On most nights, long after formal practice has ended, you’ll find Kemba Walker back in the Hornets’ training facility. He’ll return when it’s dark outside to get additional shots up, and refuses to let members of the team staff rebound for him.
Go help someone else, he’ll say. I got a routine.
It’s the same one that Hall of Famer Steve Nash used to follow. Kemba starts close to the basket and works his way back, finishing beyond the arc. He’s extra focused so he won’t have to chase misses all over the gym.
“I make 20 from corner to corner. I go to both wings, then I go to both elbows,” he explains. “Depending on what I want to work on, I make a couple moves to floaters, do one-on-one moves and try to end it off with threes—off-the-dribble or rolling the ball out to myself, trying to imitate spot ups as well.”
He’s pointing out the locations on the floor as he speaks, tracing the movements that have become seared in his brain. That this gym is the site of our cover shoot is especially fitting, given how much of his personal time Walker spends here. It’s a Monday morning in early December and Charlotte is recovering from a rare winter storm. By now, most of the snow has melted into puddles of brown slush. Restaurants and stores in the downtown area are finally re-opening. The periodic sounds of leaf blowers clearing debris and trains passing by suggest a return to normalcy.
And Walker is back in the gym, where he begins to reminisce on the path that brought him from the Soundview Houses of the Bronx to this city in the South. It’s hard for him to fathom, but a kid who once dreamed of making it to the NBA is now an all-time franchise leading scorer. Only a few days prior, he stood at the free-throw line on the Spectrum Center court as chants of “MVP” rained down.
Walker struggles to find the words to describe what it means to him.
Incredible. Crazy. Unbelievable. Special.
He’s become one of the best guards in the world and will be the face of the upcoming All-Star Weekend in Charlotte. As of this writing, he’s averaging 24.7 points and 5.6 assists per game and ranks fifth in the NBA in total three-pointers made. The 60-piece he hung on the 76ers in November is the second highest mark for any player this season, and he’s dropped 35 or more on seven different occasions. At this point, he makes it look easy.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
Thinking back on all those who doubted this was possible, Walker can’t help but have a deeper appreciation for the journey.
“I never really cared what other people said,” he tells us. “I was always just like, why?”
Like why did they bother to criticize you?
“Nah—like why can’t I do this stuff they’re saying I can’t do?”
Before basketball came around, Kemba Walker was a dancer. In the fifth grade, he even got a chance to perform at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY.
“We had a teacher who fed us routines and stuff like that,” Walker says. “We just had to memorize it and go out there and do it.”
His father, Paul, believes this background helped to shape his game. Kemba is generously listed at 6-1 and relies heavily on his shiftiness, creativity and footwork to thrive. He studied clips of Tim Hardaway Sr during his childhood, taking note of how the undersized guard asserted himself and striving to emulate his killer crossover.
The handle, of course, is one way in which Walker compensates for his lack of height. The mentality is another. Everything he gets, he grinds for. He has a silent, fiercely competitive edge that’s been present forever. His AAU team, the New York Gauchos, once traveled all the way to Arizona where Kemba would face off against the No. 1 high school prospect in the country: Brandon Jennings.
At that time, Walker had been establishing himself as one of the premier guards in his class as well, flourishing against other highly-ranked guys such as Iman Shumpert, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday. He hadn’t gotten the opportunity, however, to take on Jennings. The Gauchos travelled more than 2,000 miles to Tucson and were the only East coast squad to enter the Cactus Classic tournament, knowing it was likely that Walker would get his chance against the best.
“Kemba is a real humble dude, so he’s not going to say, Oh, I want to play this guy. I want to play that guy,” explains Dorvell Carter, a teammate on the Gauchos who’s still close to Walker. “But deep down inside, we know Kemba. Everybody knew he wanted that matchup.”
Jennings and Walker, both rising seniors, eventually squared off in the championship. Kemba delivered with 24 points to lead the Gauchos to a win over Belmont Shore—a team that also featured future NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan—and was named MVP.
