CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Long after his playing days ended, his presence still seems everlasting and omnipresent, rising above the state that raised him and especially here in the city that worships him.
Michael Jordan remains the dominant basketball symbol in Charlotte, the jump man with legs that still soar and straddle, and that’s precisely the problem for the team he owns. Because the Hornets, mostly uninspiring on his watch, have long searched for a player compelling enough to put a different face on the franchise.
Well, for one day at least, someone else will rep the Hornets and hear the applause and win the crowd and in some ways become bigger than the boss. And when this happens, during the introductions of the starting lineup Sunday at the 68th NBA All-Star Game (8 ET, On TNT, coverage begins at 7), right in the arena that Jordan Built, Kemba Walker will execute an expression that Jordan made famous and … shrug.
“People think of the Charlotte Hornets and they think of me,” said Walker, shaking his head. “It’s kind of mind blowing to me as well.”
Getting the annual midseason showpiece awarded to Charlotte was an accomplishment for Jordan, who’s generally recognized as the game’s greatest player. Yet having one of the Hornets get voted a starting guard for Team Giannis is more gratifying for Jordan the executive and team owner. Walker serves as Jordan’s opus, one of the few decisions the Franchise Got Right, a fun-to-watch little guy who has carried the club the last few years by raising his game and shedding his flaws.
The ascent of Walker does come with fine print, however. The time left on his contract expires at season’s end and Walker, still in his prime at 28, will be free to walk to rosier pastures if he so chooses. It will take Jordan’s persuasive power, along with a chunk of money, to convince Walker that Charlotte remains the place for him.
This is Walker’s third All-Star trip, first as a starter, and he’s only the Hornets’ second All-Star since Jordan took control of the team in 2010. Charlotte couldn’t have a more ideal representative as a host. Walker is gracious, humble and friendly, easily a fan favorite because of that along with his talent, a package that reflects well on the Hornets.
“Having Kemba as an All-Star gives me great pleasure because I always believed this kid was an All-Star, and he has proven that three years in a row and this year by being a starter,” Jordan said the other day. “I always thought there was something special about this kid.”
This is a breakout season for Walker, placing him near the top shelf among guards: Career highs in scoring (24.9), rebounds (4.4) and tying his career high in assists at 5.6. He’s made himself a more efficient three-point shooter and now registers around 38 percent. Bringing quickness off the dribble and a precise step-back jumper, he has taken over games and bailed out the Hornets countless times. He dropped a career-high 60 points on the Sixers, torched the Wizards for 47, punished the Celtics with 43.
He takes 20 shots a game, eight more than the next highest Hornet, yet there’s little in Walker’s game that hints of selfishness, and he’s respected in the locker room.
“He’s just a good guy and everyone gravitates towards him,” said forward Marvin Williams. “He comes to play every night and works hard. There’s nothing not to like.”
The feeling is mutual with Walker. Born and raised in the shadow of New York City, he feels at peace in Charlotte and the slower pace and among people who keep him grounded. That’s why Charlotte is his year-round home and he recently purchased a large plot of land to build another.
“They’ve supported me through a lot of bad times; they could’ve given up on my early in my career when I was playing through my mistakes,” Walker said. “We’re not one of those teams in the playoffs every year so it could be easy to lose interest in a team or a player but it hasn’t been like that. This community, the fans, they’ve been really supportive of me.”
Suddenly, the city had an athlete big enough to share the podium with quarterback Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, a frequent presence in the front row at Spectrum Center.
“Cam and I came in the same year,” Walker said. “We were both with the same shoe company at one point. Lived in the same building when we first got here. Cam is a great dude and basketball fan. Great role model for this community. Both of us got better every season. He’s an MVP of his league and it’s been fun to watch his growth over the years. We’ve both have had huge effects on this city and it’s good to know that.”
The Hornets took Walker in ninth in the 2011 draft, a place of misery for the franchise. In 15 drafts since the Hornets were reborn in Charlotte, Walker is the only player to reach All-Star status. Others either didn’t last long or made only modest impressions: Adam Morrison, Emeka Okafor, Raymond Felton, DJ Augustin, Gerald Henderson, Michael-Kidd Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky. That’s why the Hornets have made the playoffs only three times and never made the second round.
Walker gradually sharpened his decision-making and stretched his shooting range and improved on the skills that won him a national championship at UConn.
“Michael drafted me,” Walker said. “When that happened, the first thing that went through my mind is this guy is giving me an opportunity. So I’m going to give it everything I got. That’s what I do for MJ, ever since I’ve been here, each and every night. To try to play the game the right way. Play hard. And a lot has to do with him.”
Walker’s allegiance to Jordan will be tested in July when the guard becomes a free agent. It’s a potentially complicated situation. For the past four years the Hornets had Walker at a bargain; right now he’s their sixth highest-paid player at $12 million. He’s the lowest-paid All-Star starter by $8 million.
Meanwhile, the Hornets’ salary cap is swollen with pricey players whose production hasn’t matched their salaries. As a result, the Hornets could be in a financial pickle this summer. If Walker makes All-NBA this season, he can command a five-year, $221 million “supermax” contract from the Hornets. If he’s not All-NBA, his Hornets’ money ceiling is five years and $189 million. Another team can offer $140 million over six; the hometown Knicks, among others, have cash.
If the Hornets do give Walker the max, they risk a great chance of paying the luxury tax next season, a steep price for a middle of the road, small market team.
“It will be very important to keep him,” said Muggsy Bogues, one of the original Hornets. “Hopefully they can, but it will be challenging because giving him a max and not being able to improve the team is something they’re going to be looking at. I know the priority is that he’s here. I cannot see any scenario where he’s not in a Hornets’ uniform next year.”
About his upcoming decision, Walker said: “I don’t even know yet. I just want to get to the playoffs and when the summer comes I want to make the right decision for me and my family. I’ve never been a free agent, so I don’t know what to expect yet.”
It bodes well for the Hornets that Walker never made a trade demand or expressed any public distaste for the franchise unlike Paul George and Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard, stars who became disenchanted as free agency approached. Walker would have good reason; even now the Hornets aren’t a lock for the playoffs this year and lack ample assets besides Walker to make a drastic improvement next season.
“People go through tough times that’s how I’ve taken it,” Walker said. “I always felt like I’ve grown because of it. I never let it bother me or stop me from becoming a good player. I could’ve easily done that or asked for a trade. I want to build something here. I want to try and make us one of the top teams one day. I love this place. I want to help take this organization to places it has never been.”
He has a message for any player at the All-Star Game seeking to recruit him:
“For me, I love competing. I love playing against these other players, the great players. I don’t want to go join their teams. If any want to come play on my team, I’m good with that. But I’m a competitor. Playing against these guys drives me and fuels me.
“There’s something to be said for being on a team for your whole career. Not many players have done that. Only a select few. That’s a goal to accomplish.”
Sounds like he’s receptive to staying if the money is right. Until then, there’s a city to represent, a franchise flag to carry and large spotlight awaiting Walker when the All-Star Game begins Sunday in this town. His town.
The Spectrum Center will be flush with LeBron James, Kevin Durant, the retiring Dirk Nowitizki and Dwyane Wade and of course Steph Curry, born and raised in Charlotte. There will also be a familiar face at courtside in the form of Michael Jordan. All bring bigger profiles than a certain 6-1 guard for Team Giannis.
Kemba Walker will be on his floor, though, and therefore will feel right at home. That’s a good sign for the All-Star Game today, and maybe for the Hornets tomorrow.
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