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Kemba Walker is always the surprise star

All through his life, Walker has walked the slow and steady path to success. So what happens when he finally gets the chance to flex his power?

Pro basketball scouts packed the Glen Falls Civic Center in March 2006 to watch Harlem’s Rice High School take on Brooklyn’s Lincoln High in the New York State Class AA Tournament of Champions. The spotlight was on Curtis Kelly, a highly touted Rice senior on his way to UConn.

One of those scouts approached Rice coach Mo Hicks and told him he had a pro basketball player on his roster.

”Yeah, Curtis can be good,” Hicks remembers saying. “He just has to keep working. He can be really special.”

”No, I’m not talking about Curtis,” Hicks recalls the scout responding. “I’m talking about No. 15. That sophomore kid you brought off the bench. That kid is gonna be a pro.”

That No. 15 was Kemba Walker. When Walker entered Rice a year earlier, he wasn’t even considered the best player in his freshman class. Back then, there was more buzz about Curtis Loving, a 6’5 forward who went on to play at Bridgeport, and Chris Fouch, another Rice guard who went to Drexel before playing overseas.

“He was so humble to a fault that he wouldn’t challenge those guys like we wanted him to,” Hicks says. “We saw that he could, but he was such a humble kid that he was basically trying to pay homage to those guys.”

Slowly, that changed. As a high-school junior, Walker made the all-tournament team. As a senior, he grew into a first-team all-state performer and a five-star recruit. That gradual rise repeated itself in college, then early in his pro career, and again as he’s become a three-time NBA All-Star, set to start the game for the first time this weekend in Charlotte.

Those that know him best, from his high school and college coaches to the many players who have shared the floor with him, say he’s still like the high school freshman who was the last to realize he was a star and the first to support those who helped him get there.

”It’s amazing to see,” Hicks says. “All the things he’s done, he’s still that same humble kid as when he walked into Rice High School.”

They also say Walker will do anything to win. It means more to him than money, than individual fame, than any award.

“That’s not what I’m about. All I’m about is winning,” Walker tells me. “[The money] will come. I put my work in throughout my career to become the player I am today. It’s never about the money. I want to win.”

Against this backdrop, Walker is speeding toward the biggest professional decision of his life. He will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, giving him the freedom to choose his team with no restrictions for the first time in his pro career.

Charlotte has given him the platform and tools for individual success, but little winning. Since drafting Walker in 2011, the franchise has made five trips to the draft lottery and won zero playoff series, which’ll likely continue this year if the Hornets even make it that far. Worse, the Hornets’ payroll is clogged, with five of Walker’s teammates combining to make nearly 80 percent of the salary cap next season despite zero all-star appearances between them.

“We just gotta build a winning franchise, man. We just need some winners,” Walker says moments before boarding a flight to San Antonio. “We need a few guys that know what it takes to win in this league. I know some guys out there that know what it takes.”

That means Walker is at a crossroads. Does he choose the harder, less certain path with the franchise that nurtured him, or take a step out of his comfort zone and win elsewhere?

Connecticut v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Before Walker became a March Madness folk hero, he was Jim Calhoun’s backup plan.

The legendary UConn coach remembers originally receiving a commitment from Oak Hill Academy’s Brandon Jennings, who was the top point guard in the class. When Calhoun found out Jennings went to visit another college behind his back, he immediately took a trip to Harlem.

“Don’t worry about Brandon,” he recalls telling an assistant. “We’re gonna get the little guy from Rice.”

In his thick New England accent, Calhoun began his sales pitch, touting a program that had won two NCAA titles in the previous decade. But Walker stopped him midway. He didn’t need to hear much.

“I wanted to go somewhere and grow as a player, grow as a man,” he says. “He was the one who was able to do that for me.”

As a freshman, Walker backed up A.J. Price, a fellow New Yorker who taught Walker his patented stepback before carving out a six-year NBA career of his own. Walker averaged nine points per game off the bench for a team that made the Final Four. In their matchup against Michigan State, Walker finished with five points, four turnovers, and four fouls in 20 minutes.

As Price declared for the NBA Draft, Walker got to work.

“I watched him work on nothing but threes,” Calhoun recalls. A 27 percent three-point shooter as a freshman became a 34 percent shooter the next year.

Connecticut missed the NCAA tournament that year, but Calhoun saw something click before Walker’s junior season.

“[Kemba] started realizing all that he needed to be to be like A.J. and lead us to a Final Four,” Calhoun says. “It was never forced on him, and he never forced it on anybody.”

With seven freshmen on UConn’s roster in the 2010-11 season — including future NBA players Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier — the Huskies weren’t even listed in the top 25 of any preseason poll. By Christmas, UConn was 10-0 and the No. 4-ranked team in the nation.

Napier vividly remembers one practice where the second team was up, 12-2, over Walker and the first team in a game to 15. With a win in sight, freshman Roscoe Smith said something to Walker. The second team never scored again.

“We all looked at each other like, ‘What the hell just happened?!’” Napier remembers. “We knew how dominant he was in games, but we didn’t realize how dominant he was in practice because he was always trying to get other people involved.”

