Kemba Walker was ‘different’ kind of New York star long before Knicks

Kemba Walker was ‘different’ kind of New York star long before Knicks

Late Wednesday morning, celebrations kicked off across New York City’s basketball community. Cell phones began vibrating at an exponential rate. Social media was abuzz.

Kemba Walker, the electric All-Star point guard from the Soundview Projects in The Bronx, Rice High School and the New York Gauchos, was coming home to play for the Knicks.

But this wasn’t just about a talented player potentially solving the Knicks’ eternal point-guard problem. It was more than just one of the city’s finest high school stars returning. The ecstatic reactions revealed just how adored Walker is within the five boroughs, far beyond his ability with a basketball in his hands.

“He’s just a different dude,” said Rasheen Davis, an assistant coach at St. Peter’s who coached Walker at since-closed Rice in Harlem and has remained close to him.

That’s the adjective everyone who has crossed paths with 31-year-old Walker uses: Different. Along with humble, gracious, caring, selfless, dedicated and generous. Walker hasn’t lived in New York City full-time since his days as a prep superstar more than a decade ago. But he is treated as if he never left. He has remained that special to so many, mostly because of how he treats everyone: With that trademark smile of his, a hug and banter that made you feel like his best friend.

One of my favorite people of all time,” said Jim Calhoun, Walker’s coach at Connecticut, which he led to a national championship and two Final Fours in three seasons.

“I always tell people that if Kemba Walker never picked up a basketball, he still would’ve been the most popular kid at Rice High School,” said Brother William Sherlog, the athletic director when Walker attended the school.

Across his 11-year NBA career, the speedy and shifty 6-foot Walker has averaged 19.9 points, 5.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds. He has been selected for four All-Star Games. He has earned nearly $200 million. He remains the highest draft pick (ninth overall in 2011) out of a New York City high school since Joakim Noah was selected ninth by the Bulls in 2007.

It wasn’t a straight line to get to that point; more like a number of stops and starts similar to a rush-hour drive on the BQE. Every step of the way, Walker had to wait his turn. In junior high school, he played second fiddle to future Villanova star Corey Fisher. At Rice, he took a backseat to Edgar Sosa. At UConn, there were A.J. Price and Craig Austrie when he arrived. He started just 25 games as a rookie for the Hornets.

“Nothing was ever given to him,” Rice teammate and close friend Kashif Pratt said.

Much of that came from his parents, Andrea and Paul, who emphasized hard work over shortcuts. His sophomore year at Rice, he was a role player, at times losing out to freshman Lamont “MoMo” Jones. His parents never called coach Moe Hicks or expressed their displeasure. They told their son if he wanted to play more he had to earn it.

Walker, though, was never jealous. Winning is all he cared about. He was Jones’ biggest cheerleader. That season, he took particular pride during practices in defending Sosa, who went on to play at Louisville, because it was making him better.

“He never skipped a step,” said Emanuel “Book” Richardson, Walker’s AAU coach with the Gauchos. “Kemba was never in a rush to do anything.”

Pratt’s favorite of Walker’s character traits was how well he listened. They took public transportation together to and from school every day, and his younger teammate always asked him questions, wanting to know how he could become a better player.

Prior to his junior year, Walker told Richardson he wanted to play at Connecticut. Richardson told him he wasn’t good enough. Walker didn’t lash out or disagree. He asked his coach what he needed to work on.

“In my opinion, I truly, truly believe that’s why he’s had his success, because of his personality, because he’s never seen himself as better than the bench players on the team. He’s never thought he was better than anyone or above anything,” Davis said. “When I was at Manhattan College, he came to play pickup with our guys. He was deferring to them, and he was an NBA player. We had a lot of NBA guys come to our pickup games, and he was just different from other guys.”

There’s that word again. Different.

In Walker’s high school days, Rice versus Christ the King was The Game in New York City. The two Catholic schools were national powerhouses, featuring several Division I players on each roster. There were standing room-only crowds whenever they met.

During Walker’s sophomore season, they were engaged in a close game at the famed Gauchos Gym in The Bronx. Anyone with an interest in New York City high school basketball was in the small oven-like building. With the game on the line, Walker had his pocket picked by Malik Boothe, which helped Christ the King pull off the victory.

Walker, feeling he had let Rice’s seniors down, was upset afterward, promising to any who listened that it wouldn’t happen again. Davis was worried what a moment like that would do to a young player still finding his way. There was no need to be concerned. Walker responded by becoming an even harder worker, a determined player who would begin to make major strides.

“Malik Boothe should get credit,” Davis said, thinking back to that day. “From that moment on, he put the battery in Kemba’s back.”

