Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Kemba Walker comes home
By Ian Begley
Kemba Walker grew up in the Sack-Wern housing projects in the South Bronx. Like plenty of other kids in the neighborhood, he shot around on the basket near his house, dreaming of one day playing in the NBA.
On Wednesday, he played on the Madison Square Garden floor as a first-round pick of the Charlotte Bobcats.
So how did he get there?
"He just persevered," says Emmanuel "Book'" Richardson.
Richardson would know.
He coached Walker for several years on the New York Gauchos, a Bronx-based AAU team where Walker first earned his reputation as a lightning-quick guard.
As a sophomore at Rice High School, Walker toiled as a reserve behind heralded point guard Edgar Sosa. It wasn't until the summer after his sophomore year while traveling, with the Gauchos, that college recruiters began to recognize Walker's talents.
From there, Walker took off, leading Rice to the prestigious CHSAA title and earning a scholarship to UConn in the process.
He also garnered an invite to the prestigious McDonald's All-American game, where threw down a memorable dunk over Jrue Holiday, crossing both arms in an "X" afterward to let everyone know he was from the Bronx. The play was plastered all over SportsCenter.
"After that I was like, 'Yeah, he's got a chance to make it,'" says Kedow Walker, Kemba's older brother.
Walker established himself as one of the top guards in the country over three years at UConn. He helped lead the Huskies to a Final Four as a freshman and to a national championship as a junior.
Last year, he authored one of the most memorable performances in Big East Tournament history, almost single-handedly lifting UConn to the conference title during an unforgettable week at Madison Square Garden.
"I'm pretty sure he owned the Garden back then," Kedow Walker says.
For small spurts on Wednesday, Walker owned it again.
He drew a charge from Toney Douglas late in the third quarter and fed B.J. Mullens for an open jumper. In the fourth, he knocked down a 12-foot runner to put the Bobcats up 12. On the next Charlotte possession, he knocked down a there pointer.
Two minutes later he drilled another 12-footer to give Charlotte a 16-point lead with seven minutes to go in a game they'd go on to win, 118-110.
Before he took the floor against the Knicks, Walker talked about what it was like to be back in Madison Square Garden.
"It’s home. I am home. I always feel like home every time I am back. It’s MSG. Whenever I get the chance to play here I get butterflies," he said.
From Richardson's perspective, Walker faces the same challenges with Charlotte that he did as a sophomore at Rice.
"He's still the same Kemba who's got to work hard, who's got to prove himself," says Richardson, now an assistant coach at Arizona. "He did it in high school, he did it in AAU and he did it in college. Now, the cycle starts again."
Walker, of course, is up for the challenge.
"This is the NBA," his brother says. "It's what he's always dreamed of doing."