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About That Shimmying Fella

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A Daily Babble Production

As was demonstrated by the reaction to Jeff's post on Monday, the closeness of the vote about whether to bring the player back and the ensuing buzz in the forums, it is clear that Antoine Walker's name still strikes a nerve with Celtics fans.

Here at Babble Headquarters, I've been musing for the past week about the man once known as Employee #8 (and briefly Employee #88), and it has become easy to understand why the site-wide poll here about signing the newly waived free agent had only a five-vote difference out of 1,569 members surveyed.  Just like our community on the whole, I seem to be stuck in the middle.  My head and heart are sprinting in opposite directions on this one.

The cranium wants no part of this.

The Celtics have some needs, and they are the type of needs that could be solved by obtaining Dikembe Mutombo, P.J. Brown or perhaps Joe Smith (or some other defense-oriented veteran big man if one should become available).  Some help on the wing probably wouldn't hurt either, though the TA-Scal combination remains an intriguing work in progress.  Not listed is an opening for an out-of-shape swingman in a power forward's body whose production (both per game and per-minute) has fallen off notably since he last played in Boston in 2005.

The rational voice within me maintains that another player with Walker's skill set and style of play but without Antoine Walker's Celtics pedigree would never even be considered for this team.  Bringing that type of player up around here as a potential Celtic would be laughable.  A terribly inefficient scorer, a guy who can't naturally play the five and who was never that thrilled with the idea of playing inside (so he might not be all that helpful defensively) isn't the sort of player the Celtics seek these days.  Plus, as a four who plays like he thinks he is a two or three, where would Walker fit into the rotation?   Whose minutes would be cut?  How would he affect the top-ranked defense?  HIs passing vision may still be with him, and his ability to score in bunches from time to time could both be assets for the second unit, but it's hard to imagine them outweighing the litany of problems and question marks associated with bringing him in.

So for the part of me that resides above neck level, that should be it.  This isn't the type of player the Celtics need.  He doesn't even earn himself the courtesy of a cursory discussion if his name isn't Antoine Walker.  Case closed.

But that's just the thing: His name is Antoine Walker, and this is where the heart kicks in.

For the Celtics fans who lived through any significant portion of the largely painful 22 years between championships 16 and 17, Walker stands as a major icon of those times.  This isn't Rick Pitino, who served as an atrocious coach and executive while failing to endear himself to most of the faithful on a personal level as well.  This isn't Gerald Green, a freakish athletic talent whose low basketball IQ and less than inspiring work ethic limited his best moments in green to the occasional flash of physical brilliance.  No and no, and it's a disservice to Antoine Walker's legacy in Boston to lump him in with those two.  This is the symbol of the best and worst of times in Boston - of what it meant to be a Celtic - for the decade and change before Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and company came to town.

In his first season in town, the team lost a franchise record 67 games and then missed out on Tim Duncan in the lottery.  The next season, 'Toine led the league in turnovers.  At his worst he was a petulant chucker, a kid who didn't know when to close his mouth or how to say no to any shot from anywhere inside halfcourt.  He drove Celtics fans crazy with his inefficient shooting, his apparent lack of interest in playing inside even at 6-foot-8 and his tendency to fall victim to the disease of unsupported mouthiness.  It was more of what became for a time the same old, same old in Beantown.

But for all the bad memories, it is Walker who figures as prominently as anyone in the best Celtics moments of the early portion of this decade.  On the right days, the guy could indeed score in bunches.  He could get those shot-from-Quincy-Market threes to fall, beat his man to the basket, make a spin move inside or catch a cutting teammate with a no-look pass.  He had the skills to be successful at every facet of the game. 

By the time 2001-02 came around, Walker was entering his sixth season in the league and finally growing comfortable as a leader on a young team, serving as co-captain with Paul Pierce.  While Pierce became a star on a national stage, Walker was right there to earn the spotlight with him, canning big shot after big shot (the deep three to send a December game in New York to overtime and the left-wing bank trey that beat the defending champion Lakers in LA the following February come to mind as far as the regular season is concerned). 

He was the emotional leader of a team whose whole inexplicably resulted in something light years ahead of the less-than-spectacular sum of its parts.  It may have been Pierce's emergence that pushed the Celtics to another level for their playoff runs in 2002 and 2003, but it was the ever-confident Walker who gave those overachieving teams their swagger.  I defy any Celts fan to name for me a more powerful positive image of 21st century pre-KG Celtics basketball than 'Toine repeatedly jabbing his finger and telling his teammates what was up in the huddle between the third and fourth quarters of the Celtics' game on Saturday, May 25, 2002.  That was Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.  Twelve minutes of basketball later, the Celts completed the greatest fourth quarter comeback in playoff history, erasing a 21-point deficit en route to a 94-90 victory over the Nets. 

Of his first five non-lockout seasons in Boston, Walker played less than 81 games exactly zero times.  Starting in 2000-01, Walker logged at least 41 minutes per game in three straight seasons, placing third, third and fifth in average minutes played over those three seasons.  He made three All-Star games as a Celtic and was around for every playoff win over the 21st century prior to last season.  His departures set off painful rebuilding phases not once but twice.

Through all the peaks and valleys (and there were many of the latter), Antoine Walker was truly a Celtic.  He loved wearing the green, loved electrifying the FleetCenter crowd with that shimmy-wiggle dance he would do after big shots, and he wanted so badly to be loved back by the Boston faithful.  He wore his heart on his sleeve every game and gave everything he had for the Celts.  Even The Guru, not typically a fan of players in the oversized chucker mold, constantly said that 'Toine was growing on him because no matter how suspect his decision-making was at certain times, it was clear that he always played hard, always wanted it, even if he didn't know how to get it.

He took us through the whole range of emotions and showed us what it meant to truly have a love-hate relationship with a star player.  But he stuck with us, and we stuck with him, and before his time in town was up, we had seen a remarkable change as the impulsive kid grew up into a repeat All-Star and team leader.

All that stuff mentioned in the last eight paragraphs?  It isn't easy to let go.

And that's why there is a part of me that won't allow me to pull completely away from the idea of Walker back in green.  It's a part of me that alternates between wondering if Walker could live with being on the inactive list here and dreaming of a player with something left in the tank who suddenly finds revival as a leader on the second unit of a championship team. 

Walker's comments ("I just want to play") and my head (there's no way the guy could really be all that effective in the way this team would need at this point, right?) are thisclose to convincing me that the Celtics should stay away from him.  It's my hope that Danny Ainge leads toward rational over sentimental when he makes personnel decisions as that's what tends to be best for the long-term health of the basketball team.

But there is still an image somewhere in the back of my mind of Antoine Walker celebrating with the Garden crowd and his Celtic teammates as he puts on a new NBA champions t-shirt.  Maybe he wears a suit in this dream, a relic of days of turmoil gone by now serving as an emotional leader on the bench and appreciating his chance to be back in town.  Maybe he gets a jersey and a chance at some run.  One way or the other, it's a powerful image. 

And I'd be lying if I told you it didn't mean anything to me anymore.

Thanks to Jeff and the community for giving me the impetus to stroll down memory lane this week.  Now here's hoping Doc and Danny don't quite share my visions.