Kemba Walker is, arguably, the NBA star who’d make the best dinner guest.
He’s not a paparazzi magnet like a top-flight superstar. And at a trim 5’11”, you wouldn’t have to compensate your seating set-up. He’d probably make casual conversation with your dad, flash his million-dollar smile, and win over the room in a matter of minutes.
He’d probably talk about his charity work throughout his time in Charlotte. He’d discuss his upbringing in The Bronx. And, yes, he’d probably recount the shot against Pitt if you asked enough times. For dessert, Kemba would probably even compliment your key lime pie, and you’d blush and say that it’s an old family recipe, even if it came off the internet a few hours before.
For eight years, the Charlotte Hornets have been privileged to have Kemba at their dinner table. But finally, after much fanfare, the clock has struck midnight and Kemba really must be getting home.
Today is a tough day, but it’s in no way a sad one. Charlotte has had its share of NBA stars (like 90s icons Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, and Alonzo Mourning), but none of them stayed at the table as long as Kemba. Over his eight years, he set franchise record after franchise record, finishing with 12,009 points on 9,962 field goal attempts in 20,607 minutes.
But above the counting stats and record book re-writings, Kemba brought something to Charlotte that otherwise wouldn’t have come within a country mile of the franchise: hope. Whether it was on a yearly or nightly basis, Kemba sparked the imaginations Hornets fans everywhere. In our minds, Kemba could go toe-to-toe with any other star in the league, if only for a few hours. It was enough to keep our stupid selves engaged game-after-game.
But what does it mean when that’s the only hope you have?
Watching Kemba Walker play is a unique experience. Other NBA stars are League Pass Alerts waiting to happen, sure, but few do it in the same way.
LeBron James, even late in his career, is a crashing wave of muscles and fury on the way to the rim, over and over again. Kawhi Leonard is a Swiss army knife of jabs, cuts, and moves that slice open a defense on the outside, then inside, then in the midrange, then inside again. And Stephen Curry feels guided by a supernatural force, as angels or demons (depending on your relationship to Curry) unseeable to the human eye guide the ball to its final, merciful home, the basket.
But Kemba’s outbursts are unique in their impossibility.
The average NBA point guard stands between 6’2” and 6’3” and grows every year. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, considered by many as one of the league’s brightest young playmakers, stands at a cool 6’6”. And while the NBA’s average height has stayed at 6’7” since 1987, the league has become increasingly hostile to shorter players.
With the evolution of longer defenders and switching defenses, small point guards are engulfed on offense and hunted on defense. Look no further than the career arc of Isaiah Thomas, who went from an All-NBA performer to one of the least valuable players in the league the second he lost his devastating first step.
But in spite of his height disadvantage, Kemba grew into his game in the NBA, becoming one of the league’s most versatile offensive performers. His playmaking? Sensational. His shooting? Electrifying. His handles? Legendary.
On his best nights, Kemba became a liquid, slipping and splashing his way to the basket while befuddled defenders flailed hopelessly in his wake. He could be dribbling the ball toward a defender only for a rift to erupt from the space-time continuum, dumping Kemba on the other side of his man. His understanding of his body and space ultimately reduced opponents to the role of Doctor Robotnik, sending more and more mechanical behemoths at our hero, watching in horror as they could do nothing to protect them.
But Kemba’s story is impossible to tell without detailing the Charlotte basketball franchise’s complete mismanagement of everything surrounding him.
While it’s too early to judge rookie PJ Washington or rising sophomore Miles Bridges, every other Hornets first round pick in the Kemba era has underperformed their draft slot. Malik Monk. Frank Kaminsky. Noah Vonleh. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Even Cody Zeller, the best of the bunch, is no more than a perfectly fine NBA player.
Some misses were understandable. Who are you grilling the Hornets for not taking in the Vonleh draft? Zach LaVine? Dario Saric? TJ Warren? Jusef Nurkic and Gary Harris were taken seven and ten picks later, respectively, but no one was going to take those guys at 9. Zeller could’ve been CJ McCollum or Steven Adams, but again, those guys were not top 5 prospects.
