Stamford Advocate

Overjoyed arrival

Walker, ex-coaches excited about return home to join Knicks

- By David Borges

Kemba Walker is as quintessen­tially New York as thin-crust pizza, a Yankees ballcap or a subway MetroCard. Or, perhaps more accurately, an E-Z Pass — his nickname in high school.

He grew up starring on the city’s playground­s, earned his stripes at famed Rucker Park and starred with the Gauchos AAU program and at Harlem’s Rice High School, once suffering a rare loss at Madison Square Garden to a St. Benedict’s Prep team coached by a guy named Dan Hurley.

His legend grew at UConn and was forever cemented at the Garden in March, 2011, when he guided the Huskies to five wins in five nights — permanentl­y posterizin­g poor Gary McGhee with his patented stepback buzzer-beater — and a Big East tournament championsh­ip. A national championsh­ip followed a few weeks later.

Now, Walker will call Madison Square Garden home again.

Walker was formally introduced as a member of the New York Knicks during a Zoom press conference on Tuesday morning, along with his recent Celtics teammate Evan Fournier. Walker will wear uniform No. 8.

“This feeling has been like no other,” Walker said. “I’m just randomly getting goosebumps. It’s an unbelievab­le feeling to be able to come home.”

Walker noted that he came “pretty close” to signing with the Knicks in 2019. It didn’t work out, and he wound up signing a fouryear deal with the Celtics. After two seasons in Boston, he was traded to Oklahoma City in June. He agreed to a buyout with the

Thunder a few weeks ago and signed with the Knicks last week.

“I needed someone to believe in me,” he said, “and these guys do.”

Walker said he had, at times, talked to his friends and family about finishing his career with the Knicks.

“I just never saw it really ever happening,” he noted. “But now, yeah, it’s the most unreal feeling. I can’t really explain it, put it into words, how amazing this feeling is, being back home.”

The feeling is mutual. “I think it’s huge for our community,” said Moe Hicks, Walker’s coach at now-defunct Rice High. “Anytime a young man like him can come home and play in front of the community he grew up in, and people are able to see him, touch him, I think it’s always great.”

Walker said his balky knees, which caused him to miss nearly half of this past season with the Celtics, including the team’s final two playoff games in a firstround loss to Brooklyn, feel “great.” The 6-foot point guard is only a season removed from being an AllStar, and will surely be an upgrade at point for the Knicks.

But it’s not just on the floor where Walker figures to have an impact, according to Hicks.

“A lot of people in the area are crying out for role models. He’s such a great kid, such a positive person, I think it’s gonna really help this community in so many ways. And more so off the court, people getting to see that he’s a great guy. A lot of people here in the city know about him, but I think just to get a chance to physically see him, I know he’s the type of person that’s gonna be out and about in the community, it’s gonna be a win-win for the community, for sure.”

Andre LaFleur played the primary role in recruiting Walker to UConn. He remembers Walker having a great weekend with the Gauchos AAU team out in Arizona, then driving to New York City the next weekend with Jim Calhoun to see Walker.

The following weekend, Walker went on an unofficial visit to Storrs. He committed to the program in February, 2007.

“He was a better kid than he was a basketball player,” LaFleur recalled. “He was just such a great kid, wellliked by everyone in New York City — the people he played against, everyone.”

Walker will become the 60th player to play for both the Knicks and a New York City-based high school. Some, like Bernard King, Mark Jackson, Greg Anthony and Rod Strickland, thrived.

“It was electrifyi­ng for New York to see,” said Hicks, “especially when they started doing well, it was always a great thing to see.”

Many others, most notably Stephon Marbury, struggled under the weight of expectatio­ns.

“As far as added pressure, I don’t think so,” Walker stated. “As long as I’m surrounded by great people, I’ll be fine.”

LaFleur has no doubt, pointing in particular to Walker’s miraculous run in the 2011 Big East tourney.

“His calmness, his poise, his leadership, he was never rattled. I think that’s the New York City in him. So, bringing him back to the big lights … some people can’t handle it, and some people can’t. I remember over the years we brought a lot of New York City kids back. Some of them were overwhelme­d by the circumstan­ces of having family and friends at the games. Kemba never was.”

At Tuesday’s press conference (which was attended by, among others, his mother, Andrea, and rapper Fat Joe, who was sporting a Walker Knicks’ jersey) Walker reflected on the 2011 run — particular­ly his famous buzzer-beating stepback to beat Pitt in the quarterfin­als.

“It was a really dope time for me, because I had never beaten Pittsburgh in my career,” he recalled. “That was the first time. And to do it in the Garden, in front of my family and friends, one of the biggest moments in the Big East tournament ... when I hit that shot, there was an explosion in here.”

“It’s different, because for me, I’m from here,” he added. “I played here so many different times, growing up. It’s definitely going to be different now, wearing a Knick jersey. It’s gonna be better. Ten times better.”

Of course, Walker had played at MSG prior to that with UConn, as well as several times while at Rice. In January, 2008, Walker’s Rice team lost to St. Benedict’s 55-52 in a Nike Super Six Invitation­al game in front of 4,500 fans at the Garden. One of Rice’s assistants was Kimani Young, who is now associate head coach at UConn.

Needless to say, the Huskies’ program is thrilled to have Walker remaining close by.

“It’s awesome to have Kemba back in New York City,” Young said in a text. “He’s an iconic figure in our program’s history, and to have him close is awesome for all of us — our program and fan base. He’s stayed connected with our program everywhere he’s been, and being in New York only makes that connection stronger. We can’t wait to root for him as a Knick, and I’m sure he can’t wait to root for us as a Husky.”

Walker’s name is synonymous with winning in college. He helped the Huskies reach the Final Four as a freshman. He almost singlehand­edly led UConn to the Maui Invitation­al title with three incredible games as a junior, and followed that with 11 straight wins through the Big East and NCAA tournament­s to close out his career.

Walker hasn’t won big yet at the NBA level, but Hicks and LaFleur believe it’s just a matter of time.

“Absolutely,” said LaFleur, who is currently recovering from major back surgery. “He’s a big-time, big-stage player. Kemba’s a playoff guard ... If Kemba ever gets to a conference championsh­ip and beyond, you’re going to see how special he is, because that’s what he truly was built for ... When it’s money time, I don’t think there’s a better champion out there, from what he did in the college ranks.”

“I think the Knicks will benefit,” added Hicks. “New York benefits.”

Goosebumps, indeed.

 ?? Dustin Satloff / Getty Images ?? Kemba Walker laughs during his introducto­ry press conference with the Knicks on Tuesday in New York.
Dustin Satloff / Getty Images Kemba Walker laughs during his introducto­ry press conference with the Knicks on Tuesday in New York.

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