As Kemba Walker returned to Spectrum Center on Thursday morning, he couldn’t imagine feeling anything but love.
“I’ve done great things here,” Walker said of his eight seasons with the Charlotte Hornets. “Not even basketball — it was bigger than basketball here. I always interacted with the fans, always signed autographs, always took pictures. I was nice to everybody.”
And that is just how his adopted town treated him in his return. Following a tribute video on the scoreboard, Walker received a long, warm ovation from the crowd that cheered him for eight seasons as a Hornet.
Walker signed a four-year, $141 million contract with the Boston Celtics in July. While he is thrilled to be playing for the storied franchise, he always planned to be a Hornet for life.
That changed when the Hornets’ best offer came in at around $159 million for five seasons, far less than the maximum $221 million allowed under NBA rules. In the opinion of the team’s management, there were complicating factors — the danger of the Hornets paying the league’s luxury tax, which owner Michael Jordan wouldn’t approve, and the Hornets not having reached the playoffs in any of the past three seasons.
Bottom line, the Hornets pivoted to a rebuild and Walker joined a roster with dramatically more talent to make playoff runs.
Walker wasn’t a complete stranger to the visitor’s locker room in the Hornets’ arena, but this was still weird for the franchise’s all-time scorer (12,009 points). He came by Wednesday afternoon when the Celtics had a day off in Charlotte, and Spectrum Center felt deserted like it was in the offseason, with his ex-teammates having departed from a morning practice.
“It felt kind of surreal,” Walker said. “When I was here I thought about what it would feel like (to come back with another team). I never thought it would happen. Yeah, it’s weird being in that (other) locker room now. We’d only go in there when we’d have random drug tests.”
Walker might be gone, but his tight relationships endure. Marvin Williams texted him Wednesday night to see if he needed anything. Walker maintains a group-chat with some of the younger Hornets (“I was their vet!”) after they bonded over weekly dinners last season known as “Kemba and the Avengers.”
A hoops junkie, Walker says he still finds time to watch every Hornets game. He is particularly proud of the quantum leap second-year point guard Devonte Graham has made. A second-round pick in 2019, Graham leads the Hornets in points (17.3 per game) and assists (6.7).
“He stole a couple of my moves,” Walker said of Graham, adding he isn’t all that surprised by the advancement Graham has made.
“One thing I always said about Devonte — one skill I always recognized he had — was his pace,” Walker observed, referring to Graham’s ability to run offense at varying speeds. “That’s something you don’t see in a young guys. Especially me; I didn’t have that kind of (shifting) pace. I was always kind of one speed.
“You can see he put the work in and is reading the game so well. And whenever he has his opportunities, he’s knocking his shots down. He’s a really efficient player.”
Walker said that the oddness of Thursday’s nationally televised game — “I was here for so long, and BOOM! I’m back.” — won’t distract him from this:
“If there’s one thing I want to do, it’s win tonight.”