By Rich Levine
PORTLAND, ME Antoine Walker doesn't belong here.
That was my initial and everlasting thought Thursday night as I watched the newest member of the D-League's Idaho Stampede navigate the court in front of a packed crowd of 3,045 fans at the Portland Exposition Center.
Does he deserve to be here? Yup.
Can you understand why he's here? Yup.
Considering everything that's happened over the past few years, is he lucky to even be here? Yup.
But he doesn't belong here. That much is for sure.
As he moves around, you can see the Walker that Boston once grew to love, and then hate, and then love again and then hate a little more. Essentially, there are still glimpses of 'Toine.
He's unstoppable in the post. It doesn't matter if the defender has a height advantage, or a width advantage or is far more athletic; when Walker gets the ball on the block, it's all over. He still has the little baby hook. He still has that sort of half-floater from the lane that never uses the backboard. He still has that ridiculous move where he'll be stuck underneath the hoop, surrounded by defenders with no where to go, and then release the ball from his knees, block out the opposition with his ass, and watch as the rock floats off the glass and in.
He still likes the three-ball, even though it doesn't like him. He still runs up and down the court on his tiptoes, while moving his arms in a manner better suited for a tap dancer. He's still streaky, emotional, and not what you'd call the world's most inspiring defender.
Right now, his biggest issue is conditioning, but even though he's considerably out of shape by professional basketball standards Walker scored 25 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in 33 minutes of action on Thursday night, and didn't have a very difficult time doing so. If he were in peak condition, he could have scored 50, and, considering this was only his fourth game back, you expect that conditioning will come.
But the game is still there. He's still an NBA talent. And NBA talent doesn't belong in the D-League, or at least not talent the likes of Antoine Walker which is something that may have been lost through all the Walker-related craziness of the past few years.
Over that time, he's become a punch line the new poster child for today's irresponsible athlete. He's a guy who made more than 100 million in his career, but now has nothing. And because of the absurdity of the situation not to mention Antoine's lightning rod of a personality a lot of laughing has been done at his expense. But behind all the jokes secretly lie the same basic skills that allowed him to make all that money to begin with.
The skills that took him to three All-Star games. The skills that helped him become the only Celtic in the last 30 years (other than Larry Bird) to average 20 points and 10 rebounds for a season. The skills that helped him initiate a brand new era of Celtics fans.
With all that's happened to the team, and Walker himself, it's easy to forget the impact that he had in Boston after the Celtics selected him with the sixth pick in the 1996 draft. But the impact was real. In fact, if you were born in the '80s, there's a good chance Antoine Walker was the first Celtic you ever really connected with. It could have been Reggie Lewis, but he was gone too soon. Walker was the guy. He made the Celtics cool again.
The reason is, if you're 30 or younger you probably don't remember much about the original Big 3, or, really, those powerhouse teams of the '80s in general.
That's not to say that they don't exist in your mind. You remember little things, like the fact that DJ used to dribble the ball 1,000 times before every foul shot or that whenever the other team scored a basket, Robert Parish would walk down the court with his arms up, setting the world's longest moving screen. You remember Ainge's feistiness, McHale's craftiness and Bird's general greatness, but you never really got a chance to appreciate it. It's hard at that age. You liked watching basketball, but you didn't understand it. Basically, these guys were great, but you never really knew why.
Anyway, Bird retired after the 1992 season.
In 1993, Kevin McHale hung them up, and Reggie Lewis who was about as close as you can come to being THAT guy played what would become the final game of his career.
In 1994, Robert Parish fled for Charlotte, and just like that your father's Celtics were gone. And your Celtics were a mess.
The team didn't have anyone worth trading, free agents (other than Dominique "The Human Jump Shot Reel" Wilkins) didn't want to come to Boston, and the front office couldn't draft to save their lives. In fact, starting with Bird's retirement in the summer of 1992, here's whom the Celtics selected over the next four drafts:
1992: Jon Barry (refused to play for the team)
1993: Acie Earl (wish he refused to play for the team)
1994: Eric Montross (one year after drafting a center, and one pick before the Lakers took Eddie Jones)
1995: Eric Williams (nice player, but not getting anyone excited)
That's brutal. At this point, older Celtics fans were surely frustrated, but they had just lived through one of the greatest stretches in NBA history. They had all those real memories and real championships. Younger fans had nothing.