Scouts in attendance were taken aback. Dorvell and the rest of the Gauchos weren’t. They knew—Walker was built for this stuff.
Fast forward a decade or so and he’s got the same cold-blooded demeanor. You saw it at UConn and you’re seeing it in the NBA. He’s never afraid of the big moments and will happily go to war against dudes several inches taller. He’s currently averaging the most points in clutch scenarios (the final five minutes of tight games) in the entire League.
“He wants to kill people,” says Hornets forward Frank Kaminsky. “He really does. He takes every matchup personally. He wants to win every game, every possession. He wants to make every shot. You can see that in the way he plays. He’s fiery.”
Despite the everyday intensity, Walker struggled early on in the NBA. He remembers all too well what it was like to be a rookie on a Charlotte Bobcats team that finished 7-59 in 2011-12, the lockout-shortened season. He remembers his many poor individual performances amid that stretch. He remembers calling friends and family after most losses, dejected and pissed off, to vent.
“That year was crazy,” he says. It was the nearest he’s come to rock bottom. A year earlier, he had guided the UConn Huskies to an improbable NCAA title—a run that included 11 straight victories beginning with the Big East Tournament and featuring that legendary stepback at the Garden.
The difficult transition made him question whether he would ever find success at the highest level.
“There were times when I really didn’t think I belonged in the League,” Walker admits. “I just didn’t know how far I would make it, or even how long I would be here.”
There was serious doubt about his jumper specifically, which was too inconsistent for someone touted as a scorer. He shot merely 37 percent from the field and 31 percent from deep that first season, finishing less than 50 percent of his layups as well.
Yet the skepticism—and there was plenty—only fueled Walker.
“I just had to increase my work ethic and become a better player,” he says. “For me, it was always about, I’m going to prove ’em wrong. That’s all I thought about—proving ’em wrong. They say I can’t shoot. Well alright, I’m going to get in the gym and shoot the ball and get my confidence up and learn how to be a better shooter so I can show ’em that I will be able to do it one day.”
It took time, to be sure. A lot of long nights in his second home, repeating the same drills over and over again. A lot of hard losses and more somber phone calls to his crew. He continued to have trouble in the ensuing years, upping his scoring average but faltering in terms of his percentages. The frustration came in waves but the commitment was steadfast. Even if others didn’t believe in him, Kemba was going to stick with it.
“He’s a perfectionist,” says Shabazz Napier, a teammate of Kemba’s at UConn. “He wants to perfect everything he does. He wants to be one of the greats. He wants to get after it every time. He understands that he has to have that mentality where he just continues to push and work at whatever he needs to.”
“I’ve known K since high school,” says Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who was drafted a year after Walker. “Ain’t nothing changed in terms of his personality and work ethic. He’s hungry—all day, every day. He takes pride in being exactly who he is, and that’s a dog.”
The significant, and lasting, jump came in 2015-16, when Walker averaged 20.9 points on 43 percent from the field and 37 percent from three. He’s kept his efficiency in the same ballpark since, and combined with that fearless mindset, has gradually developed into a superstar.
Yes—A certified superstar.
Even so, Walker has constantly been overlooked. When he made his first All-Star Game in 2017, many of the fans didn’t recognize him or bother to ask for an autograph. Some mistook him for Wizards point guard John Wall.
Part of that has been due to Charlotte’s struggles as a team. They’ve finished 36-46 the last two seasons, not really warranting a national audience, and had quick exits the two times they reached the playoffs with Kemba. It’s also true that a low-key, small market like the Queen City has historically not received much spotlight.
Still, there’s a reason that Kemba pushes back when you refer to this year as a “breakout” for him. Albeit not quite at this level, he’s been doing similar stuff for awhile now. You just might have been sleeping.
