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UConn’s hero. Michael Jordan’s protégé. Boston’s hope: ‘There was something about Kemba’

Kemba Walker was in no hurry to leave Charlotte, but things changed, and suddenly Boston represented what he longed for: a chance to win.
Kemba Walker was in no hurry to leave Charlotte, but things changed, and suddenly Boston represented what he longed for: a chance to win.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

With NBA free agency looming last June, Kemba Walker traveled to Monaco to unwind at a retreat for Jordan Brand endorsers. He brought his older sister Sharifa to the Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo, a gleaming resort on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and tried not to think about the biggest decision of his life.

The only hitch was that the man whose surname graced the apparel company throwing the seaside bash also happened to own the basketball team that Walker played for.

“I kept asking him, 'Did you have that meeting with MJ yet?’ ” said Walker’s cousin, Kedow Walker. “He said, ‘Honestly, bro, I’m staying away from him out here, because I don’t want to get shut down.’ ”

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It was still surreal to Walker that his boss was perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time. When Walker was a child, he and his father would sit in their Bronx apartment and watch VHS tapes of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls games that a friend had recorded for them.

Years later, after Walker had become a star with the Charlotte Hornets, he would still hold up his phone when he received a text message from Jordan (listed in his contacts as “Big Bro MJ”) and tell his friends he could not believe it.

Now, he had to talk to Jordan about potentially becoming one of the highest-paid players in NBA history. Walker was not seeking a five-year, $221 million super-max deal, but he did not want to shortchange himself, either. The Hornets were reluctant to go over the luxury-tax line, and the middle ground was complicated.

So Walker had started to explore other options. On June 26, he sat in a common area at the Monaco hotel with Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, a fellow Jordan Brand rep, and asked about Boston. He had no idea the two would become Celtics All-Stars together eight months later.

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Then he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Jordan.

“Let me holler at you really quick,” the Hornets owner said.

Tatum sat in silence. Walker left with Jordan. He wasn’t sure what was coming, but he had a feeling that after eight years with the Charlotte organization, this might be the end.

In Walker's eight seasons in Charlotte, his squad made the playoffs just twice.
In Walker's eight seasons in Charlotte, his squad made the playoffs just twice.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

‘You’re not good enough’

Kemba Walker was a dancer first. As a child, he shimmied outside his family’s apartment building for quarters, and later joined a troupe that performed at the renowned Apollo Theater several times.

His basketball talent was not immediately obvious. He practiced his wobbly jump shot by aiming at a milk crate attached to a chain-link fence, and found a place in rugged New York City pickup games by playing relentless full-court defense.

Walker enrolled at Rice High, a private, all-boys school in Harlem, thanks to a donation from a Manhattan financial adviser. He took the No. 5 bus and the No. 2 train an hour each way from the Bronx, with one backpack filled with basketball gear strapped over another filled with books. When he overslept, sometimes the lunch money his parents left him became cab fare.

“We’d have practice, and Kemba would go home and play in the park for four more hours,” said Walker’s close friend, Chris Fouch. “It was like, ‘Yo, this kid is crazy.’ ”

One day late in Walker’s sophomore year, his New York Gauchos AAU coach, Book Richardson, asked the players to name their dream colleges. Walker, a backup point guard at Rice, had received just one recruiting letter, from Division 2 Virginia Union. He said he wanted to go to the University of Connecticut.

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“You’re not good enough,” Richardson told him. “If you want that, you have to make open jumpers, you have to defend the opponent’s best player, and you have to run the team.”

Richardson asked a friend on UConn’s staff to send Walker a university information packet. It was what any prospective student would get, but Walker was enchanted.

He took Richardson’s advice to heart, and when he entered Rice’s starting lineup during his junior year in 2006-07, a college scholarship was his dangling carrot. At the Nike Super 6 Invitational at Madison Square Garden, Walker outdueled future NBA MVP Derrick Rose as Rice defeated Chicago’s Simeon High. That spring, Walker dominated the nation’s top recruit, Brandon Jennings, in an elite AAU tournament in Arizona.

“Guys were scared of Brandon,” Richardson said. “Kemba looked over at me and said, ‘I got him. He’s not doing anything.’ I said, 'Oh [man], OK, Kemba.’ ”

UConn had been chasing bigger targets that year, but when it missed out on some and Walker continued to soar, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun mandated that Walker become the staff’s top priority.

Kemba Walker talks with his college coach, Jim Calhoun, during training camp with the Celtics in 2019. Walker didn't need to be convinced – he wanted to join Calhoun's team in Storrs.
Kemba Walker talks with his college coach, Jim Calhoun, during training camp with the Celtics in 2019. Walker didn't need to be convinced – he wanted to join Calhoun's team in Storrs.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

During Walker’s unofficial campus visit that June, Calhoun was in the midst of his sell when Walker stopped him and said it was not necessary. As Walker and his coaches were driving back to New York, Calhoun called and offered a scholarship.

