by Franklyn Calle / @FrankieC7
As he walked in through the parking lot at around 5:00pm, a family of four yelled his name from the fire escape ladder on the second floor of a public housing project adjacent to the park. Kemba Walker smiled and waved back at them. Three stories above on the fifth floor of the same building, coming from four different windows, which appeared to be two separate apartments, were the voices of about eight kids clamoring for Walker’s attention. The 6-1 guard pointed back at each window. He wasn’t just doing so in attempt to show acknowledgement. It was more like he actually remembered them.
See, that aforementioned building, 710 Noble Avenue, that stood tall facing the basketball court on the corner of Seward and Rosedale Avenue in the Soundview section of the Bronx happens to be where Walker called home before starring at UConn and ultimately becoming Michael Jordan’s prized young starting PG. And those waving at him from the fire escape ladder and windows above aren’t just fans. They are his former neighbors. His community. His motivation.
And that newly refurbished basketball court he was walking toward wasn’t just randomly chosen by the NBA FIT program or Under Armour. It was handpicked by Walker himself — the same blacktop where he honed his skills before blowing up in the AAU circuit. The one whose playing surface wasn’t always in the safest conditions, much due to the cracks and partially uneven spots throughout. The court whose basket was also unleveled for a very long time.
But as the former NCAA National champ made his grand entrance into the Sack Wern Housing Community basketball court, the vibe was far different from the old days — especially now that one of their own had made it. The line to get inside the park wrapped around the corner. Walker was greeted by NYCHA chairman John Rhea at the entrance. Seated on the floor at halfcourt were approximately 75 kids awaiting the hometown hero, all wearing black “15 KW” t-shirts, with four empty chairs in front of them. Over 100 hundred people watched from the gate outside the park on the sidewalk. According to Under Armour, last Thursday’s court refurbishment drew the largest crowd out of any conducted in the last couple of years. As the 9th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft took his seat, he was joined by Rhea and NBA legend Nate “Tiny” Archibald on his right side.
“I want to thank everybody out here,” Walker told the crowd, many of which he spent his childhood with. “In some type of way everybody out here affected my life. God put you in my life for a reason. I known damn near everybody out here today.”
“This is for you guys. Growing up, I think everybody here knows how much this park means to me. I had wars in this park. A lot of my wars are right here, too,” said Walker, pointing at some of his childhood friends in attendance. “I killed a lot of these guys right here.”
As Walker continued to reminisce on his early days at the park, the emotions began to kick in. Although there was certainly gratitude on behalf of the attendees for his willingness to give back, he seemed to be even more grateful for the large turnout and support on this special day. “This is exciting,” said the young Bobcat. “I’m so happy to be back. So excited to see all these old faces. I really appreciate that all of you guys came out. You don’t understand how much this means to me,” he added before covering his face and bursting into tears, pausing for about 35 seconds. The quiet crowd then began to loudly cheer him on as Walker regained his composure.
“I don’t know what else to say,” he continued. “This has always been a dream of mine. Growing up, this park was always getting renovated and then always getting messed up. And for a long time, it was really messed up and I had nowhere to play. So that’s when I started going into the AAU circuit and things like that. I knew I had a chance. I always told myself that I would come back and give to my community. I grew up right here. If I were somebody else, I would be in this seat right here. I’m just lost for words right now.”
Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony was a basketball clinic that included ball handling drills, among many other exercises, for the kids in attendance. The night ended with a block party that featured food, drinks and music.
As Walker attempted to walk off the court on the Seward Avenue side, he is courted and surrounded by kids seeking autographs, photographs, a handshake or just a quick convo. Half-hour later and he is still in the same spot, as more kids (and even adults) from the area continue to arrive in hopes of meeting him. At some point, an Under Armour representative steps in, signaling to the Bronx native if he wants to be escorted out of the mayhem, but Walker shakes his head and continues to smile for his next picture.
He understood how important the day was, not just to the kids, but also to the community. “I really appreciate this, honestly,” he added before the ribbon-cuhatting. “This is big time.”
With his name imprinted on the floor, it shall now be known as The Court That Kemba Walker Rebuilt.