by Steve Weinman, NBA D-League.com
That Antoine Walker remains an icon of my early days of basketball fandom may speak more to the perils of growing up a Celtics fan in New York during the longest championship drought in team history than anything else. But Walker also serves as a reminder of the delightful irrationality that comes with the territory of being a fan.
Walker shot without conscience and epitomized the concept of a volume scorer whose points were hollow because of the number of shots they required. Here was a man who finished in the league’s top 10 in field goal attempts six times and led the league in three-pointers taken three times despite shooting considerably below the league averages from the floor (41.4 raw field goal percentage for his career) and three-point range (32.5 percent). He frequently made befuddling decisions with the ball in his hands, making my dad grouse about what had become of the glorious franchise which he had witnessed win 16 championships in another lifetime. Perhaps he frustrated us most because of the way he could tantalize with his talent: He would go to the post for a play and zip a one-hand pass across the floor to get a teammate an open look. Or he would spin hard to the bucket and finish with his left hand. We would watch those flashes and wonder what would happen if he could commit to the interior and spend less time flinging, only to have him make us shake our heads a moment later with three more attempts from surrounding zip codes.
But he made us love him also. In an era of misery for Celtics fans – Walker’s rookie year marked the second of six straight losing seasons devoid of playoff appearances – ‘Toine brought an energy for the game that manifested itself in his level of effort and presence on the court. Some of that energy may have been misguided, but Walker was literally always there. Of his first 10 non-lockout NBA seasons, Walker played less than 77 games zero times, leading the league in total minutes once and logging more than 40 minutes per night three times. His occasional big shots and exaggerated shimmy dances thereafter provided what little flair for the dramatic and swagger the Celtics had. While he went through rough patches with the coaches, with the team, with Celtics fans, he always played hard and was always a threat to do something…interesting, at the absolute minimum. Or to pour in 30-plus points, which he did 60 times as a Celtic.
Love him or hate him, Walker, along with co-captain Paul Pierce, was the heart and soul of those turn-of-the-century Celtics teams. For those who saw Russell and Cousy and Hondo, Bird and McHale and Chief, perhaps that meant only so much. For someone who was 13 years old when the Celtics went to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002 and qualified as “good” for the first time in memory, it meant everything.
Three Walker moments from that 2001-02 season remain indelibly imprinted in my mind:
1. December 11, 2001: I didn’t obtain access to the MSG or YES networks until 2004, and the Celtics had been so bad in recent years that they rarely appeared on national television. Often, the closest I could get to the Celtics was listening on the radio when they played the Knicks or Nets. On a Tuesday night in eighth grade, I spent nearly three hours sitting in my room glued to WFAN 660 for the Celtics’ visit to Madison Square Garden. No multi-tasking. Nothing but taking in the sounds of a seesaw battle that the host Knicks appeared poised to take until, with less than 10 seconds to play, Walker caught an inbounds pass a couple of steps beyond the arc and canned the game-tying trey, the final of his six threes on a 42-point, 9-rebound, 9-assist night. The Celtics dominated in overtime, holding the Knicks to four points en route to a nine-point win. I didn’t see the play until SportsCenter the next morning, but I went to sleep a happy kid and never forgot about that game.
2. February 19, 2002: Well, for me, it was February 20. Battling a nasty bout of the flu, I remember wandering into my parents’ room early Wednesday to flip on ESPN to look for highlights of Celtics-Lakers the night before. Little did I know that while I sneezed my way to sleep on the East Coast, the Celtics had engaged in perhaps their most memorable game of the regular season out in LA. Spellbound, I watched a headband-clad ‘Toine (the team jumped on the “headbands for team unity” wagon at the start of a seven-game post-All-Star road swing; it’s the first I remember of Paul Pierce rocking the green headband regularly) bank in a three from the left wing with 1.2 seconds left to put the Celtics up one...only to watch Kobe Bryant take the air out of the balloon with a baseline jumper at the buzzer…only to see the refs wave off the basket and declare the Celtics victorious. Walker finished with 30 points, 14 boards and 10 assists. It was a seminal moment for a young Celtics team and an even younger fan.
3. May 25, 2002: This was The Speech In The Huddle, Walker’s shining leadership moment that needs no further explanation for Celtics fans. Down 21 points at the end of the three quarters in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Nets, Walker made an impassioned plea to his teammates on the bench. Television cameras caught a good deal of Walker’s animated display, which included him putting his finger in Pierce’s face and reaming out his teammates for the embarrassing-to-that-point effort on their home floor. Twelve minutes of basketball later, the Celtics owned the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in playoff history, a 94-90 win and a 2-1 series lead. Though it would turn out to be their final win of the season, that night remains one for the ages.
In 2003, I attended my first Celtics home playoff game, which I’ll always remember for Paul Pierce outscoring the Pacers 21-14 in the third quarter en route to turning a 12-point halftime deficit into a 10-point win. But I’ll also remember the way the Fleet erupted after ‘Toine banged the deep three-pointer to put the Celtics up 62-58 and force the Pacers to call for time.
Twenty-three months later, I went to Madison Square Garden and saw the Celtics take a 25-point beating from the Knicks. But it was hard to feel too angry with the team considering that the loss ended a run of 11 wins in 12 games, a run that began when Danny Ainge re-acquired none other than Antoine Walker from Atlanta at the trade deadline in February.
There would be plenty of other such memories as well. At least in my childhood recall, Antoine Walker embodied the expression “had his moments.”
For better or worse for the team’s basketball future, a part of me was sad to see him go for the final time after the 2005 season, and that same part of me was happy to see him get the chance to play for a champion in Miami the following year, though it was bittersweet that it didn’t come with the Celtics.
As Walker’s NBA run came to a less-than-graceful close in the seasons that followed and his personal life fell into disrepair, I felt disappointed to learn of such troubles for a man who played such a role in my salad days as a basketball aficionado.
So I write today for no other reason than to reminisce a bit and wish him well as he embarks on the next step in his basketball journey, a stop with the NBA Development League’s Idaho Stampede.
If I were a team executive, I would be wary of building around a player solely for his moments or his intangibles or any of the other gobbledygook that tends to make up the stuff of sports clichés. I don’t write any of this to posit that history should look upon ‘Toine more kindly or that stats don’t paint an accurate picture or that he could be a valuable NBA player at this point. On that last point in particular, I have no idea.
I write merely as a fan, which is of course short for fanatic, a fan who retains many childhood memories of Antoine Walker’s biggest shots, most flamboyant shimmies and the huddle rant that preceded a fourth-quarter comeback for the record books.
Regardless of how his run in the D-League plays out, I’ll always think of Antoine Walker as Employee No. 8 in green, and - blemishes and sample size issues notwithstanding - I’ll remember his finest efforts with delight.