Kemba Walker is smiling as he reads this
By Sopan Deb
Kemba Walker is a most unusual NBA star. Even though he is a four-time All-Star who grew up playing basketball on the playgrounds of New York City and learned under Michael Jordan with the Charlotte Hornets, Walker is pretty low key for a player of his caliber.
He rarely trash talks. He is not interested in a career in film, television or music. His social media presence is bland — lots of sponsored pictures of him smiling. He rarely makes headlines or goes viral in clips that do not involve his play. In a league where individual players almost always make their presence known, Walker is content in the background. He’s not unlike Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers — except for that smile.
He was smiling when we caught up on a Zoom conversation after a Boston Celtics practice at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., where the NBA is playing out its season because of the pandemic. He was smiling when we sat down after a Celtics practice in March, days before the coronavirus outbreak forced a postponement of the season. Even when describing his experience in quarantine at his home in Charlotte — his teammate Grant Williams stayed with him — he smiled about how much he enjoyed his time away.
“I loved it,” Walker, 30, said. “It gave me a chance to slow down. As athletes, our lives move very fast. We don’t get much downtime or things of that nature until the summer.”
So you might be wondering: Why is Kemba Walker always so happy? From his telling, it has to do with where he came from.
When Walker was a high school student living in the Soundview section of the Bronx, he would travel to his basketball games with his cousin. Walker, then about 14, and his cousin stepped out of the Walker family’s apartment in the Sack-Wern Houses to go shoot hoops and encountered a woman sitting on the stairwell. She had a needle sticking out of her arm.
This kind of sight was not out of the ordinary growing up, Walker said. After growing up in what he called a “tough neighborhood” — where he would sometimes hear gunshots on the court — now he lives in Brookline, Mass., an affluent suburb that neighbors Boston.
“What’s there to be down about?” Walker said. “I’m doing what I love. Getting paid. I’m in a great place.”
Now, Walker is a Celtic. Before this season, Walker’s highest-stakes games were at the University of Connecticut, where he played three seasons and provided countless highlights, particularly during a 2011 NCAA tournament run. Or they were at Rice High School, the former basketball powerhouse in Harlem. Maybe they were on the New York City playgrounds where Walker first got his taste of basketball. Playground ball, Walker said, was “the ultimate competitive game to me” because “you literally earn every single bucket.”
But for the first time in his NBA career, he is playing for a team that has a real chance to make the finals. On Tuesday, the Celtics went up 2-0 against the Toronto Raptors, the defending champions, in their second-round playoff series (Game 3 is today at 6:30 p.m.). Walker had a terrible shooting night, going 6-of-18 from the field, but he made clutch plays down the stretch. In Charlotte, Walker made the playoffs twice and was bounced in the first round each time. He has never had the expectation of winning on his shoulders until now, and he’s never played with teammates this talented. One of his best friends on the team, Walker said, is the 22-year-old Jayson Tatum, who has blossomed into one of the best players in the league.
Tatum’s ascension means that Walker is in an unfamiliar position: Sometimes he isn’t the best player on the floor. If this bothers Walker — as it might other stars — he doesn’t show it.
“I’m going to have my nights where the fourth quarter is mine, but I am willing to have the nights where I am just spotting up or I am the decoy,” Walker said. “It makes life so much easier and it’s so fun.”
Walker was sitting next to Tatum when he had his first “Welcome to Boston” moment. It was on the bench right before his first preseason game, against his former team, the Hornets.
“I look over at Jayson and I’m like, ‘Damn, this whole arena is packed right now.’” Walker said. “Sold out. Not one seat missing. And it’s a preseason game. The first preseason game! For me, I’m like, ‘This is different!’”
But leaving Charlotte was a shock for Walker. He expected to stay, he said. Walker was eligible for a so-called supermax extension, but the Hornets came in with an offer that was less than that, conscious of paying the luxury tax. He began to consider other teams. At first, Walker said, he was heavily pursued by the Los Angeles Lakers, the Dallas Mavericks and the team he grew up closest to, the New York Knicks. He considered going home.
“I feel it’s always tough to go home and play for your hometown team because there are a lot of distractions, but I started to get really excited actually about the possibility,” Walker said. “I thought about it hard.”
But instead, the Celtics called.
“When they came on the scene, things shifted a little bit,” Walker said. “The excitement started to go that way.”
It had almost become cliché to note how much happier the Celtics seemed as a team this year, in part thanks to Walker’s enthusiasm and unflappability.
“He has a smile that lifts a room,” said coach Brad Stevens, who bonded with Walker following a dinner at Stevens’ home soon after Walker was signed. After eating, the two retired into what Walker called a “man-cave, office-type of thing” and watched game tape. It was an appropriate introduction for two people for whom basketball is an all-encompassing endeavor.
Danny Ainge, who is the head of basketball operations for the Celtics, said in a phone interview that Walker, was “one of those people who chooses to be happy,” adding: “He has human emotions that we all do. He just rallies and comes back to his smile.”
“It’s very rare,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart, who, like Tatum, spent time with Walker last summer as part of Team USA. “I haven’t seen him frustrated. I haven’t seen him anything but smiling. In a game, I’ve seen him a little frustrated. He’s cool, calm and collected at all times.”
Walker just wants to win a championship, preferably in Boston. He has no other goals, he said. He is not concerned with his legacy. There are no awards he wants to win. He is not thinking about the bigger picture, at least not out loud.
“I’m boring, man. I don’t like doing much,” Walker said. “I don’t want to be a coach. If anything, I just want to be maybe behind the scenes. Developmental. I want to be around the young guys, the rookies — the second- and third-year players and help them grow their game.”
He just wants to keep playing as long as the league will have him, just like Vince Carter, who is 43 and only just retired this season.
“I want to play as long as I can,” Walker said. “I want them to say: ‘Kemba, you can’t play no more. We’re kicking you out of the league.’ I want to be one of those guys to try and get up there like Vince. I want to be the guy at the end of the bench, clapping for my young guys. ‘Let’s go.’”