CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stephen Curry was only a few podiums away. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid were elsewhere on the court and could be seen in flashes on the big screen above. Some of the biggest stars in the basketball universe were floating around. Then the chant broke out from the stands.
KEM-BA WALK-ER. KEM-BA WALK-ER
In Charlotte, Kemba Walker is as beloved as any of them. Maybe more.
Walker raised his arm and acknowledged the chanting fans with a smile. The love is mutual.
While All-Star weekend in Charlotte has been a triumphant homecoming for Stephen Curry and a celebration of the Curry family — who Commissioner Adam Silver called the “first family of Charlotte” — there also is love for the slightly undersized point guard who was drafted by Charlotte, adopted the town, and has become its biggest NBA star and ambassador.
“The fan support has been A1, which is how it is each and every day for me,” Walker said. “For the fans, I’m happy they have this opportunity, I’m happy we got this event here. I think we deserved it.”
Walker, a three-time All-Star, said he and the city have been taking in everything around All-Star weekend — the concerts, parties, pop-up stores and more — and savoring it. Walker competed in Saturday night’s Three-Point Contest (although it was not his best outing). He admitted to being tired because of the fast pace of everything in a city that usually moves a little bit slower, but that and a little more traffic were his only complaints. And minor ones at that.
“I’m just happy to be home, honestly,” Walker said. “Excited to welcome people into the city — I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback about the city. Like today, a lot of guys have been telling me it’s their first time in Charlotte, they didn’t know how cool it was, so I was really excited to hear that.”
Walker grew up in a very different world, the Bronx in New York. However, his story of not having a lot of money — spending his days after school at the Boys and Girls Club — and having to work hard has resonated with the city and its residents.
So has his loyalty. Walker has not tried to push his way out the door despite the franchise not putting players around him who can win consistently. (Walker is a free agent this summer and will have options, although the Hornets want to re-sign him and will break the bank to do so, and Walker has professed his love for the city and sounded like a guy who wants to re-sign.)
This season’s Charlotte team is a good example of what Walker faces. It feels like Walker against the world — the team is 6.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits, mostly because the offense falls apart. The team’s second best player is Jeremy Lamb. Or maybe Cody Zeller. Walker has pushed Charlotte to a 27-30 record this season, good enough for seventh in the East at the All-Star break, but just half a game ahead on nine-seed Miami and one up on surging Orlando. Charlotte also has the toughest remaining schedule in the East over its final 25 games, and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 45 percent chance to make the playoffs.
“Hopefully my teammates are getting some rest now, because when this weekend is over we need to make a strong, strong push,” Walker said of the team’s playoff drive. “We have a pretty tough schedule.”
But that’s for next week.
For the remainder of this weekend, Walker — and his mother — are around and just trying to soak it all in. He admitted it’s been surreal to be named an All-Star starter the season the game is in Charlotte, and he wants to make sure those fans who love him and chant his name get a show.
“I’m going to enjoy it, but I’m definitely going to go out there and compete and try to get a win,” Walker said. “Put on a show for the fans.”