SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- It didn't matter that he averaged 7.7 points during five years in the NBA. And no seemed to care that in the same span, he had just more than four rebounds a game. When Kenny Walker went to Europe to play basketball two years ago, his resume bore one impressive item: former NBA slam dunk champion.
"My first year in Spain I was very popular," Walker said yesterday. "From the moment I stepped off the plane, people wanted me to dunk. They really looked up to me."
Last year the former first-round pick averaged 20 points and 14 rebounds for the Cacores team in Spain. But that means nothing this week. Walker, 6 feet 8 and 220 pounds, is just another free agent trying to earn a job with the Washington Bullets, who opened their training camp yesterday at Shepherd College.
As is his procedure, Bullets coach Wes Unseld would not comment on any free agents. ("I don't want guys sitting around the room thinking their whole future is hanging on what I said, or what I didn't say," Unseld said.)
But Walker, knowing free agents Doug Overton and Larry Stewart earned roster spots with the Bullets the past two seasons, is willing to risk a guaranteed contract overseas to give the NBA one more shot.
"There are situations I hope will remain open if this camp doesn't work out, but I want to remain optimistic about being here," Walker said. "Hopefully I can have a good camp and a good preseason and put the pressure on them to make some decisions."
Walker was drafted by the New York Knicks as the fifth pick in 1986, after finishing third on Kentucky's all-time scoring list (2,080).
But the adulation that Walker received in Lexington, Ky., became criticism in New York. He averaged 10.4 points a game his first season, but never became the savior that the then-struggling Knicks needed. Known as Kenny "Sky" Walker in college, he was dubbed Kenny "Sleep" Walker by a New York tabloid columnist when his scoring average dipped to 5.3 points in his third season.
"New York is the toughest place to play and, being a young guy, it did get me down," Walker said. "They wrote bad things about me, but they also wrote bad things about Patrick Ewing and Mark Jackson. With the criticism, the losing and the changing of coaches, it was an emotional roller coaster."
The highlight of his career came midway through his fourth season, when Walker won the slam-dunk contest during All-Star weekend in Houston. But after the following season, with contract negotiations going down to the wire, he accepted an offer from the Granollers team in the Spanish League.
"I didn't want a situation where I might have to sit out an entire year, so when the team in Spain made a very good offer, I took it," Walker said.
Now, at 29, he's come full circle. A conversation with Bullets guard Rex Chapman, who also played at Kentucky, led to a conversation with Bullets general manager John Nash. That led to Walker entering camp for another shot at the NBA.
"I think with my last two years in Spain that people had forgotten about me, but I think, in my heart, I can still play in the NBA," Walker said. "To me this is a chance to see where I'm at."
In Spain, Walker played power forward and small forward; in New York he was strictly a small forward. He thinks playing both positions has helped him expand his game.
"It helped me improve," Walker said. "Playing two positions was just like back in Kentucky."
Now Walker will put those improvements to a stricter test.
"Playing in Spain is like playing Division I basketball, and I want to come here and compete against NBA competition," Walker said. "I'm more mature and less tense than I was [with New York], and I think I have a few more good years left in this league."
NOTES: First-round pick Calbert Cheaney and second-round pick Gheorghe Muresan ran their first official practice during the two-hour session. The early reports -- not a whole lot after one day. "We didn't get into the offense or defense too much as I wanted to see where they were physically," Unseld said. "[Calbert] did OK, but there's not a lot you can tell right now. And [Muresan] did OK as well -- he competed in every drill.". . . . Cheaney, who played four years under Bob Knight at Indiana, said after his first practice: "It's a lot harder than it was in college, and they say it's nothing compared to what happens on Friday [when the veterans begin]. It's a lot of work". . . . First impression of Muresan: slow running the floor, mechanical, but has a nice shooting touch. When practice was over and players had to hit eight straight free throws before they left, Muresan was one of the first to finish. . . . Free agents Mitchell Butler (lower back pain) and Chancellor Nichols (strained right hamstring) sat out the last part of practice.