Other misses were, fairly or unfairly, franchise-changingly poor. The Hornets celebrated losing the Anthony Davis lottery by picking Kidd-Gilchrist over Bradley Beal, who could’ve been the off-ball shooter and playmaker Kemba has always missed. Donovan Mitchell, a shot creator and bulldog defender that could’ve formed a 1–2 with Kemba for the rest of his career, was taken two spots behind Monk. And five picks after the Kings selected Malachi Richardson with the pick the Hornets traded for Marco Belinelli, the Raptors selected Pascal Siakam. And don’t get me started on the 2012 second round, where Charlotte passed up Draymond Green, Khris Middleton, Jae Crowder, Will Barton, and Mike Scott to take Jeff Taylor at pick 31.
It wouldn’t be a Hornets draft rant without addressing the approximately 500 Boston picks Charlotte turned down to take Frank Kaminsky in 2015. It’s appropriate, then, that Kemba is leaving Charlotte for the Celtics, who used those draft picks to construct a team that players actually want to play for.
Other teams were building battleships. The Hornets were building buoys: never going anywhere, barely staying afloat.
Basketball fans love asking questions for the sake of asking questions, but this one holds the key to Kemba’s departure: Who are Kemba’s two best teammates in his Charlotte career?
Number one is clearly Al Jefferson, who signed with the Bobcats in 2013. Big Al averaged 21 and 10 in 2013/14, lifting a bad roster to the playoffs. Was it a 7th seed that got swept by LeBron James’ final Heat team in the first round? Yup! But the Bobcats were a special kind of pitiful, so Al gets the top spot.
Then, it’s a circus. Zeller? Nic Batum? Mo Williams averaged 17.2 PPG over 27 games in 2015! Marvin Williams was arguably Kemba’s steadiest teammate. Jeremy Lin helped Kemba develop as an off-ball presence, which is one of his most sought-after skills. And Lance Stephenson was one of the biggest free agency signings. Is it Kidd-Gilchrist? Lamb? Or gulp Dwight Howard?
Charlotte isn’t a free agency destination, sure, but the Hornets could’ve done a hell of a lot more to put pieces around Kemba. This year’s loss in the Marc Gasol sweepstakes basically summarizes the front office experience during the Kemba era. Charlotte was on the brink of finally giving the fan base a non-Kemba thing to rally around… and couldn’t make it happen. Instead, Gasol goes to Toronto and wins a championship. As these things go.
And more than anything, the Hornets organization has a special way of taking a bad situation and wringing every bit of hope from it. Take, for my money, the saddest transaction chain in recent NBA history for reference. In February 2017, the Hornets packaged Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes for Miles Plumlee. After a horrible 13 games with the Hornets, he was shipped to Atlanta for the beefy shoulders of late-career Howard. He only lasted a season in Charlotte, getting flipped in 2018 for Timofey Mozgov, who was flipped once more a day later for Bismack Biyombo.
Hibbert. Hawes. Plumlee. Howard. Mozgov. Biyombo. My stomach hurts.
Though, this might not even be the saddest Biyombo-related teambuilding anecdote. On Kemba’s draft night, the Hornets entered a 3-team trade with the Kings and Bucks, turning Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston, and the 19th pick in the draft into the 7th pick (Biyombo) and Corey Maggette.
That 19th pick? Tobias Harris.
The point is this: today is Kemba Hudley Walker’s 2939th day as an NBA basketball player. And for every second of that time, he has been the most exciting part of the Charlotte basketball franchise.
From a promising yet undisciplined chucker on the worst team in NBA history to the glowing example of what it means to be an NBA star in 2019, Kemba has shown as much growth as anyone in the league. Today, Kemba departs North Carolina as the best possible basketball player and person he could be, in spite of horrible mismanagement of almost everything around him.
He was, above all else, the star Charlotte didn’t deserve.
And as we push in the chairs and put the dishes in the sink, it’s hard to feel anything but joy. We only get a finite number of hours in this world, and I’m glad I got to spend so many of mine sat in front of my laptop watching Kemba Walker play basketball for the Charlotte Hornets.
It’s tough knowing that I’ll likely never get to see that again. Random Wednesday nights will never have the same spark. But what I keep coming back to is that Kemba is making a decision that makes him happy.
And that, in the end, makes me the most excited of all.