CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the end, this was a return that would offer no detractors, no jeers. Kemba Walker wanted to remain here. He wanted to be part of the Hornets organization’s long-term plan. The Hornets, on the other hand, couldn’t afford to keep him and simultaneously build for the future.
So, it was an amicable divorce, a split where both sides focus on nothing but the positives of their past. No backbiting. No what-ifs. No signs of betrayal. The city of Charlotte is not used to returns such as Thursday night at Spectrum Center, when Walker played as a Celtic after eight seasons with the Bobcats/Hornets.
Walker was honored with a touching video and standing ovation after he was introduced. He finished with 14 points on 4-for-12 shooting with six assists in the Celtics’ 108-87 win.
“It was special. It was special just to be back here and the amount of love that I’ve been getting through this day and leading up to this day. It’s just been a lot of love,” he said. “The video topped it off. I was trying to hold it in but I couldn’t. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to.”
The original Mr. Bobcat was actually ex-Celtic Gerald Wallace, who was taken in the 2004 expansion draft when Charlotte was once again awarded a franchise. Wallace spent 6½ seasons in Charlotte, which included an All-Star appearance, before being traded to the Portland Trail Blazers.
All of the greats of the previous Hornets franchise — Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, Glen Rice, Dell Curry — ended their careers elsewhere, with Mourning and Rice winning titles with other clubs.
There really had been no original Hornet until Walker. He was drafted by the franchise. He grew up as a pro here, adored the city, and became the face of the organization.
“It’s weird, even just being here yesterday, I went home and it didn’t feel real [being back],” Walker said before scoring 14 points in the Celtics’ 108-87 victory Thursday. “It’s crazy being back in this building right now.”
Walker noted that the only time he had been in the visitors’ locker room at Spectrum Center was for random drug tests. But he looked forward to this return. His family still resides here. It is home, although he plays for Boston.
“Just the person that he is, from Day 1 when I signed here for the first time, he was probably the most welcoming person,” Hornets forward Marvin Williams said. “Just to have him in your corner as a person is what we miss the most. What I miss the most. Obviously, he’s a great player, All-NBA, one of the best point guards in the NBA. We all wish him well and we’re pulling for him, but he plays for Boston.”
And playing for Boston wouldn’t be any reason for Hornets fans to offer their disapproval because Walker reluctantly departed. The Hornets didn’t feel Walker was worth a $200 million investment for a franchise that reached the playoffs twice in Walker’s eight seasons, never advancing past the first round.
And the Hornets did not want to become a luxury-tax team. Walker had outgrown Charlotte. He essentially did what smaller-market teams want their lottery picks to do, become superstars so they have a better opportunity to keep them for their primes.
Unfortunately, Walker became too expensive for a franchise that’s still trying to figure out how to navigate the NBA financial landscape, and Walker was an unintended victim.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” he said. “I did an interview yesterday, and he asked me the same question, and I don’t even know why that question should be brought up, honestly. I think it would be all positive reaction.”
Walker was right. He received a rousing ovation after the tribute video. It’s a prime example of an athlete giving all he can to a city, embracing his role as face of the franchise, trying to establish a tradition in a city that seemingly is more interested in college basketball, with Duke and North Carolina down the road.
“I’ve done plenty of great things here, not even basketball,” Walker said. “It’s bigger than basketball here, just around the community, with the fans. I’ve always interacted with the fans, signed autographs, always took pictures. I was always nice to everybody, so I don’t think there would be any negative reactions.”
Walker’s former teammates understand his departure was the business of the game. They have moved forward. So has Walker, but the friendships remain.
“Me and Marv talk all the time, Cody [Zeller] all the time, those are my guys forever, regardless of what teams we’re on,” said Walker. “That’s what this league is about, about creating friendships and maintaining them. This is definitely different because I played here so long. Obviously, I’m on a new team now. I’m back for a game and it’s just different. I’m looking forward to seeing how the night plays out. Don’t get it twisted, it will be great everything before the game, but I’m going to be locked in.”
But it’s a one-night reunion. Walker is a Celtic. The organization has faith he can contribute to an Eastern Conference power, taking Walker to a place he’s never been.
“It was a happy day,” he said. “I think the bittersweet days are over. It was a happy day. I was excited to be back, excited to see my family, excited to see all my old teammates, coaching staff, the people who work to keep this building [working]. It was super exciting.”