For once, someone on the floor had a name on the back of their jersey that took up as much real estate as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s.
It was his cousin, Pelican rookie point guard, Nickeil Alexander-Walker. If the names on the jerseys didn’t give the relation away, their similar build, high-top hairstyles and bright red shoes of choice would have done the trick.
For the first time as NBA players, Alexander-Walker and Gilgeous-Alexander faced off against each other on Saturday when the Thunder took on the Pelicans in Chesapeake Energy Arena. A moment the duo envisioned as kids growing up 40 miles apart in Canada.
“It was a surreal moment,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “Something we dreamed about obviously our whole lives and for us to actually live it out is crazy.”
Growing up, Gilgeous-Alexander lived in Hamilton, Ontario while Alexander-Walker lived in Toronto. Although they were separated by a 40-minute car ride, the cousins were more like brothers. Gilgeous-Alexander’s dad and Alexander-Walker’s uncle, Vaughn Alexander, played a massive role in his life. While his mother worked two jobs as a single parent, it was Vaughn Alexander who served as a father figure in Alexander-Walker’s life.
“I’m really fortunate to have him in my life growing up,” said Alexander-Walker. “Having him around and having Shai and his little brother around made me feel almost as if I was one of them.”
As kids, the pair would spend weekends playing whatever sport they could get their hands on whether it was soccer, football or even playing baseball with an old tennis ball. By the time they were in high-school, Gilgeous-Alexander and Alexander-Walker had become noticeably high-level basketball players. So good in fact, that Gilgeous-Alexander made the move to Chattanooga, Tennessee to play at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy. Not long after, Alexander-Walker made the decision to relocate with his cousin.
“To have him there would make life a lot easier so I just thought it would be better for me to go there,” said Alexander-Walker.
The relationship they had as kids still continues as the two grew into professionals in the league. Even despite the 700 miles that separates them between Oklahoma City and New Orleans, they talk almost every day, and most of the time, it’s not about basketball.
“We grew up playing so much, we need time away from it,” said Alexander-Walker. “We’ve always been each other outlets away from that because we have the same interests as well which makes things a lot easier.”
When Alexander-Walker checked into the game on Saturday with just over three minutes left to go in the first quarter, who else better to check him than his cousin who knew him better than anyone else on the floor and who had been a part of his development as a player since he was just a young kid living in Ontario.
“I know his tendencies, he knows mine, we’ve played together all our lives, so it was a cool moment,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. For that reason, each time they were on the floor together, the pair would guard each other. Both have the same explosiveness and craftiness to get to the rim and at times used the same recognizable moves. Between a scoop layup attempt from Alexander-Walker and a swift in-and-out dribble to attack the lane used by both cousins, it was clear the duo had spent years in the same gym constructing their game together. Although Gilgeous-Alexander finished with a game-high 23 points and the Pelicans’ Rookie, Alexander-Walker tallied four points in just under eight minutes of playing time, it won’t be the final stats that these two remember from Saturday’s game.
Postgame, Gilgeous-Alexander made a bee line to the Pelicans bench to meet his cousin. After a brief embrace and a few words, the pair exchanged jerseys. Smiling in front of a crowd of cameras, the Ontario natives proudly commemorated the dreamlike moment they could only imagine as kids when they were recreating top 10 plays on a Fisher Price hoop in Canada.
“It doesn’t really feel real,” said Alexander-Walker. “It’s almost like I’m at a loss of words.”