Even with Walker averaging 23.5 points per game that season, UConn arrived at the Big East tournament with a 21-9 record and a two-game losing streak. They had work to do in order to make the NCAA tournament again. That’s when Walker went on a rampage few at that level have ever seen.

First, he led the Huskies to the Big East tournament title. In that five-wins-in-five-day run, he used a nasty step-back that immortalized the nickname ‘Cardiac Kemba.’ Then, he eliminated Kawhi Leonard’s San Diego State team from the NCAA tournament with a 36-point barrage, on his way to a championship and a no-brainer Most Outstanding Player award.

“He’s a smiling assassin,” Calhoun says. “An incredible, good person who’ll kill you for a win.”

NCAA Men’s Championship Game - Butler v UConn Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

On the night of the 2011 NBA Draft, Walker has no idea where he stood. His tournament heroics had faded, and others flew past him on draft board.

Kyrie Irving, who played just 11 games in his lone college season, is announced first. Then, it’s Derrick Williams. Then Enes Kanter, who didn’t play in college at all. Tristan Thompson. Jonas Valanciunas. Jan Vesely, too? Bismack Biyombo. Brandon Knight.

“I had no idea where I was going,” Walker says now. “My agent didn’t even have an idea where I was going at the time. He was showing me rumors. It was crazy. I didn’t know if I was gonna go ninth, if I was gonna go 20th, or late first-round. I just didn’t know.”

The Charlotte Bobcats called. Walker had worked out for them pre-draft, and they were less than enthralled with his “crooked” jump shot. They chose to take him at pick No. 9 anyway.

“These are the dudes and the organization that believed in me, that gave me the opportunity,” Walker says. “And this is where I’ve been for eight years now, so of course I’m gonna love this place, of course I’m gonna be loyal. I’m a loyal guy. For as long as I’m here, I’m gonna give this organization everything I have.”

Since then, Walker endured the lowest winning percentage in NBA history and slowly emerged as an NBA starter, then a good NBA starter, then an NBA All-Star, and now an NBA All-Star Game starter. This season, he became one of 26 players in NBA history to score at least 60 points in a game. Then, he became the first to follow a 60-point game with a 40-point game since Kobe Bryant did it twice in 2007.

“I never knew Kemba Walker was this good,” Hornets rookie Miles Bridges said after Walker rattled off 22 points in the fourth quarter and overtime alone in a November game against Philadelphia. “I knew he was a star in this league, but damn. He’s easily the best player I’ve ever played with.”

Bridges is not the first person to not immediately recognize Walker’s stardom. At this point, even Walker himself can’t deny it.

“It’s crazy,” Walker says. “I go on like these streaks where I can’t miss. It’s surreal.” Then, he catches himself. “But I put the work in to get to the level that I’m at.”

Washington Wizards v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Jeremy Lamb had just been traded, and then he got lost. Just days after the Oklahoma City Thunder shipped him to the Hornets in June 2015, Lamb could not find the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Walker told him to stay put. Shortly after, Walker’s car pulled up where his former UConn teammate was waiting and led him to the airport.

“Even though he’s a great player, he’s a better person,” Lamb says. “He cares about his teammates. He helps me in any way. Whatever it is, he’s there to talk to. And it’s not just me. He’s like that with all his teammates.”

This is the selfless Walker most of his peers know.

“Man, he’s a down-to-Earth guy,” Napier says. “He just wants to see everyone do well.”

“He’s not your typical superstar,” current teammate Marvin Williams says, echoing Napier. “He’s a very down-to-Earth guy.”

But though Walker may not see himself this way, he’s also a star with a rare opportunity to dictate his future at the peak of his powers. At his core, Walker feels he owes the Hornets for taking a chance on him and helping him develop into a three-time all-star.

“The people around here, the organization, the fans, regardless of what we went through, THEY BELIEVED IN ME,” Walker exclaims. “They believed in me even when I was shooting 30 percent from three or 40 percent from the field.”

But as Charlotte continues to float in mediocrity, that belief seems destined to compete against his burning desire to win. In a phone conversation in mid-January, I ask Walker if he’d like Charlotte management to pursue other all-star-caliber players. “For sure,” he says. “A lot of players have [all-star teammates].”

Weeks later, Walker’s wishes were nearly answered when the Hornets closed in on trading for veteran three-time all-star center Marc Gasol. At the last minute, talks stalled as the Hornets and Grizzlies haggled over ways to match Gasol’s $24.1 million salary. Memphis eventually chose to deal Gasol to Toronto minutes before the trade deadline, leaving Charlotte empty-handed.

Hicks is rolling. He admires Walker, not just because of his success, but because he values winning and the long, tough road one must travel to reach those heights.

“His testimony, in my opinion, is one that all our young kids need to hear,” Hicks says. “For some reason in New York, we make kids pros before they’re pros. We hype these kids up to the point where they really think they’re all that, and the kids don’t really be that good. But when the kid starts thinking that he’s the cat’s meow, that’s when the problem arrives.”

Calhoun’s words are more succinct.

“His values are his values,” he says. “He never wavers.”

The question that’ll tug at Walker’s core this summer, then, is simple. What if the only way to win is to waver?

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