Walker helped Rice win a Catholic state title later that season. In Glens Falls for the state tournament, he nearly led the Raiders past PSAL champion Lincoln and Lance Stephenson. In that game, Sosa got in foul trouble and Walker had a big performance.

Afterward, a scout on hand told Hicks he had a future pro. The Rice coach nodded his head. He agreed that forward Curtis Kelly had a bright future. No, the scout told him, No. 15, his young point guard. He was talking about Walker.

“That kid has about three, four speeds right now,” the scout said, according to Hicks. “He saw it immediately. It was a good call, because he was right on point.”

Calhoun thought he was set at point guard. During a visit to UConn, elite California prospect Brandon Jennings had verbally committed to the Huskies. Jennings, though, had made a habit of committing to schools on his visits, and later picked USC and Arizona, before opting to play overseas professionally.

Around that time, UConn had begun recruiting Walker following his sensational junior year, in which he emerged as a premier prospect. When Walker heard the news, he told Calhoun, “Don’t worry about a thing. You’re my dream school,” the Hall of Fame coach recalled.

“He ended up being a dream player,” Calhoun said.

Walker improved each season at UConn, going from a complimentary piece as a freshman to one of the nation’s premier guards as a junior. That season, he led the Huskies on a memorable run to the national championship. They won their last 11 games, starting with five games in five days at the Big East Tournament at the Garden, now Walker’s new home.

That included his memorable buzzer-beating step-back jumper in the quarterfinals that left Pittsburgh forward Gary McGhee on the Garden floor. That March, as Walker averaged 24.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.0 assists, he was nicknamed “Cardiac Kemba.”

“It was magical,” said Calhoun, who compared Walker’s brilliance to Danny Manning’s in leading Kansas to the 1988 national championship. “Kemba and The Guys,” he called it.

After every game, Walker retreated to the hotel room he shared with teammate Donnell Beverly Jr., and they had long conversations about the unexpected run. Its architect, Walker was in awe of what was taking place.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” he once told Beverly.

The English teacher was stunned. Kemba Walker plays basketball, she asked Hicks? He never talked about the game and just did his work. He didn’t have the same cockiness and swagger the other Rice players had. Sherlog taught Walker in history class and recalled a day like so many others when a classmate was asking him about a big upcoming game.

“Damn, does it always have to be about basketball?” he whispered.

Walker didn’t want to be treated differently because of his athletic prowess. He didn’t care for the spotlight. At UConn, he wanted to just be another student.

As the president of Russell Westbrook Enterprises, Beverly rubs elbows with young celebrities and athletes. Walker is unlike almost all of them. He would prefer a quiet dinner among friends than a night out. When Walker visited him in Los Angeles a few years ago, they had a quiet meal with his family. Walker rarely parties.

“Kemba by far is the most grounded, by far is the most humble,” Beverly said. “It’s by a landslide, honestly.”

It’s why almost everyone says he’s the same guy despite all the millions of dollars he has earned and the celebrity he has attained.

Walker has retained ties to the city. He has the same circle of friends. When Richardson was imprisoned for three months, following a federal bribery charge as part of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball, Walker was there for him, offering support.

“This is the happiest moment since I got out of Otisville,” Richardson said, referring to the federal prison in upstate New York.

You won’t see Walker at hot spots, surrounded by security guards. He will make a habit out of attending high school games. Pratt believes he will pick up where Carmelo Anthony left off, in terms of being an accessible star to the public. Even with the Knicks losing, Anthony was popular in the city.

Melo was the first real star you saw from the Knicks who was in the community,” Pratt said. “I feel like I never saw Melo sign an autograph. You didn’t really need Melo for an autograph because you knew you would see him again. I think It’s going to be the same with Kemba. Knicks fans are going to love him.”

The big question is health, whether his problematic left knee can allow him to be the difference-maker the Knicks need. Prior to last season, he received stem-cell injections in the knee. Walker was limited to 43 games, and his season ended after three playoff games.

He will give whatever he has, and he’ll do whatever is best for the team, as he has his entire career, those close to him say. Pratt cited the famed Super Six Invitational showdown at the Garden during Walker’s junior year of high school. The hype was centered around the matchup between Walker and Derrick Rose. But Walker’s only interest was in winning the game. The MVP was Chris Fouch. Now, Walker and Rose will be sharing point guard duties for the Knicks.

During Walker’s time in Boston, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum took major strides as star players. Former Celtics coach Brad Stevens, now Boston’s president of basketball operations, called Walker “the greatest teammate.” He will play with great effort. He will make the extra pass. He will be a leader and defer credit.

“I have great confidence Kemba Walker will make a positive contribution to any team,” Calhoun said, “just because of who he is, what he is and how he plays.”

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