Things do feel different this time around—Walker will acknowledge that. More media attention has been focused on the Hornets of late, thanks to numerous absurd performances by their leader. Much of the basketball universe will convene in Charlotte for All-Star in a few weeks, marking the first time the city has hosted since 1991. Rapper Cardi B, who’s also from the Bronx, even shouted Kemba out on a song with Migos that blew up in 2018.
“My phone started going crazy when it came out,” Walker laughs. “I was feeling it. I was hype.”
Walker takes pride in the increased awareness he’s brought to Charlotte, and in how the basketball culture has blossomed during his tenure. He’s been here for nearly a third of the team’s existence, completely rewriting the record books, and has expressed a desire to stay when he hits free agency this summer.
If you stroll the halls of the Spectrum Center, you’re reminded of his significance to the organization. Banners celebrating the Hornets 30th anniversary display him next to other franchise legends: Muggsy Bogues, Dell Curry, Larry Johnson, Glen Rice, Baron Davis.
“Kemba is a big staple of the city of Charlotte. Everybody loves him,” says Muggsy, who moved back there after his career ended. “The kid is not going to back away from anything. Each year, he brings something different to the table. He’s really become so accurate behind the three-point line and the game has slowed down for him. He sees it at a whole new angle, and he’s making the guys around him better at the same time. You just have to marvel at the player that he’s becoming.”
Walker’s first All-Star Game jersey is framed on a wall in the public relations office at the arena. He has already been named a starter for this year’s event, which will take place in this very building.
“The All-Star Game definitely gave me a little extra boost,” Walker says. “I definitely want to represent my city.”
Knowing his story and the obstacles he’s overcome, it’s refreshing to see Walker getting the credit he fully deserves. Make no mistake about it—whatever attention comes, whatever accolades pile up, whatever chants ring out at the Spectrum Center, he’s earned this.
You don’t get the fiery Kemba Walker off the court. He’s all smiles and jokes, making you forget that he mercilessly dominates opponents on the regular. To remind him of a memory from his AAU days, we brought a razor scooter to our photo shoot. He and a number of his teammates on the Gauchos were prized with similar ones during a trip to Las Vegas. They rode around the Strip that week calling themselves the Scooter Boys. A 28-year-old Kemba looked just as excited to hop on the scooter now. “Can I keep this?” he asked, a big grin on his face.
“The serious guy you see on the court, he’s not like that off the court at all,” says Kaminsky. “He’s the absolute best guy to be around.”
It’s deceiving, really.
He’ll lock in for a game listening to Future’s Dirty Sprite 2. Two hours before tip-off, his phone will start buzzing. Longtime friends will wish him good luck, tell him to do his thing and stay healthy. Kemba will scroll through and like all the messages. It’s become a ritual.
I got y’all, he’ll frequently respond.
Then it’s go time. He’ll dance his way to bucket after bucket, attacking big men inside and hitting from the perimeter. Every so often, he’ll give the crowd exactly what it anxiously awaits—one of those mixtape highlights you catch on your Instagram feed later on. Crescendos of oohs and aahs will echo through the rafters, mirroring each ridiculous move. Sometimes the play will bring Hornets owner Michael Jordan, who’s sitting on the end of the bench, to his feet.
“I don’t know if I ever saw myself becoming this type of player,” he says, “thriving the way I thrive in this League.”
Charlotte hasn’t won a playoff series since 2002, and most doubt that they will this season. Which is why on most evenings, you know where to find Kemba.
To consider the future can distract from his present work. The ceiling is already higher than he—and virtually everyone else—projected. Kemba keeps a smile on his face and stays focused on what he can control—quiet nights in a peaceful gym in downtown Charlotte, just shooting. You can always get better, as he often reminds younger teammates. It’s a process.
But at the end of the road, how do you want to be remembered?
“I want my legacy to be just that every single night, I left it all on the court,” he says. “I want people to remember me like that. That regardless of how the games went, I always played hard and always played to win. And played the game for the right reason.”
The journey is far from over, and who knows where it will take Kemba Walker.
But that legacy is secure.
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Photos by Atiba Jefferson and via Getty Images.