Kemba wasn’t necessarily motivated by the greats at his position before, or by their relative disappearance of late—“My favorite player is Carmelo. Nobody could tell me this person was better than him, or that person. I’m strictly Melo,” he says—but he did always have a remarkable drive to succeed.
Growing up in the Sack-Wern Houses in the Soundview section of the Bronx with his father, who hails from Antigua, his mother, from St. Croix, and two older siblings, Kemba was a dancer first, even performing at the world-famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. By middle school, however, basketball was his focus. He busted his ass for Coach Carl Nickerson at IS 174 in his home borough, and then, with the help of his hoops skills and a generous donor from the Student Sponsor Partners program, enrolled at Rice High in the heart of Harlem. A storied all-boys school with a tremendous basketball program, Rice is where Kemba came into his own. “Rice is a huge part of my success,” Kemba says as he sits on a stoop outside the school building (which, sadly, will be closed down and on sale by the time you read this.). “It’s a brotherhood. Growing up, my brother was in and out of jail. So I didn’t have anyone to look up to besides my dad. Coming here, there’s a lot of guys that respected me and I respected them. So I had a lot of brothers. This was a place where I could come and have a lot of support, so it was great for me.”
By the time Kemba—who played his AAU ball for the Gauchos in the Bronx—was a senior, he knew his hoop future was bright. “The NBA started to seem real to me when I was picked for the McDonald’s Game. There’s a high percentage of McDonald’s All-Americans that go on to the NBA, even to the Lottery, so that’s when I really started to think about it.”
First, Kemba moved north to Storrs, CT, and further dedicated himself to his craft. “There’s not a lot to do there, and that was good. I wasn’t at a school in some crazy city where they party every day. It helped out for me because I got a chance to be in the gym every day and work out and get better. Academically it was good for me, too,” says Walker, who proved how much work he put in on the classroom side by graduating with a degree in Sociology in just three years. “I never really came home, either. I thought about it, but I just felt like I had so much to work on. Even in the summer, when there’s definitely nothing to do and nobody around but athletes, I just stayed, took classes and worked out.”
Walker was a super-sub as a frosh, appearing in every game and averaging 8.9 ppg and 2.9 apg as the Huskies reached the Final Four. He was better as a soph, but UConn struggled and he put plans to turn pro on hold one more year.
Then came the aforementioned ’10-11 season. While UConn didn’t always look like a title contender in the beastly Big East, Kemba ran neck and neck with BYU’s Jimmer Fredette all season as the individual story of the year. He was the top player in the early season after dominating the Maui Invitational, and then, of course, he had as Mad a March as a player can have. To reach the Final Four, Kemba and UConn knocked off Williams and Arizona in a 65-63 thriller. “He’s an animal on the court,” says Williams. “You can see the fire in his eyes as soon as the game starts. That game in the Elite Eight could have gone either way, but he would not let his team lose. I give him a lot of credit as an opponent and I’m excited to be on his team with Under Armour.”
Echoes UA’s Drew, “He’s a beast on the court. I look forward to spending time with him and making a shoe that reflects who he is. We’ll start in the Bronx and go from there.”
As our day with Kemba winds down and everyone is slowly packing up in front of Rice, a crew of kids walks by on the other side of the street. Unlike our elderly friend this morning, these guys need no help figuring out who the star is. “Yo Kemba! You a beast!”
Kemba smiles sheepishly and offers a wave.
Picture those same kids in a year rocking the Micro G Jukes Walker will have worn all season and talking about how his 10 ppg and 6 apg or so helped Kemba start in the Rookie Game and Charlotte make the Playoffs, and Kemba won’t be the only one wearing a sheepish smile.