who added that a UConn coach told him the same thing about Walker.
Walker had one question.
"He said, 'Well, what do I have to work on?'" Richardson recounted.
"He did not become frustrated and think, 'This is nonsense, I'm Kemba Walker, you guys should be recruiting me.' He said, 'No problem, I'm going to work hard, that's where I want to go.'"
Walker also learned how to be a leader through his days with the Gauchos. It's a role he now fills with a youthful Huskies team that can start as many as three freshmen.
Richardson remembers Walker as a quiet player who at first didn't want to upset the balance of the team. His team featured a superstar roster that included Fouch, Bryant, Seton Hall guard Jordan Theodore and Miami guard Durand Scott.
"We would always say, 'Hey, you gotta lead man. Those guys aren't going to be mad if you tell them what to do if you are working hard,'" Richardson said. "I would always tell him, 'I'm going to give you the keys to my car and I want you to drive it.'"
Slowly but surely, Walker became the Gauchos' floor general. Richardson remembers Walker's play at the Cactus Classic in 2007 as the turning point.
Richardson saw something different in Walker as he won the tournament MVP award. In the title game, Walker's 24 points helped the Gauchos defeat Belmont Shore, a team led by future NBA first-round picks DeMar DeRozan and Brandon Jennings.
"I just wanted to win and tried to do everything possible," Walker said. "I knew I was going up against the No. 1 point guard [Jennings] in the country and just wanted to compete."
• • •
Jim Calhoun hates to put ceilings on players.
But make no mistake: The UConn coach didn't expect what he now sees from Walker on a nightly basis.
"If you asked me at the time we recruited him would he probably end up in the top 15 scorers in only three years at UConn, be the early-season leader for national player of the year and lead us to great wins by his junior year, I wouldn't have said that," Calhoun said. "Yet the more I get to know Kemba, anything is possible with him."
Walker has taken an inexperienced team that was supposed to be an afterthought in the powerful Big East and transformed it into a title contender. After averaging 11.7 points per game his first two seasons, an improved jump shot has placed him in the top 10 in the nation in scoring. Though he's struggled lately, he's managed to still keep his lofty scoring average (23.2 ppg) intact.
He has already scored 30 or more points six times this season, despite constant double- or triple-teaming. He knew he would have to score more than he had in the past to propel UConn, but never envisioned the kind of success he's enjoying.
"It's been great," Walker said. "It's good to see all the hard work has paid off for me. I'm just getting rewarded, and that's about it."
Walker will graduate from Connecticut in May with a degree in sociology. He said he really hasn't started thinking about his future and whether he will stay for one last season at UConn or bolt for the NBA. He stressed being in the right situation for him and his family.
For now, that decision can wait. There's still plenty of season left and time for the guard from the Soundview neighborhood in the Bronx to show the world what New York City saw for all those years: a classic Big Apple point guard who excels on the big stage.
"I think I have what a New York City point guard is made of," Walker said. "Toughness, a lot of heart and the ability to be a leader."
Matt Ehalt is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.
16hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler