The Big Leap
Less than two years ago, Kemba Walker was a college superstar. Now he’s an NBA rising star, but everything else sure is different.
by Lang Whitaker / @langwhitaker
In the beginning, there was Brook Steppe.
Well, at least there was for me. It was the winter of 1981, and I was a little kid. Still, I remember this: We drove into the Georgia Tech campus, parked somewhere along Fowler Street and worked our way to the old O’Keefe Gymnasium. We went in one side, exited the other and then went into Alexander Memorial Coliseum via the student entrance. I was obviously not a student, but I was with a Tech student, a friend of our family who volunteered to take me to a game, and because it was during winter break, the security guards basically just waved me through. Once in the stadium, we walked down the long curving hallway, turned left and walked through the portal and into the arena.
And it hit me, the whole picture, like a sledgehammer: The music of the pep band, the gleaming wood floor with gold and navy trim, the smells of popcorn and Coca-Cola. There were thousands of other people, scattered around the circular stands, wearing matching colors, standing and cheering for their team. I had seen NBA games on TV, and I’d stumbled into a few little league games at my church, but this was the first game I’d seen in person. I was immediately an addict.
This was Bobby Cremins’ first season coaching at Tech. Eventually he would recruit a slew of five-star players, from Mark Price to Stephon Marbury to Kenny Anderson, and mold Tech into a consistent regional power. But this season, still on the early side of that rebuilding process, everything for Tech revolved around Brook Steppe, a rail-thin 6-5 shooting guard who would average 18.9 ppg and be a first-round pick. On this night, Steppe scored 23. He was the best player I had ever seen up until that point, and I did not want to miss another Tech game.
I watched as many games as I could for a while, and then I scanned box scores and magazines and did my best to follow Steppe’s career as he went on to play parts of five seasons in the NBA. Eventually I ended up attending the University of Georgia, an SEC school, which meant basketball games were just something that happened in between football seasons. Sure, we got to see guys like Shandon Anderson and Carlos Strong, but other than a Sweet 16 run in 1996, there wasn’t a lot of excitement.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, I started watching the Atlanta Hawks, and once I got into the NBA, I couldn’t look back. And I never really did. For me, college basketball was a gateway drug to the NBA. I liked college basketball, but I loved the NBA. So I turned my back on the college game. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t understand the charm of college basketball. The NBA is about precision and perfection, whereas it is all the little imperfections that make college hoops so entertaining: the small stadiums, the full-court press breaks, the sloppy play, the zone defenses. Basically, everything it’s not makes it everything it is.
As you read this issue of the almighty SLAM, you’ll notice there’s a lot about college hoops. That’s partially due to timing—this issue drops during March Madness. But it’s also because as a basketball phenomenon, regardless of how you feel about different levels of basketball, March Madness is something to celebrate. And when we were looking for an NBA player who represented the best college ball has to offer, we didn’t have to look far: Kemba Walker grew up in the Bronx and went to high school in Harlem at Rice, just a few miles north of the SLAM Dome.
It was less than two calendar years ago when the 6-1 Walker led UConn on an amazing run through the Big East Tournament, winning five games in five days to take it all. UConn then rode a third seed in the West all the way to the Final Four, and knocked off Butler to win the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Walker was named the MVP and the MOP, respectively, of the two tourneys.
Since then, the 22-year-old Walker has had an eventful career: He was a Lottery pick of the Charlotte Bobcats; signed a shoe deal with Under Armour; endured a lockout that shaved off a quarter of his rookie season; endured a historically terrible season with the Bobcats; and saw his coach fired. Now he’s helping rebuild the Bobcats from the ground up.
I recall Walker’s college run, but it seems like light years ago. Yet when I ask him about his college experience, it comes back in a flash. “It actually feels like yesterday,” he says. “I remember everything about it. At the time, you don’t really know what you’ve accomplished. You hear people talk about it and stuff like that. I think now you have time, and now you start to realize what we’ve accomplished.
