Kemba Walker wows 'em at the Garden
March, 11, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com
NEW YORK -- Still wearing his uniform and only 30 minutes after he took another bite out of Manhattan, Kemba Walker climbed into the stands to pose for a picture with former President Bill Clinton.
What wasn’t clear: Who wanted the picture, Walker or Clinton?
Last year, when the 42nd president took a seat at center court, Madison Square Garden buzzed. Now, Clinton is merely one of the adoring masses.
It is Walker bringing the hum to the arena, his incredible run impressing everyone from opposing fans to crusty journalists to, yes, even former heads of state.
In four nights, Walker has scored 111 points, the most by anyone in any conference tournament anywhere.
And he’s not done. He still has a game to play, and thanks to Walker, so does Connecticut.
His 33 points and 12 rebounds led the Huskies to a 76-71 overtime win against Syracuse, putting UConn in the Big East tournament final against either Notre Dame or Louisville.
“He amazes me all the time,’’ freshman Jeremy Lamb said. “You see it and it’s like, ‘Wow, did he just do that?’ I didn’t even notice how many points he had tonight, and then you look up and it’s like, oh my goodness.’’
Now comes the hardest part of all.
In college basketball history, 15 teams have won four postseason games in four days.
No one has ever won five.
“We’re trying to shock the world,’’ Walker said.
The question is, will he need the defibrillator after?
Walker has played 157 out of a possible 165 minutes here, including all 45 against the Orange. There is no easy version of 157 minutes, but Walker’s are especially hard.
He is Allen Iverson-esque, a generously listed 6-foot-1 squirt who drives his body into the forest of big men with little care. When he’s not splitting a defense, he’s sprinting downcourt leading the offense.
At one point against Syracuse, Walker corralled a rebound and came down grimacing. He’d been poked in the eye, and with his eyes squinting and blinking, he continued to dribble until an official offered up a mercy whistle.
Walker didn’t come out. Of course he didn’t. He just squinted a little and kept dribbling.
It is a brutal daily beating, even for someone who smiled to remind people, "Hey, I’m only 20."
But sometimes, Walker admitted, 20 feels a little more like 70, especially in the mornings when he pulls his creaking body out of bed.
“I definitely wake up hurting,’’ he said.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun is hoping he can fool his Huskies into believing they aren’t tired. He has five freshmen, including two who start, and figures maybe ignorance can be bliss.
“We’re going to do everything we can -- deceive, lie,’’ Calhoun said, laughing. “We’re going to tell them that teams play their best after four games in row, that they get their rhythm.’’
But is it all -- the beat-up bodies, physical fatigue, mental exhaustion -- worth it less than a week before the NCAA tournament tips off?
Most would argue no. This tournament, while enjoyable and incredible, is technically the warm-up. The tournament starts next week.
Twice in Big East history, a team has won four games in four nights. In 2006, Gerry McNamara led Syracuse to the title in what was then a marathon run. In 2008, Pittsburgh matched the Orange’s efforts.
Both of those teams, though, ran out of gas in the NCAA tournament. Syracuse lost to Texas A&M in the first round, Pittsburgh to Michigan State in the second.
And so plenty will wonder whether the Huskies are trying to make history here at the expense of a bigger prize. To those outsiders, the Big East players say simply: You don’t get it.
“It’s the best college basketball tournament in the world,’’ Walker said. “It means everything to us. If you don’t play in this league, you can’t understand.’’
Of course, winning a national championship is the ultimate dream, but winning a Big East one is almost as meaningful.
Asked to answer the impossible riddle -- would you rather win a Big East tournament and lose in the first round or lose here and advance further, Alex Oriakhi smiled.
“Oh man, I don’t know,’’ he said. “All I know is I want to win a Big East tournament title.’’
As does Walker. As a New York City kid, he probably gets it more than most. He gets how tough this league is and he gets what it means to call yourself the best of the best.
And so on Saturday morning, he will ease his sore body out of bed. He will hope that athletic trainer James Doran has a little bit of magic left. He will rest and play video games and rest and eat and rest and then hopefully rest a little more.
He’s already caught a president’s attention.
He’s already made history.
Now it’s time to make a legend.