Saturday, March 20, 2010
Updated: March 22, 3:03 AM ET
Million Dollar Mistakes
By Mark Schwarz
He used to get the Garden crowd on its feet. Celtics fans could always count on 20 points and nine rebounds, and a shimmy shake on the side.
Antoine Walker had game. And he had swagger.
That was before the DUI in Florida 14 months ago. That was before he got busted in July in Nevada for bouncing a million dollars' worth of checks to three Las Vegas casinos. That was before his investment properties in Chicago went south.
Walker is dressed impeccably for our television interview in New York City. Gray pinstripe suit. This is a guy who was once robbed at gunpoint of his $55,000 Rolex.
He's cordial, but guarded. He has come to explain how he squandered his fortune and his reputation at warp speed.
"When you make the kind of money that I've been able to make throughout my career, it should last you forever," Walker said softly.
It's difficult to say what disappeared more quickly: Antoine Walker's extraordinary basketball skills or the $110 million he earned in 13 NBA seasons.
Walker, who also made millions off the court peddling goods for adidas as Employee No. 8, says he is not sure how much money he has left.
"It all depends on how much debt I can get out of," he said.
Walker's lavish spending was legendary, even by NBA standards. He had closets full of custom-tailored suits. His driveway was a showroom for Benzes, Bentleys and Hummers. He never did quite appreciate just how much they depreciate.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I led a very expensive lifestyle," Walker said. "I took care of my family. I was very generous to my family and my friends.
"In the beginning of my career I kind of thought it was my obligation. I thought it was kind of my calling. 'OK, I make this amount of money. My job is to give back.'"
He was the millionaire who kept on giving, treating his wealthy teammates to expensive dinners and sparing no expense entertaining his entourage.
"When I was younger I used to travel with probably eight or nine guys, which is a very expensive lifestyle to live because you traveling the world. That's eight, nine rooms. That's eight, nine flights."
Walker bought a $2.5 million Chicago mansion for his mother, Diane. The house features an indoor pool, 10 bathrooms and a full-size basketball court.
He recently put his $3.1 million Miami home on the market. His $4.1 million downtown Chicago condo is also for sale. Walker is a motivated seller. After all, his creditors are numerous.
His former agent, Mark Bartelstein, won nearly $600,000 in arbitration from Walker for unpaid fees. In Illinois alone, no fewer than five financial institutions have been pursuing him for unpaid debts that, at one point, totaled nearly $7 million.
He also is required to make monthly child support payments of nearly $7,000 to two women.
One of those women, Margaret Johnson, has known Walker since childhood. "He has a big heart," Johnson said, but she says money and fame were his downfall. "He became addicted to gambling," she explained, "and he ran through millions taking care of more than 50 people who are nowhere to be found now that he needs the help."
"It was very hard for me to say 'no' to people when they come ask me for something," Walker said. "A lot of friends I grew up with would have a business venture and hit me with a sob story and I would say 'yes,' and I got burned a lot of times that way. People say 'I need to borrow $200,000 for this deal and I'll give it back to you,' and then I never hear from them."
Walker's NBA stock declined when he fell in love with the 3-point shot. His NBA fortune followed when he fell in love with craps and blackjack.
"I was a big gambler. I mean, I would bet a couple thousand dollars a hand playing blackjack. I betted big. I won big at times and I lost big."
In July, Walker surrendered to authorities at Harrah's Casino in South Lake Tahoe, because he could not cover his losses. He was charged with bouncing 10 checks totaling a million dollars.
"I established credit lines back in 2001," Walker explained. "I had a credit line up to half a million dollars, so you got a chance to lose a half a million dollars, and sometimes they would increase the half a million to 750 [thousand]. Like anybody else when you're in a competitive mode you ask for an increase to chase your money and it gets to a point where it gets out of control, until they cut you off."
"When he came into the league he wasn't a card player," recalled former Celtics player and longtime broadcaster Cedric Maxwell.
Maxwell saw the pattern change in 2001 when Walker spent the offseason training with Michael Jordan. He watched the two wager tens of thousands a hand at the blackjack table after a preseason game at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.
"They got down about $150,000," Maxwell said. "But by the end of the day MJ told Antoine, 'These cards are gonna change.'"
