words Ben Osborne / portraits Atiba Jefferson
“Quien es? Quien es?”
Standing on the platform of the 161 Street-Yankee Stadium stop, a 60ish Latin woman wants to know who the young man posing for pictures is. “Kemba Walker,” I reply. “Estrella del baloncesto,” I force out in halting Spanish. “De Bronx.” A basketball star. From the Bronx.
Trust this, though: Over the course of a scorching-hot July day spent traversing Bronx and Harlem—areas the 21-year-old Walker knows well—it becomes clear that to most New Yorkers, Kemba needs no introduction.
Blessed with a quick smile and approachable manner he honed during his three-year career at UConn, playing for arguably the nation’s most rabid fan base, Walker possesses a winning personality that has businesses investing heavily in him and hoping for a big pay off.
Basketball-wise, King Kemba is now the property of the Charlotte Bobcats, famously owned by Michael Jordan and in desperate need of a spark that can generate both excitement and wins in a city that hasn’t shown much interest in its team lately. Off the court, and more germane to our day, Under Armour has signed Walker to a multi-year endorsement deal, hoping his skills and persona can further build up the brand’s growing reputation in basketball.
It sounds like a lot for a young man out of New York’s public housing system to handle, let alone one whose build and style of play have some observers wondering how the Final Four Most Outstanding Player will translate to the NBA. Is a 6-1, 185-pound guard who often seems to think shoot-first a viable answer for a team with a paper-thin (and very short) backcourt? And is said guard going to make enough of an impact that kids heading to Foot Locker will want to be like him instead of his team’s owner?
Walker doesn’t see why not. “I think Bobcats fans should expect the team to get better. We might not get better right away, but I guarantee we will make strides and I’ll do anything possible to make the team better,” he says. “I think I’m going to get the chance to play a lot. Me and DJ [Augustin] are going to be in the backcourt together sometimes. The coaches down there have some pretty big plans for us and I can’t wait. I’m excited.”
Walker obviously knows from good teams. Or, at least, how to make one good. Last season’s magic carpet ride through the Big East and NCAA Tournaments (11 straight wins and lots of net cutting) wrapped up with Kemba boasting extremely healthy full-season stats: 41 games played with averages of 23.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals. If there was a drawback to the big-time scoring numbers it was the way it made people question if dude could run the 1 the old-fashioned way. Kemba doesn’t really care for those doubts.
“Look, I want to do everything,” he says, getting animated. “Score, defend, get assists. That’s the kind of player I am—whatever my team needs me to do, that’s what I’m going to do. This past year I had to score. I’ve been playing point my whole life. Now there’s the question of if I can pass or not, but I don’t think that’s a question. I was just doing what my team needed. I was one of the most experienced guys on my team so I had to score for my team, but on the next level I’m going to be a true point guard. I’m going to distribute the ball. I’m going to score the ball also, but that’s just a plus—it will open up more chances for me to get assists.”
The Bobcats agree. “We are very excited to have him,” says one Charlotte insider, who could not be quoted by name due to NBA rules during the lockout. “We need someone to make a splash, score some points and bring toughness and a winning mentality. He just brings so many intangibles that we need.”
Without ever coming off as cocky, Walker expresses the same confidence in his ability to be a difference maker for UA that he does for the Bobcats. “I think I can make people who only wore Nikes or Jordans in their life come over to Under Armour,” Walker says. “People are already saying stuff like that to me on Twitter: ‘I wasn’t a fan of Under Armour, but now that you’re with them I’ll definitely get a pair.’ People don’t realize the kind of stuff that they have, and the stuff that they’re working on. And that’s what I’m here for, also: They’re going to give me the chance to voice my opinion on things, to create sneakers. There are going to be some pretty great kicks and with me, Brandon [Jennings] and Derrick [Williams], I guarantee you people are going to change their minds about Under Armour.”
Under Armour Director of Basketball Footwear Ryan Drew is obviously very excited to see the roster of players he gets to work with keep growing. Of Walker, who will be outfitted in a new shoe called the Micro G Juke whenever this season tips off, Drew says, “We love his game, but more importantly, he’s a great person. He has all of the qualities that we’re looking for in an athlete. He’s a winner, he’s a leader, he’s got heart and he’s fearless. He has a great sense of style, and understands exactly what he wants in the look and performance of his sneakers.”
And will it all transfer to the consumer, Kemba? “Jordan is always gonna be Jordan. As far as Nike, I think we’re going to be at that elite level with them at some point. Under Armour is creating some great stuff. As long as us, the players, do what we have to on the court, I think people are gonna want to wear what we’re wearing. And we all have pretty big influences on young guys, especially me being from New York and Brandon from California. And we both inner-city kids, so you know, kids look up to us. I definitely think we’re going to be on a lot of people’s minds when they’re buying sneakers.”
If you’re a basketball fan of a certain age, Kemba Walker’s story sounds pretty familiar. After all, to those of us in our 30s and up, a New York City point guard making the League was as common a sight as an opened fire hydrant cooling kids off in a Big Apple summer. Older legends such as Bob Cousy and Lenny Wilkens begat Tiny Archibald, who was followed in the ’80s by Pearl Washington, Kenny Smith, Mark Jackson and Kenny Anderson. Then came Stephon Marbury, Rafer Alston, Jamaal Tinsley and Sebastian Telfair. But then the hydrant stopped flowing.