NEW YORK — The NBA was putting on its first-ever awards show, and for a moment, everyone knew what to do.
The cameramen set up their equipment while talent rehearsed their lines. The veteran reporters reminisced about the old days while the younger ones worked Twitter. The PR and event staff checked their walkie-talkies, then checked them again, and again. It felt like a media convention on a red carpet.
Then history entered the room. First Dominique Wilkins walked in. Then Dikembe Mutombo. Then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Then Bill Russell. In a field full of giants it was easy to feel like an ant. At 5’10 on a good day, I couldn’t see eye-level with these greats if I wanted to.
But a 6’1 guard from the Bronx made the room small again.
Kemba Walker’s gold initials “K.W.” hung from his neck, complementing his classic gray suit, black polo shirt, and white shoes. His brown sunglasses cloaked his eyes, but Walker’s intentions were pure.
The Hornets’ all-star stopped to take pictures. He did interviews on camera, interviews with newspapers, and interviews in between. He chatted with legends and plebeians alike.
In a telling scene, Walker was headed for the exit. After an eternity of bright lights and media obligations, it was hard to blame him. But when a reporter yelled his name, Walker flung around. He flashed his signature cheek-to-cheek smile, fixed his suit jacket, and walked back. He even hit a Milly Rock for good measure
If you didn’t know why Walker was there, you knew in that moment.
Walker was about to claim the 2016-17 Sportsmanship Award, an honor awarded to the player who best embodies the NBA’s ideals of integrity and fair play.
And with Walker, sportsmanship extends beyond the court. It’s who he is.
“It’s not the biggest award — the MVPs or Rookie of the Year or Sixth Man,” Walker conceded, “but I really take pride in trying to be a great person each and every day. So, I’m glad that I’m able to get recognized for this.
“My parents raised me to be a certain way, to carry myself a certain way,” he said. “So I try my best to represent them in the best way possible.”
Monday night wasn’t about Kemba Walker, that much is certain.
Fans tuned in to watch Russell Westbrook win the Most Valuable Player award. They tuned in to see who among Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, and Kawhi Leonard would win Defensive Player of the Year. They wanted to see who would wear the wildest outfit (Green’s suit shorts win by a landslide), and they wanted to see what Drake would do as the show’s host.
But the Sportsmanship Award could be considered the most important of them all. It isn’t voted on by a panel of media members or experts. This award is decided by the players themselves.
“My peers are the ones who voted for this award, so that means a lot as well,” Walker said. “To be respected amongst those guys is a great feeling. … I’m glad that these guys recognize my sportsmanship and how good of a person I am.”
The NBA’s calling card is its excitement. Westbrook won MVP for posting one of the most brilliant individual seasons in NBA history. Green won Defensive Player of the Year for his ability to shut down any player on the opposing team. Giannis Antetokounmpo won Most Improved Player after having one of the most unique seasons ever.
But there’s no measure for sportsmanship. The league doesn’t calculate compliments per game divided by players helped-up per 48 minutes. It doesn’t work that way. Seeing Walker in action qualified his candidacy.
Eventually the awards show came to a close, and media siphoned out the side door into the street. I braced myself for a mile-long, seaside walk back down South Street. Half-past midnight, the street wreaked of garbage, the roads were battered and my feet felt like Twizzlers.
I wasn’t sure if I had a story. Media members watched the awards show on televisions from a secluded area in the back. Zito Madu was rambling about Westbrook’s dominance in the face of the analytics buffs. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do.
I looked at my pictures, my notes, and my videos. I remembered Russell walking through, headlining a group of legends. I remembered Drake’s fashionably late entrance. I remembered Mutombo finger-wagging his way from one end to the other, yelling, “No, no, no. Not today.” And I remembered how comedians, actors, entertainers, and athletes came together to celebrate one of the most magnetic sports in the world.
But if there’s one thing I’ll never forget, it’s how Kemba Walker treated each person he spoke with. Sportsmanship isn’t a culmination of points, rebounds, and assists per game. It’s not measured by clutch performances or three-pointers made.
It’s a way of life, and Walker lives it.