Antoine Walker looked a lot like I remembered.
There was the face that almost looked like it was pouting. The far-from-sculpted arms. A little extra weight around the stomach. Yes, this do-it-all power forward, playing in the D-League now, was really Employee Number Eight. He was wearing the number 24 this time, and playing against a bunch of players I definitely didn't recognize, but he was undoubtedly Antoine Walker.
He even played like him. Walker, as he has always done, made his coaches smile (his distribution yesterday was fantastic), and frown (one three-pointer fell a yardstick short of the rim). He could handle the ball like no other big man on the floor; like few guards, really. He took too many three-pointers (of course he did; he finished 0-3), but at his best Walker was driving by slower, less creative bigs. He was finding open shooters in the corner. He was utilizing the many basketball talents God gifted to him, talents Walker has so often squandered with poor decision-making and conditioning. And yes, he also notched his first D-League technical foul.
There was one play when Walker drove to his left, then spun to his right, finishing with a whirling scoop shot off the glass. If Walker was wearing a different jersey and playing alongside Paul Pierce, I could have been convinced it was still 2002. After a year and a half away, Antoine Walker was back in the world of professional basketball. I was a little taken aback that he was so much like the Walker I remembered.
There were still differences, of course, from the 'Toine who played in Boston. Walker seemed to be in better shape than his last NBA stint, but he definitely has no shot at winning Mr. Universe. He seemed heavier than when he played for the Celtics, and even then he was no fitness guru. His athleticism, whether because of age or extra cushion (or both), has all but abandoned him. There was one play when some D-Leaguer (I won't say his name, mostly because I don't know his name) put Walker on a poster. Walker was slow off his feet, and that's only if you believe he actually got off his feet. He also looked slower laterally, even though he still proved capable of driving by his defenders. Granted, it shouldn't be too difficult for a former NBA All-Star to drive by the Walter Sharpes and Chris Johnsons of the world.
Not everything Walker displayed was bad. Not at all. He was actually, and surprisingly, quite good. The most evident positive was his attitude. Even playing among basketball vagabonds -- some of them has-beens, most of them never-was'es -- Walker maintained a level of humility. In crunch-time, Walker -- 13-year NBA veteran, three-time NBA All-Star -- deferred to Luke Jackson, he of the 37 NBA games played. There was something mature about the way Walker handled himself, something I didn't quite expect. I thought he might look down at the D-League, like it was below an established player like himself. But for one night, at least, Walker embraced his role.
There can be nothing so humbling as hitting rock bottom, and Walker looks to have acknowledged the D-League as his last chance. He helped teammates. He went wild after a late defensive stand, pumping his fist and screaming and clapping. He even passed up an open three-pointer at one point (I was shocked), in favor of a (successful) drive to the hoop. He understands that he's not just in the D-League to score 30 points, or to dominate lesser talents. He's in Idaho to prove to NBA teams that he can fit in, that he can contribute to a winning roster. NBA teams don't pluck superstars out of the D-League. They call up players who can (hopefully) help as 8th or 9th men.
Which, I suppose, brings me to the point of this entire post. Will Antoine Walker, at some point, succeed in his attempted return to the NBA?
I don't know. If he were still 24 or 25 years old, Walker would likely be called up in a heartbeat. Even rusty (as a year and a half away from competitive basketball will do to you), even as a shell of his former All-Star self, Walker was easily the most skilled big man on the floor. He affected the game in more ways than any other player. He can still score with a variety of moves, and he can still make his teammates better. His well-rounded line of 13 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal doesn't completely illustrate how Walker impacted the game. A more telling statistic was his team-leading +12, or this: the Idaho Stampede entered Walker's debut 0-7. They left it with their first win.
But this is the NBA, the best basketball league in the world, and not many teams are looking for a 34-year old who may or may not crack the regular rotation. If Walker is to make it all the way back, if he is to return to the NBA like he desires, he has more proving to do. He has to whip himself into better shape, and contribute to winning every night, and maybe -- just maybe -- he should stop airballing free throws. He should continue to prove his unselfishness and continue to bust his rump defensively, and then maybe -- just maybe -- he'll receive a phone call one day from an NBA GM.
Not everybody's like I am. Not everybody looks back on Walker's days fondly. Not everybody remembers Walker's Wiggles, his love affair with the three-point arc, his overly plump physique, his unwillingness to crash the glass at all times -- and somehow still loved when he was a Celtic.
But we should all agree on this: Walker's story is now about far more than missed three-pointers, or celebratory shimmies, or motivational speeches before the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history. It's about a man knocked down to the mat by life.
And it's about that man's attempt to stand back up.