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“Right away I’m like, ‘I’m in,’ ” Walker said. “It was easy for me. I didn’t care who was there already, who was in front of me. I was in.”

Walker helped the Huskies reach the Final Four as a freshman and planned to go to the NBA after his sophomore year. But the Huskies ended up in the NIT, and his stock flattened.

Instead of spending that summer back in New York, Walker stayed on campus, took classes, and trained several times a day. He left only to work at Chris Paul’s basketball camp, and to join a team of players that scrimmaged against Team USA in advance of the World Cup.

As a junior, he led the ninth-seeded Huskies to five wins in five days at the Big East tournament and was named MVP. When Kedow Walker entered Kemba’s hotel room following the title game win over Louisville, Kemba was smiling and holding a six-pack of Gatorade.

“Key,” he said, “we’re about to go win the whole thing now.”

In the NCAA regional semifinal against No. 2 San Diego State, Walker was bumped to the floor by forward Jamaal Franklin as they walked to their benches for a timeout. Walker felt like he was back on a New York playground, and those close to him knew what was coming next.

“That lit a fire under him,” said his mother, Andrea Walker.

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UConn trailed by 4, and Walker scored UConn’s next 12 points and finished with 36 in the comeback win over Kawhi Leonard and the Aztecs.

The run culminated with a championship-game victory over Butler and its rising young coach, Brad Stevens.

“From the outside, it sure looked like he was their heartbeat,” Stevens said, “and a special leader.”

Kemba Walker willed the Connecticut Huskies to the 2011 NCAA title.
Kemba Walker willed the Connecticut Huskies to the 2011 NCAA title.Eric Gay/Associated Press

Tear-filled nights

On the morning of the NBA draft that year, Walker woke up to a call from his agent, Jeff Schwartz, telling him that he believed his stock had fallen, perhaps into the late teens. Back in Charlotte, the team’s brass was discussing options for the ninth pick, and they kept coming back to Walker.

“You can see a guy score 30 points,” said former general manager Rod Higgins, “but you don’t see how he treats the guy who sweeps the floor after, and for Kemba, that stood out.”

Kemba Walker (back center) is shown at the 2011 NBA Draft with, from left, father Paul Walker, sister Sharifa Nesbitt, mother Andrea Walker, and cousin Kedow Walker.
Kemba Walker (back center) is shown at the 2011 NBA Draft with, from left, father Paul Walker, sister Sharifa Nesbitt, mother Andrea Walker, and cousin Kedow Walker.Courtesy of Kemba Walker

It also did not hurt that Jordan, one of the greatest winners in basketball history, was making the call. He had seen Walker bulldoze through March like few before him.

“We were in the war room, and MJ just kept saying that there was something about Kemba,” said former Charlotte director of player development Chris Whitney. “He turned to Rod and said, 'Make him my point guard.’ ”

‘“We were in the war room, and MJ just kept saying that there was something about Kemba. He turned to Rod and said, 'Make him my point guard.’ ”’

Chris Whitney, former director of player development in Charlotte

But the transition was sobering. Charlotte went just 7-59 during Walker’s lockout-shortened rookie season. He and his cousin Kedow would go to chain restaurants after games while others soaked up nightlife.

“He was depressed, man,” Kedow said. “I’m not exaggerating. He’d have real tears at the Buffalo Wild Wings table. He’d have real tears in the parking lot when we left. He’d say to me, 'We just lost again, bro, and everybody is going out. This can’t be what this [expletive] is about.’ ”

Said Walker: “I remember nights really going home crying by myself. I just hated to lose like that, and I feel like we were losing before games even started. We were down 20 so fast every time.”

Many nights, Walker would walk five blocks from his downtown Charlotte apartment to the Spectrum Center to take jump shots by himself.

“There’d be times where he'd question himself, like should he be in the NBA?” said his close friend, Dorvell Carter. “Does he belong there?”

‘“I remember nights really going home crying by myself. I just hated to lose like that, and I feel like we were losing before games even started. We were down 20 so fast every time.”’

Kemba Walker on his first season with Charlotte

The losing continued the following season. Walker was one of the team’s best players but deferred to veterans anyway. Then one day he was summoned by Jordan.

“He was like, 'You need to be yourself. I drafted you because you’re a winner and you score,’ ” Walker recalled. “That was what I needed to hear.”

Establishing a culture

The next year, the Hornets named Steve Clifford their coach. He invited Walker to summer league minicamp to meet staffers and maybe play in scrimmages with the rookies at night. He said Walker could watch morning practices, but certainly did not need to.

