CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sometimes when star NBA free agents leave their old teams and find new ones, the departures can be messy. Their jerseys are burned, or they are booed when they return, or they’re simply just not liked anymore.
It’s quite clear this is not the case with Kemba Walker, and it’s partly because he has made it quite clear that he will not turn away from Charlotte just because he does not play for its basketball team anymore.
There’s plenty of evidence of this, but the best example could be found on the baseline of the Spectrum Center court Thursday night, about 30 minutes before the Celtics faced the Hornets.
There stood the four children that Walker mentored through the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Walker handed them all Celtics goodie bags, and they handed him a box that he opened up to reveal a sculpture of interlocked hands, symbolizing their bond.
He hugged them and he asked how they were doing, and whenever there were breaks of silence, he just reached out and hugged them again.
“This means a lot,” said 12-year-old Jaliyah, one of Walker’s mentees. “It means that he cares about us a lot and he still wants to be involved in our life. So I’m very grateful.”
Jaliyah beamed as she recalled the times Walker took her and the other three children out to dinner, and to go bowling, and to see movies, and to buy school supplies. Her favorite moment was a trip to Dave & Buster’s.
“My best memory was me trying to beat him at a basketball game there,” she said. “It didn’t work out so well for me.”
As she completed her thought, she realized Walker was giving out his last hugs before the game started, so she hurried back over to receive one more.
Jaliyah said she’d seen some of Walker’s Celtics games on television, and that she has already been pestering her mother about letting her go to Boston to see one in person. (“She said she’d probably let me.”)
But most of all, it is important to her and the other children that they had not been forgotten, and that their connection to Walker will endure.
“We still have a special relationship, so it was really good to see them,” Walker said. “We’ve been communicating through videos and stuff like that, but for me to be here and see them in person was really special for me.”
Back in the Hornets locker room, center Cody Zeller was getting ready to lace up some custom-made Jordan Brand sneakers that honored the off-court work of Walker, his close friend and former teammate. As part of his ‘Kicks for Kids’ campaign Zeller and his camp reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters and asked Walker’s four mentees to write messages to Walker that a local artist then hand-painted onto his shoes.
Jaliyah, Caleb, Miles and Devyn each had their own notes for Walker, including one that read: ‘You are generous, kind-hearted and a very hard-working person and I really appreciate you as my mentor.’
Zeller’s gesture was done to raise awareness for the group and acknowledge Walker’s work with them. Zeller made a donation to the charity, too.
“I kind of wanted to do this just to highlight that he’s more than just a basketball player,” Zeller said. “This wasn’t just something he did once for Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Once a month he was taking these kids to dinner and really building a relationship with them and having an impact….Some guys go to a city just to play basketball, but he made it a big part of who he was.”
Zeller said that when he was a rookie, Walker took him under his wing and immediately showed him that it’s important to have an impact that goes beyond the sport they played together.
“Although he’s the best player on the team, he still carries himself like he’s the 15th guy on the roster,” Zeller said. “So it really showed me you can’t let your basketball performance on the court dictate how you treat people off the court.”