Viewpoint Calhoun reflects upon Walker’s All-Star path
Kemba Walker will become the first UConn player to start in an NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, but this UConn moment happened eight years and three months ago. No one will get a bigger ovation than Walker, who will make that start in front of his hometown Charlotte fans, but this ovation came on a team bus 4,600 miles away in Hawaii.
Walker had scored 31 points against Wichita State, 30 against Michigan State and, on this day, 29 points with six assists against Kentucky in the championship of a stacked 2010 Maui Invitational.
“We were leaving Maui, not ranked, unusual for us at that point; people didn’t realize how good Kemba was,” Jim Calhoun said. “We’re waiting on the bus maybe 30 minutes. It’s hot, but we just won the tournament. Maui’s always mobbed with the national press and Kemba just won the MVP.
“Well, he gets on the bus and the entire team stood up and clapped. Everybody says that’s not unusual. Yeah, it is. They stood up in reverence and clapped, because of who he was and what he was. It was a special moment.”
Over the years, Calhoun has loved to call those moments snapshots in the rolling film of life. As Walker is celebrated in front of the basketball world this weekend, for what he has become and for how much other NBA teams covet him in impending free agency, Calhoun made it clear the snapshot in Maui told volumes.
“With Kemba, there wasn’t a person who said, ‘If you played me I’d be that guy,’ or, ‘I should have gotten the ball more,’ or whatever,” Calhoun said. “Kemba didn’t bring that out in people. I don’t care who you were. You admired him. You liked him. You loved that smile. You admired the way he never stopped trying to improve himself.”
Fast forward eight years, three months. Walker’s UConn coach, on the back nine of his career, led Division III St. Joseph into the GNAC Tournament this weekend. Walker is at the top of his sport. In November, he became only the 26th player in NBA history to score 60 points in a game. He followed that performance against the Sixers by becoming the first since Kobe Bryant to follow a 60-pointer with a 40-pointer. That was the night he poured in 21 fourth-quarter points to beat the Celtics and during a stoppage in play, yelled in exuberance, “This is my city!”
Owner Michael Jordan and the Hornets certainly hope Charlotte remains Kemba’s city, although Dallas, L.A. and others figure to try to make it otherwise through free agency. New York, too, of course, but then again New York already is Kemba’s city.
That’s where Calhoun found Walker, more than a decade ago at Harlem’s Rice High School. Kemba had danced at the famed Apollo as a kid. Yet it was the recruiting dancing of Brandon Jennings from USC to UConn and eventually to Europe that opened the door to Storrs.
“Yeah, Brandon Jennings committed and then went to visit another school,” Calhoun said. “I went to see Kemba and he told me, ‘Coach, I always wanted to play at UConn.’ That made things a little easier, obviously.
“I don’t think anyone saw him being an NBA All-Star Game starter then, maybe not even an NBA player. But I’m telling you, everything about that kid was special.”
Calhoun went to his mind’s catalog. Player after player, national championship after national championship, he seems to keep them in an organized file.
“You have Ray (Allen), self-educated in many ways,” Calhoun said. “You have a regal guy like Emeka (Okafor). He’s like an African prince. And then there’s Kemba. He is everybody’s man.
“One of the great pains in the ass I ever had, Shabazz (Napier), he’d follow around Kemba like a puppy dog. Kemba just had that ability to lead others with a smile, without having to yell at them, guys just loved being with him. His personality, talking with his coaches and a little with Michael, he became the face of the franchise pretty quickly.”
Calhoun said Hall of Famer Satch Sanders went out of his way to praise Walker. Sanders, the former Celtic and long-time director of the NBA development department, told Calhoun that Walker represents what the NBA should represent.
“It was great, but hearing things like that wasn’t a surprise,” Calhoun said. “He’s being Kemba.”
The Hall of Fame coach pauses for a moment.
“And he’s more than Kemba,” he said. “There is another part of him where he almost always seems to know what he needs to do to take the next step.”
That is the Kemba Progression. The one that took him from Rice to UConn to one of the great 11-game runs in NCAA history to ninth pick in the NBA draft to All-Star to one of the game’s elite.
“The second year with us, he was having a tough time getting past people,” Calhoun said. “He wasn’t a 3-point shooter. So that summer he did nothing except shoot 3-pointers. Another summer he did nothing except get his body better. Yes, he has that smile and competitive nature. But he also is a smart kid, smart in the ways of the world and how to get things done.”
To understand Walker’s evolution into an elite NBA player, one must follow the trajectory of his shot. Four years into his pro career, sure, he had that crossover dribble and step back, but he was an inefficient shooter. Assistant coach Bruce Kreutzer helped changed that. He got Kemba to tuck his elbow in more, to stay more on the balls of his feet and not drift back upon release. He got him to release the ball a few inches to the right. His game became more complete.
“I’ve had two kids who remind me of each other: Reggie Lewis, God rest his soul, and Kemba,” Calhoun said. “When they walked into a gym it was their cathedral. That was the place they loved. They didn’t want to leave. I remember Reggie (at Northeastern) playing full-court games, one-on-one with Andre LaFleur. I remember Kemba 21/2 hours after practice, I’m yelling, ‘Get the hell out of here!’ Both of them found peace inside a gym.”
Kemba always had the dramatics, of course. The step-back ankle-breaker on Pittsburgh’s Gary McGhee at the 2011 Big East Tournament remains as great a play as there is in UConn history. It set the stage for a team that had finished 9-9 in the Big East regular season to run the postseason table for Calhoun’s third national title.
“The magic of five games, five days in the Big East Tournament, I think it’s one of the stories that doesn’t get told enough” Calhoun said. “I hear a lot about Danny (Manning) and the Miracles, but that’s (1988) Kansas and this is a guy, maybe 5-11, who wasn’t National Player of the Year — Jimmer Fredette was. Nobody did more for a team than Kemba that year.
“I’ll never forget the feeling after that fifth game at the Garden. The exhaustion yet elation he had. I remember hugging his mom. It was just magical. I got to say 1999 (the first national title) was the most magical in my life. We were floating from the airport. It felt like the bus was carried all the way to campus. But it’s almost the same feeling about the 11-game run and coaching Kemba.”
Yes, sometimes the bus floats. And sometimes the bus stands and gives Kemba an ovation.