Then, in 1996, the Celtics grabbed this kid out of Kentucky, and everything started to change. The older fans never liked Antoine much, and I guess they had their reasons. Boston isn't a city that necessarily embraces change, and Antoine, the new face of the Celtics, couldn't have been any more different than the guys who led the teams of the '80s.
But for those of us who didn't have the power of comparison, Antoine was it. He wasn't just a decent player. He was a star. You got to watch him in All-Star games, see him on the cover of magazines. He even had a commercial! He was Employee No. 8, and he made baskets!
We'd seen Dee Brown in commercials before, but that was because he dunked with his eyes closed. Walker was getting attention because he was a mega-serious talent. We'd never had that before. It was fantastic.
He was happy, devoted and energized. And even though the teams he played on were awful, he made those teams tolerable. He kept fans, especially the younger ones, alive during a time when they all could have dropped off the face of the Earth.
Then, two years later, Paul Pierce came along, and things began to change. Not because of Paul, but because of Antoine.
Early in his career, Walker had played on some of the worst teams in the league, and that allowed him to get a little crazy, take chances, and play outside of the box with limited repercussions. But with Pierce on board, the Celtics finally looked to be building something. People started taking it more seriously. Now there wasn't room for all of Walker's wackiness. Fans became frustrated, and the crazy thing is, Antoine seemed to feed off of it.
For instance, during the 1999-2000 season Pierce's second Walker shot a still-career-low 25 percent from three-point land. It drove fans (and coaches, I'm sure) nuts, but then again, he was taking only 3.5 a game, so it didn't necessarily kill the C's. Still, this was a guy who we knew could post up any forward in the league. He had all sorts of ridiculous moves on the block. And he was a great passer (when he wanted to be), to boot. And now he was wasting his time missing jump shots?
So what happened that next season? Antoine's 3.5 three-point attempts per game ballooned to 7.4 that next season, and 8.0 the season after that, and 7.5 the season after that. From 2000-2003 no one in the NBA jacked more three-pointers than Antoine, and he was only making 34 percent. Maybe he knew that this was becoming Pierce's team. Maybe he was frustrated with a decline in touches. But he acted out. He acted different. And by 2003, his connection with Boston had been severed. He was a recluse. It's not that he didn't care about winning, but he was only willing to do it his way. That, unsurprisingly, didn't line up with new GM Danny Ainge's strategy, and Walker was traded to Dallas in the summer of 2003.
The move was shocking only in that Antoine Walker was no longer a Celtic. Parting ways with him made complete sense.
Everyone cheered when he came back that next season with the Mavericks, got excited when he came back for a few months in 2005 and were a happy for him when he won the 2006 title with the Heat. But it wasn't the same. And through all that time, not too mention all the insanity of the past few years, the connection between fans and Antoine Walker "NBA All-Star" has basically disappeared.
It's hard to think back to those days in the mid-'90s when he cared so much, played so hard, didn't have any money and realized that basketball was the only outlet for him to make some. That guy barely exists.
But I saw glimpses on Thursday night in Portland.
Of course, he's much older now. But he's not that old. In fact, he's 13 months younger than Ray Allen, three months younger than KG and four years younger than Shaq. There are plenty of guys who he was drafted with Allen, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Marcus Camby and to a lesser extent, guys like Erick Dampier, Jermaine O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas who are still contributing to the league. He still has some gas left in the tank.
And now, for the first time since those first few years in the league, basketball is all he has, and basketball is the only way he can make a better life for himself. He's motivated, energized and, believe it or not, happy. He's knows he's never going to be an NBA All-Star again, but why can't he play in the NBA?
When you think about it, there are big guys called up all the time from the D-League, and I'm telling you, if Antoine Walker can get in shape, he will be the best big man down there at least as it translates to the pro game. If the right opportunity comes along, why wouldn't someone make a play at him?
If I'd read that paragraph before my trip up to Portland, I'd have thought it was a joke like all the other Antoine-related jokes you've heard over the last year. Instead, I left Portland with the feeling that barring some sort of serious injury we'll see Antoine Walker in the NBA again. Probably this season.
He's got some basketball left, and finally, all the motivation and desperation to bring it out.