“While I was at UConn, my game improved a lot. I had to do so much. At first I did a lot of scoring, just a lot of playmaking. That was my job, until later in the season. It took me that time to figure it out. I started to get better as the season progressed, and it kind of took off from there.”
Walker says that the difference between college and NBA hoops is “different basketball. You know, in college you have a 35-second shot clock, and in the NBA you have a 24. So all in all, everything is much faster. And the crowds, of course. The fans are a lot more intense at times than NBA crowds. In college you have zone, and people press more in college, and you can stand in the lane for as long as you want in college, and you can’t do that in the NBA. So that’s pretty different.
“In the NBA, the guys are all a huge size,” he continues. “The margin for error is very small. When you’re open, you might be open for a split-second, and then you’re not, because guys are just coming at you so fast. It’s a different basketball game. Like I said, it’s just a lot faster.”
Walker saw that transition up close. He got dropped into his rookie season with a jolt, as the lockout chewed into the time teams would normally use to develop their younger players. After 13 games, starting point guard DJ Augustin was injured, and Kemba slid into the starting role. He would eventually start 25 of the 66 games and finish his rookie season averaging 12.1 points and 4.4 assists per game.
“It was pretty tough,” Kemba says of his rookie campaign, in which he shot 37 percent from the field. “It was hard because we came in and had to get in shape, and with that short training camp and with no summer league, we had to learn on the fly. So it was pretty tough, man. It’s a tough game, and it takes time to practice and get better.”
Charlotte finished 7-59, the worst winning percentage in the history of the NBA. Owner Michael Jordan responded by letting coach Paul Silas go and bringing in Mike Dunlap, a long-time college coach who had just two years of NBA experience on his résumé. It was seen as a polarizing hire. Were the Bobcats trying to save money or think outside the box? The thinking was that these Bobcats had a lot of learning to do and a coach with teaching experience would be the right fit.
Through 66 games this season, it looks like a pretty good fit. The Bobcats started the season 7-5, and though they endured an 18-game losing streak, they are now 14-52, certainly ahead of their ’11-12 pace. Walker has assumed the centerpiece role the team so desperately needed, leading the squad in mpg, ppg, apg, spg…just about everything he can lead them in.
“We haven’t been winning as much as we want to,” Walker says. “It’s still been a great experience and we’ve learned a lot. But we’re still working, we’re still trying to win games, still trying to become a team.”
But certainly this team is better than the Bobcats team we saw a season ago?
“No question. We’re a lot better. Last year we didn’t even have the opportunity to win this many games. This year we’re in games but just having a tough time closing out. But that will come, in time. This year we’re trying to gamble, playing hard, playing with intensity.”
This season, Kemba says, “I’m just trying to be more of a leader. That’s the next step, being more vocal. It’s just growing, getting to know your teammates better. Knowing when you can speak and small things like that.” It perhaps speaks to his leadership potential that Walker has chosen to focus on improving a part of his game that cannot simply be bettered by reps or drills, but by abstract traits like character and confidence.
The list of college stars who’ve had shining moments, in March or not, and then were unable to transition to the next level is too long to get into here. The shorter, more exclusive list is of the players who figured out how to translate their game from college to the highest level. For some, college is where they will be seen and dominate. Kemba Walker found his way from college to the pros and looks to be the rare player we end up remembering for his success at every level.
But maybe that doesn’t even matter. That Brook Steppe had one very good early season game against a non-ACC opponent does not lessen the impact of the experience I had watching that game, and it does not make my basketball fandom any less valid than that of a kid who’s first game was watching Kemba Walker put up 25 and 11 against the Knicks.
As I am writing this story, I’m watching UNC and Duke play each other on ESPN, for the 325th time in this rivalry. Just to the right of my TV, my son, who is all of 11 weeks old, is sleeping soundly in his swing. I look back and forth between the boy and the ball, and I can’t wait until the one day when I can introduce them to each other. On that day, my son will have his “In the beginning…” moment, too. Maybe it’ll be college hoops, maybe it will be the NBA. What I’ve grown to realize is that it doesn’t really matter. College? NBA? It’s as much about the journey as the destination. It’s all different, but it’s all the same.