NEW YORK -- Her son had just put the finishing touches on both an extraordinary individual accomplishment and a team triumph when Andrea Walker finally exhaled.
She looked almost more whipped than her son, pausing to collect herself and breathe deeply while her other son guided her to a seat and friends rubbed her shoulders.
Andrea Walker was emotionally drained, yes, but surprised? No, she wasn’t surprised.
The third of her four children has never been ordinary, not since quite literally he drew his first breath.
Twenty-one years ago in May, Andrea Walker felt the first pangs of labor, and, well-schooled in the routine of childbirth, she got herself over to North Central Hospital in the Bronx. Her husband, Paul, was at work, so her sister drove.
She figured Paul would be there in plenty of time.
Only this child wasn’t going to be like the other two.
In fact, he wasn’t going to be like anyone else.
“He was born in the hallway,’’ she said. “I got to the hospital, but he was in such a hurry, he came in the hallway. He was ready. He’s always been ready for anything. I think he was meant to be special.’’
Few right now would argue with what otherwise might simply sound like a mother’s pride.
We are at the point where we have run out of adjectives to describe Kemba Walker.
And so perhaps it is better to describe Walker in numbers: 130 points. 190 minutes played out of a possible 205. One buzzer-beating, winning shot. One drive through three people to get the winning assist.
And one unforgettable, improbable and borderline impossible Big East tournament championship.
Walker’s last game here was not his most overwhelming, but it was easily his most heroic. So exhausted he admitted he couldn’t feel his legs, Walker led Connecticut to a 69-66 victory over Louisville that will go down as the most memorable Big East tournament run in history.
“I’m out of words,’’ said Walker, who also was clearly out of gas. “I can’t describe it. It’s just so special, but I knew we could do it. I knew it."
He was so confident, in fact, he promised his mother after Connecticut lost its regular-season finale to Notre Dame on March 5 that he would bring her home a championship trophy.
Never mind that the Huskies had lost four of their past five.
Never mind that UConn would have to win five games in five nights, four against ranked opponents. Neither of which had ever been done by a college basketball team anywhere.
“He promised me,’’ Andrea Walker said. “And he always keeps his promises.’’
Trophies don’t come engraved with redemption, nor do they have the power to absolve. But in this one, there is at least the slight whiff of vindication.
This has not been an easy year for Jim Calhoun or Connecticut.
The Huskies spent most of the season under the shadow of an NCAA investigation, waiting for the hammer to fall. When it finally did, it struck the prideful Calhoun, suspending him for three Big East games next season.
He, of course, didn’t want the vindication. He said he didn’t need it as a coach nor as a person.
But even the grizzled coach, who has won all there is to win, done all there is to do and seen all there is to see, said this was particularly special.
“When the kids get it, it’s like magic,’’ he said. “That’s what this is. It’s magic.’’
Fittingly, in a tournament in which seven of 15 games were decided by three points or fewer or in overtime, the championship game had unparalleled drama.
Riding an adrenaline rush and a raucous Madison Square Garden stuffed to the gills with UConn fans, the Huskies built a 14-point lead and survived Walker’s longest run on the bench. With 7:35 to play in the first half, he was whistled for his second foul. Since the Huskies led by 10, Calhoun took the calculated risk and benched Walker for the next seven minutes and 15 seconds.
The whole building seemed to deflate, the crowd reacting as though it had come to see a Broadway star and got stuck with the understudy.
But Louisville merely put a dent in the lead and trailed 38-32 at the break.
When the second half started, though, the endless week of games finally caught up to Connecticut. The Cardinals scored eight unanswered points as the Huskies missed their first seven shots.
With Louisville’s foot on its jugular, UConn still wouldn’t relent.
“It comes from him,’’ freshman Roscoe Smith said. “The toughness, all of it. He told us since the beginning of the year that we were better than people thought we were, and we believed him. We weren’t leaving here without a trophy for him.’’
Walker was visibly exhausted. He practically panted while readying to shoot free throws. During a few offensive possessions, he stood out on the wing, hands on his knees, tugging at his shorts -- the universal basketball sign for tiredness.
“I was worried about him,’’ Calhoun said.
Watching from the front row under the basket, Andrea Walker was worried, too. She knew he was tired -- he had told her as much earlier in the week -- but she also knew he wouldn’t quit.
When he was a kid, he was so determined to improve that he’d go the basketball court behind the house and just shoot for hours by himself. From her bedroom window, Andrea Walker could hear the clank of the ball on the rim and see her little boy out there alone.
“It would be 4 or 5 in the morning, and I’d hear the bang, bang, bang of the ball bouncing,’’ she said. “I’d look out, and there he’d be.’’
And so when Connecticut needed one more miracle in a week’s worth of miracles, Walker somehow summoned it.
After Preston Knowles missed a chance at putting a dagger into Connecticut by missing the hoop on a drive, Smith secured the rebound, and Calhoun called a timeout. Louisville led 64-63.
As the teams came back on the court, the Garden stood. Everyone knew where the ball was going.
Walker dribbled at the top of the key, pushing around Louisville guard Peyton Siva, then slipping through two defenders in a space so slim, a human body shouldn’t be able to fit. As he nosed his way to the defense, Walker drew the attention of the entire building and, more importantly, the entire Louisville defense’s concentration. In the last split second, he deftly dropped the ball into Lamb’s hands. Lamb laid the ball in, and UConn took the lead.
“I felt in my bones he was going to do this,’’ Andrea Walker said. “Since the day I gave birth to him, I believed he would be special, that he’d have a moment. This was his moment.’’