Flash back to the Rivals Class of 2008 high school player rankings and you’ll notice names like B.J. Mullens, Scotty Hopson, Brandon Jennings, Al-Farouq Aminu, Samardo Samuels, Willie Warren, Devin Ebanks, Chris Singleton and Ater Majok, among others, ranked ahead of Kemba Walker.
But on the playgrounds of New York City, those of us connected to the city game knew that he had a chance, despite being undersized, to ride the express lane to college stardom. In the summer of 2006, while working with a remarkably creative team of hoops historians and enthusiasts at Bounce Magazine, our editorial crew grew enamored with the young man’s exploits on the Big Apple’s blacktops. Having just completed his sophomore year at Harlem’s Rice High School, Walker wasn’t a big name within the national basketball consciousness.
But we knew that what we were seeing was special and decided to put him on the cover of the Winter, 2007 issue. That cover photo remains one of my favorites. It shows the streaking 17 year old at full speed, on the attack in the open floor at a night game under the lights at Rucker Park, with his red Entertainers Basketball Classic jersey, adorned in the funky white and blue trim flapping in the wind, under the caption, “Kemba EZ Pass Walker Leads The New Youth Movement.”
My colleague Sean “Bub Hawkman” Couch penned the feature story/Q&A, which talked about Kemba’s exploits and how he had led his Roc Stars squad to the EBC championship, dazzling the packed crowds with his speed, vision, scoring ability and attack-the-rim game off the bounce, all the while competing against a variety of college players, pros and playground legends.
On the AAU circuit, his New York Gauchos squad copped five prestigious tourney titles and the country’s overall top summer ranking, all after winning city, Catholic State and State Federation championships.
As my man Couch wrote, “That’s triple-crown “all-surface” status: wood, asphalt and grassroots.”
We were giving those people paying attention a glimpse into the future, a first-hand peek at a young man who would exceed the expectations of many who thought that he was just another product of the NYC hype machine.
“He hates to lose more than he loves to win,” his AAU coach, Emmanuel ‘Book’ Richardson, told us back then in early 2007. “Whether he made the shot or defended the shot, he’s always in the mix to win the game. Last year, the first time we let him play up with the 17-year-old team, he missed a defensive assignment that led to a loss and he started to cry…The next game he destroyed 6’8″ Herb Pope, who wanted to guard Kemba and then wanted to fight him after the game. Herb was Top 5 in the country then. He went on a 17-point consecutive run at the King James Tournament in Akron against Chicago’s Iman Shumpert…That’s when I realized it wasn’t all hype with this kid.”
Walker also proved that he was all about his business back then as well. After winning MVP honors of the Cactus Classic in Arizona, he went directly to the airport for his red-eye flight back to New York dressed in slacks, a tucked in polo shirt and his shoes shines, ready to report directly to school upon landing.
A product of The Bronx’s Soundview Projects, his game was not honed working with a personal trainer, but at night under the lights at Sack Wern Park, playing against grown men, along with practicing his amazing array of reverse layups in solitude.
His stylistics on the floor, quickness and uncanny ability to convert incredibly difficult layups in traffic over much bigger players conjured up images, for those of us that had seen his city point guard predecessors, of Rod Strickland and playground legend Gerald “Doogie The Dancing One” Thomas, aka “Dancing Doogie”.
No matter how gifted one is coming up in that environment, you’re bound to get lit up from time to time in the park. That’s simply the nature of the beast. When it happened on occasion to Walker, he told us that he took it, “…as motivation. Makes me work harder. I play to stop my man, I try to win the matchup.”
Back then, heading into his junior year at Rice, he’d already made his decision to go to UCONN. There were some who felt that his playground flavors wouldn’t fly under Jim Calhoun and in the Big East. When asked why UCONN, he told us, “It’s a big-time program, and I deserve to play in a big program. Coach [Jim] Calhoun is a Hall of Fame coach and he’s a cool guy. He’s going to have me work. I’m just going to go in and work hard, try to get some playing time and some minutes.”
He’s never taken anything for granted, understanding that taking each step up the ladder and any resulting success is a byproduct of hard work.
We all saw what happened at UCONN, where he was a key contributor off the bench as a freshman for a team that earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and where he later led the country in scoring as a junior. His explosive and clutch run through the Big East Tournament and March Madness, winning the national championship, forged an instant legend that will always be among the college game’s most revered.
And to see him start over and struggle as a rookie in the NBA, to now achieving his well-deserved recognition as an All-Star is something that folks who watched him back when can only smile at.
When we asked him back in 2007 if the NBA was real to him, he said confidently, “Definitely. I think it’s all on me. I just gotta work hard.”
Job well done, young fella. The Streets of New York are proud. It hasn’t always been the smoothest of roads, but Kemba Walker always believed in his talent and the beauty of his dreams.
Also known on the playground as the “The Prince of Zamunda“, Walker has officially reached royal status on the biggest stage, in the best league in the world.
His other nickname on the Uptown asphalt has always been “EZ Pass”, but his rise has been anything but easy. And if you think he’s done, in case you haven’t witnessed the rise like we have, you’ll be surprised to learn that he’s merely just getting started.