April 13, 2011
STORRS — Jim Calhoun was using Charlie Villanueva as a comparison, but the truth is the UConn coach could have inserted the names of hundreds of college basketball players. The difference with Kemba Walker, Calhoun insisted, is he didn't have to learn how to work.
"Kemba knew that everything in life comes with a process," Calhoun said.
In a world with no time, Walker found time to work relentlessly and improve inexorably. In a world in a rush, the fastest guard in the college game found a way to slow down his life, his game. At a point where everyone else his age wants it now, Kemba saw that a little bit later was soon enough.
Let the record show Kemba grew up in a New York minute, but he matured in The Land of Steady Habits. And on this day he wanted to thank Calhoun for "turning me into a man."
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So here he was inside Gampel Pavilion, one week after winning the national title, announcing he would forego his senior season to join the NBA, and nobody claimed it was wrongheaded or an abomination of student-athleticism.
"This is the right time," Walker said.
"He's ready," Walker's mom, Andrea, said.
This will not be yet another column to raise hosannas to Kemba's basketball ability. Calhoun called Walker the best player in the country, his season the finest in 111 years of UConn basketball and it no longer came as an assertion. It was fact. Clearly, he is going in the top 10 of the NBA draft. And just as clearly, coach and player agreed, this was both a joyous and sad day. There is no turning back.
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"He is ready to move on as a man and a basketball player, both emotionally and physically," Calhoun said. "He has done everything humanly possible. It'll be very hard to be a more loved player than Kemba Walker. If you ever want a road map to do it the right way …"
Yet to assert that road map already has led Walker to a final destination would be to insult the process. The greatest season in UConn history must not falsely turn him into a finished product as a player or a person. To do that is to bronze a hero's statue with feet of clay.
One needs to look no further than the celebratory moments at Reliant Stadium. Jim Nantz of CBS was about to interview Walker when, all of a sudden, Kemba exclaimed, "Damn, [N-word]." He was goofing around with Alex Oriakhi and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and didn't mean for it to be on national TV, but it was and it has found its own life on the internet.
As a middle-aged white sports writer, far be it for me to sit in judgment of a historically explosive word's use among young black teammates. Yet nobody from the college president to coach to Kemba's mom could be comfortable with the entire world hearing it coming from the hero's mouth.
"As a black person, that's something we hear," Andrea Walker said. "To this new generation, it's just a phrase. It's nothing. I know the media may take it out of context, but it's nothing. My neighborhood, I hear it 10-15 times a day.
"I'm not condoning what he did or what he said. You've got to know how to talk and when to say things, but it probably slipped out of his mouth. I can't kill him for it. You know what? It was the perfect learning situation. Now he knows he has to be careful and to choose his words. He may have gotten something good out of it. He may not ever say it again."
A time, a place, a season, leave it to mom to give an appropriate answer.
On the court, there was a time when Walker would drive wildly and trap himself in the paint. There was a time when his jump shot wasn't good enough. He worked his way through the shortcomings. He was on a national select team last summer and competed against Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo. He called it a "humbling experience." He also came back a more mature player. He always had a little swag, Calhoun said, but now he had a bigger swagger.
"Every two to three years he spurts," Andrea Walker said. "Give him two years in the NBA, you're going to be like, 'That's the same Kemba that went to UConn?' You're not going to believe this is the same kid."
Andrea Walker talks about how Kemba cooked for his teammates, how there was no big-timing, how they formed a brotherhood. The way he took on leadership remains a study in seamlessness. Again, respect for the process.
He is close to graduating now. To do it in three years not only meant summer classes but meticulous planning by Felicia Crump. Walker is effusive in praising his academic counselor. He is sticking in school this semester and plans to walk in commencement exercises. After that he said he'll need to finish two or three online classes and plans on an internship with the team that drafts him to get his sociology degree.
"My best advice for incoming athletes is the better you do off the court the better you do on the court," Walker said.
Yet in the April 11 issue of Sports Illustrated with Kemba on the cover, he admits that William C. Rhoden's "Forty Million Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete," is the first book he has ever read cover to cover. While his honesty is admirable, cynics undoubtedly will raise an eyebrow on how this could be at a major university.
"I read a lot of books," Walker said Tuesday. "But not just start to finish. I might have skipped some chapters."
He skipped no chapters on the court. And now he says he will be prepared and comfortable on any NBA team. Andrea said any team is fine with her, except maybe the Knicks.
"I have nothing against the Knicks, but being from New York I think that would be too much responsibility on him," said Andrea, who said she will accompany him until he is settled in the NBA. "Give him a chance to grow a little. Don't just throw him into the lion's den right away."
Andrea said she knew Kemba would be a star in grade school when she saw him dancing at the Apollo Theater. That's mom talking. Years later, he doesn't dance around the process.
"Every other school told me I was going to come in right away and be the man," he said. "Coach Calhoun told me I would have to work for everything. That's what I wanted. I wanted to work.
"This place raised me."
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