“Then the first day I get to practice and he’s on the court,” Clifford said. “We start doing drills and he jumps in. So I grabbed him and said, 'Hey, this is more fundamentals stuff. I was hoping you’d just scrimmage tonight.’ And he said, ‘Coach, I’m going to do them all. I want to learn how we do this, and what better way is there?’ ”

Clifford told Walker that if he developed a consistent 3-pointer, he would become an All-Star. Charlotte hired shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer, who helped Walker with his balance and had him hold the ball more above his right shoulder.

Over the next three years, Walker’s 3-point percentage went from 30.4 to 37.1 to 39.9 in 2016-17, when he made the first of four straight All-Star teams.

Kemba Walker's hard work paid off in the form of four straight All-Star seasons, beginning in 2016-17.
Kemba Walker's hard work paid off in the form of four straight All-Star seasons, beginning in 2016-17.Nell Redmond

For Walker, Charlotte became home. His mother and sister lived about 20 minutes from him, and his closest friends from New York were there, too.

Sometimes he’d drive friends to their Sunday pickup games and stop in to take jump shots. He did charity work, like providing meals for the homeless, that was never publicized. He became a mentor to four children through the city’s Big Brother Big Sister program, often buying them school supplies and taking them to dinners and movies.

“At his core,” Hornets assistant coach Jay Hernandez said, “he’s just very consistent with his caring.”

Walker wanted to establish a culture that resembled the one he had fostered at UConn, where he would cook dinners for Huskies teammates using his mother’s special seasonings. He organized Hornets costume parties and game nights, and whenever Charlotte acquired a new player, Walker instantly asked for his contact information.

“It’s not very often that a free agent comes to visit, and the superstar is sitting at the front door waiting,” said former Hornets forward Marvin Williams. “We’d draft a rookie and Kemba was one of the first to call. He made every person there feel like he wanted them there. That’s unusual.”

‘“We’d draft a rookie and Kemba was one of the first to call. He made every person there feel like he wanted them there. That’s unusual.”’

Marvin Williams, Walker's former teammate in Charlotte

It crushed Walker that he could not give Charlotte a winning team, though. The Hornets made the playoffs just twice in his eight years, losing in the first round both times. He thought he’d have more chances.

“Honestly, the whole summer I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna re-sign,' ” Walker said. “But as time went on, things changed.”

The Jordan meeting

When Walker and his sister Sharifa took Andrea out for Mother’s Day last May, Andrea asked about his options if he left the Hornets. He said the Lakers, Knicks, or Mavericks were most likely.

“But you could just tell that he wasn’t really excited about any of them,” Sharifa said.

Kemba Walker took his sister, Sharifa Nesbitt, to the Jordan Brand retreat in Monaco in June 2019.
Kemba Walker took his sister, Sharifa Nesbitt, to the Jordan Brand retreat in Monaco in June 2019.Courtesy of Kemba Walker

On June 20, 10 days before the start of free agency, Walker and Sharifa went to the Jordan Brand retreat in Paris and Monaco. They had several flight delays, and Walker sat in the airport discussing possibilities over the phone with Schwartz, his agent. In one call, Schwartz mentioned a wild-card team: the Celtics.

Boston had entered the season with NBA Finals aspirations and then saw everything crumble. Now Kyrie Irving’s departure appeared imminent, and a replacement would be needed.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge had been enamored with Walker ever since he saw him dominate the Maui Classic as a junior at UConn. He had tried to trade for him several times, and over the years made Schwartz aware that if there was an opportunity to sign the point guard, he would like to pursue it.

Executives navigate back channels during the murky time in which teams cannot directly contact free agents, and Walker said it was made clear to him that there was interest.

He had watched the Celtics closely during Isaiah Thomas’s star turn with the team — another small point guard doing big things — and he was always struck by the intensity of the TD Garden crowds. Still, there was uncertainty.

During the Jordan Brand trip, Walker mostly avoided Jordan himself. He sought advice from Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook, who stressed the importance of happiness. And on June 26, as the Celtics emerged as a real suitor, Walker texted Tatum and asked if they could talk.

Jayson Tatum laid out the facts about Boston for Walker, but didn't pressure him. The pairing has paid off for both of them.
Jayson Tatum laid out the facts about Boston for Walker, but didn't pressure him. The pairing has paid off for both of them.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

The two sat in a common area at the hotel and Walker inquired about the city and the franchise. He wondered whether the other Celtics would welcome him. Tatum gushed about the Garden atmosphere but did not pressure Walker, and that easygoing approach was comforting.

During the conversation, Jordan walked over and asked Walker to talk.

Although Walker was eligible for the five-year, $221 million super-max deal, he probably would have remained in Charlotte if the Hornets had offered him five years and about $180 million. It became clear in the meeting with Jordan, however, that neither of those options would be on the table.

“I thought I’d be nervous, but he did most of the talking,” Walker said. “He thanked me for everything, all the work that I put in, the times that we had, and thanked me for building a relationship with him. I kind of felt relieved to just understand then that I was going to go to another team.

