CHARLOTTE – Kemba Walker will play the most emotional game of his career at 8 p.m. tonight in Charlotte.
He has played in a national championship game. He has played in NBA playoff games. He has returned home to New York to play inside Madison Square Garden. But he has never felt anything like what he’ll feel tonight.
Walker is set to return as an opponent to Spectrum Center, where he spent the first eight years of his career playing for the Charlotte organization that he will compete against tonight. He will see employees who he developed relationships with for nearly a decade. He will reunite with his former teammates and coaches. He will presumably receive some sort of acknowledgment from Charlotte on the video board.
The point guard, who is averaging 26.0 points per game through his first six games with the Boston Celtics, admitted that tonight’s scenario, with these circumstances, is one which he has never experienced before.
“This is definitely different,” he said Thursday morning inside a private press conference room that was set up for his shootaround media availability, which is a very rare occurrence in the NBA. “Just because I’ve been here so long, played here so long, and obviously I’m on a new team now. Like, it’s just – boom! – I’m back for a game. It’s just different.”
The first difference Walker noticed upon returning is that he’s now heading into a different locker room. He joked that the only time he ever went into the visitor’s locker room at Spectrum Center was when the NBA administered random drug tests on him during his time with Charlotte. Tonight, that locker room will serve as his home before, during and after the game.
Fortunately for Walker, he has a teammate who he can lean on for advice with regard to maneuvering through tonight’s circumstances. Gordon Hayward has been there and done that.
Last season, Hayward returned to Salt Lake City for the first time as an opponent since leaving the Utah Jazz in free agency during the 2017 offseason. He told Celtics.com that he has spoken to Walker about what it feels like to return to the arena that he called home for nearly a decade.
“We’ve talked about how it is weird,” Hayward said. “It’s definitely uncomfortable at first.”
Hayward then broke it down to a human level, saying that anyone in the world would feel the same way if they experienced similar circumstances.
“I think just like with any job when you’ve been at some place for a while, then you move across the country, go to a different state, it’s just a weird feeling,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what profession it is. You’ve just got to get used to this new job and this new place that you’re at.”
Most jobs, however, don’t take place in the public eye. And most jobs don’t incorporate nearly 20,000 rabid fans who will express their feelings about you right into your eardrums.
Hayward knows that as well as anyone. Asked what he remembers most about his return to Salt Lake City, he responded, “I remember getting booed more than anything. Yeah, pretty loud boos.”
Walker is expecting the opposite reaction, as he believes he left Charlotte on amicable terms.
“Nothing but positive things, I hope,” he said of the type of crowd reaction he anticipates tonight. “I don’t think I did anything wrong.”
He went on to add, “I’ve done plenty of great things here, not just basketball. It’s bigger than basketball here, just around the community, with the fans – I always interacted with the fans, always signed autographs, always took pictures. I was always nice to everybody. So I don’t think there should be any negative reaction.”
Well, that is until Walker starts to play against the Hornets at the level he did for the Hornets for eight years. Charlotte’s fans certainly wouldn’t enjoy watching him put up 20-plus points tonight, which is exactly what Walker plans to do.
While the point guard is excited to say hello to former friends around the arena and inside the Hornets locker room, he warned not to make a mistake by thinking that he might take it easy on his former franchise.
“Don’t get it twisted,” he said bluntly. “It’ll be great, everything before the game, but I’m going to be locked in.
“I want to win. That’s one thing I want to do tonight, is win.”
That’s the type of relentless attitude and competitiveness that helped Walker to earn three All-Star appearances with the Hornets and a maximum contract with the Celtics.
It’s also the type of relentless attitude and competitiveness that will help him overcome the most emotional game of his career tonight in Charlotte.
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