Maxwell recalls Jordan and Walker winning big that night. He calls it "the opening act" and says Jordan's influence on his protégé was considerable.
"It was like a father and a son going someplace and the son's watching the dad go and spend money and the son's saying 'OK, it's fine,' but not knowing that the dad got a revenue stream and that you don't. Antoine ain't making that kind of money! He's not the 'Swoosh Guy.'"
Perhaps Walker picked the wrong time to be like Mike.
"I would never bet what MJ bet," Walker scoffed. "Michael would have smacked the s--- out of me if I did that."
To avoid jail time, Walker agreed to pay back the million dollars he owes the casinos in three years.
He's been ordered to pay nearly $1 million in fines to the city of Chicago for violating building codes and running his apartment buildings into the ground.
Walker says he invested more than $10 million in investment properties in the South Side neighborhoods he knows well. He entrusted his portfolio to an old friend named Fred Billings.
"We spent a lotta time together. Hanging out. He was kinda like a part of the crew," Walker said with a sheepish grin
Billings did not pay mortgages, hired untrained workers to make illegal repairs and is awaiting trial in Cook County for his alleged involvement in a mortgage scam. He has been charged with 13 felony counts of fraud, forgery and theft.
Walker now acknowledges he knew little of Billings' history even though he's known him for a decade. But he blames himself.
"It cost me not going out there and handling it myself," he said, his voice faltering. "Everybody knows I love the city of Chicago, and I never want people to think negative about me and think that I don't care."
Kywanna Leftridge is not convinced.
"His socks and shoes weren't floating around in feces and toilet tissue and everything that come out the sewer," said Leftridge, one of Walker's former tenants whose apartment was flooded by 2 feet of raw sewage in October 2008.
Leftridge says she lost everything she owned in Chicago sewer water. She and her asthmatic 12-year-old son were forced to live in a homeless shelter for two months while she sought new housing.
"You just took everything away from me and my son," Leftridge said. "I don't have $110 million. I will never have $110 million, probably. So if I got $10, why would you take that away from me?"
Neither Billings nor Walker, she says, did anything to help her.
A judge recently awarded Leftridge $8,300 to replace her lost possessions and irreplaceable mementos.
"It's hurt me. Hurt my reputation," Walker conceded upon hearing Leftridge's story. "People have mixed feelings about me in a place that I grew up.
"I'm disappointed in myself," he said, haltingly. "You know, I feel bad.
"One thing I did is I helped a lot of people that can't help me," Walker said, as if he'd had a sudden epiphany, "and that's huge for younger guys that's coming into the league. It's OK to help people, but you can't help everybody, because a lot of people can't help you."
"He should've been a lot smarter than he was," said Rick Pitino, who coached Walker at Kentucky, "because he's street-smart and he's book-smart."
When Walker signed a maximum contract in 1999, a six-year, $71 million deal with Boston, then-Celtics president Pitino said what everyone in the room was thinking: "[Antoine Walker] will never have to worry about money again in his life."
"I didn't factor in poor investments. I didn't factor in gambling. I didn't factor in recklessness of spending," Pitino explained.
Pitino says he once tried to teach the young Antoine Walker to save his money. Now he has some different advice.
"All the cars need to be sold. The houses need to be sold. Liquidate everything. Don't try and live a foolish way and hold on to them. It's over. That lifestyle is over."
Walker says he can salvage his reputation and resuscitate his game.
"I know it's not going to be pretty," Walker acknowledged. "I know my lifestyle is going to change dramatically."
It already has. These days Walker owns two cars. He works in Puerto Rico. He plays for a team called the Guaynabo Mets, who have not guaranteed his contract beyond the end of March. At most, he can earn $150,000 in four and a half months.
The Mets finished 7-23 last season. They signed Walker hoping he could lead them to a championship.
So far, not so good. Walker is averaging 13 points per contest and leads the team with 10.6 rebounds. But Guaynabo expected more out of one of the league's highest-paid players.
"Given how much we are paying him," Guaynabo general manager Marcelino Garcia explained, "he has not been productive, and he is only now working his way into game shape."
Garcia expects Walker will be motivated to play better knowing that being released by Guaynabo could signal that his playing days are effectively over. Like Walker's creditors, the Mets can only hope he can recapture some of what he's lost.
Mark Schwarz is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. His work appears on "Outside the Lines."