"Before we spoke, I was tense and nervous. After we spoke, I was good.”

Walker found his sister and told her about the conversation. He told her about the hugs he had given both Jordan and his wife, Yvette. They were different kinds of hugs.

“I think it’s over,” Kemba told Sharifa.

That night, there was a lip-sync competition among the Jordan Brand guests. Walker and his team performed the Bruno Mars and Cardi B song, “(Dripping in) Finesse,” and as Walker shimmied on stage, his sister could see his relief.

Kemba Walker at the Jordan Brand retreat
Kemba Walker busted out his best moves for a lip-syncing competition at the retreat for Jordan Brand athletes in Europe last summer. (Courtesy Sharifa Nesbitt)

The choice is made

In a phone call with Kedow later, Walker started plotting his course. He thought the Lakers would try to sign him at a slight discount, perhaps thinking that the opportunity to play with LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be enough.

“They’re not asking anyone else to take a deal,” Kedow told him. “You’re an All-NBA player now. You’ve earned everything at this point.”

As much as Walker loved New York, the distractions of playing in his hometown did not appeal to him. The Knicks were never seriously considered.

The Mavericks already had a rising superstar point guard in Luka Doncic, but Walker knew that he and Shabazz Napier had coexisted in the backcourt when they led UConn to the national title. Maybe that would work again.

Walker even wondered if there was a chance the Magic could make room financially, allowing him to reunite with Clifford, the coach who had ignited his career.

Then the conversation shifted to the Celtics. Kedow said that Tatum appeared to be one of the game’s rising stars.

“You know what’s crazy?” Walker said. “He’s actually here now, and he’s cool as hell.”

The cousins talked about the city and the franchise’s history, and how Walker had enjoyed playing for Stevens in the 2017 All-Star Game.

Kemba Walker enjoyed playing for Brad Stevens in the 2017 All-Star Game.
Kemba Walker enjoyed playing for Brad Stevens in the 2017 All-Star Game.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

When Walker called his mother to say he probably was headed to Boston, she just asked if he was sure, and he said that he was. She has always been his most vocal fan, and sometimes that was obvious during quiet Charlotte games.

“Mom,” he said, “you don’t have to cheer by yourself anymore.”

When Walker and his sister returned to Charlotte on June 27, his decision had been all but made. A man at the airport asked if he was going to re-sign with the Hornets, and Walker told him that he was going to become a Celtic, breaking the news himself in a busy terminal.

“He was telling whoever would ask,” Sharifa said with a chuckle. “He was just happy.”

In Boston on June 30, the meeting with the Celtics was a formality. When Ainge picked up Walker from Logan Airport, Walker’s first thought was that he could not believe how tall Ainge was.

Ainge typically seeks out character references, particularly with signings of this magnitude.

“But Kemba was one of the only guys I can remember I did not make a call at all,” Ainge said. “There was no need. I’d heard and seen too much good.”

Kemba Walker smiles at an introductory press conference with the Celtics. For Danny Ainge, signing Walker was a no-brainer.
Kemba Walker smiles at an introductory press conference with the Celtics. For Danny Ainge, signing Walker was a no-brainer.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

A four-year, $141 million deal was quickly finalized. Walker sent a group text to his closest friends with an edited picture of him playing in a Celtics jersey. He pointed out that the colors were the same as Rice High School’s.

“It’s a done deal, fellas,” he said.

Postseason dreams

It’s early winter, and Walker is sitting at a back table at the Legal Sea Foods in Chestnut Hill. The restaurant staff is aware of his presence, so they’ve brought a large shellfish tower filled with oysters, clams, shrimp, and lobster. But Walker isn’t a fan of cold seafood, so he just orders some shrimp wontons and cioppino served over pasta.

The other customers don’t seem to recognize him, or if they do, they do a good job of hiding it. But Walker is not in Boston to build his brand or raise his profile. He hardly uses social media and prefers quiet nights at his Newton home to splashy nights out.

On the court, he has willingly yielded big shots to Tatum and praised the 22-year-old afterward.

Walker signed with the Celtics in large part because he has never won an NBA playoff series, and he desperately wants to change that. Before the league shut down because of the COVID-19 crisis, Walker was named an All-Star starter for the second year in a row and had led Boston to a 43-21 record.

He continues to dream about the postseason, even if that experience is ultimately delayed for one more year.

He never wanted to leave Charlotte. He still has a home there, his mother and close friends never left, and he plans to live there after he retires. But the feeling he had during that magical month of championships at UConn has never left him, and he wants more than anything to feel it once more.

“The guys who get the credit are the guys who win,” Walker said. “That’s what I want. That’s what I came to Boston to do.”

Kemba Walker sees Boston as nothing but a net gain over Charlotte.
Kemba Walker sees Boston as nothing but a net gain over Charlotte.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.