Speedy UConn sophomore Kemba Walker emerging as natural leader
No. 13 UConn in going hands behind sophomore point guard Kemba Walker
Walker brings his New York City swagger and toughness to the court
The Huskies (3-0) take on LSU on Wednesday in the NIT semifinals at MSG
STORRS, Conn. -- The navy blue Nissan rolls inside the black gates to Storrs Memorial Cemetery and swerves onto the grass on the first Sunday evening in October. Two UConn Huskies -- Kemba Walker and Gavin Edwards -- jump out. Nine more teammates, dressed in shades of gray, red and blue stretch their legs on a stone fence.
Trainer James Doran informs the team of the day's goal. Eight runs up and down Cemetery Hill -- a ¾ mile stretch of black ribbon that splits the graveyard -- in under 35 minutes. Edwards attempts to negotiate down to six sprints in 25 minutes. Senior guard Jerome Dyson asks a manager to retrieve his inhaler across campus. Walker offers his own compromise: "How about everybody's on their own and you just run against the clock?"
"No," says Doran, who will track time on a cell phone. "We run as a team."
Forgive Walker. The New York hustler sped onto campus as a freshman backup to A.J. Price last season, barely braking long enough to notice the headstones and obelisks dotting Eagleville Road. He scored more than 20 points in two of his first three games, added four steals in his fifth, but he was also too quick for his own good (seven turnovers) in a 76-57 victory over No. 19 Wisconsin. "He needed to learn how to value a possession's worth," says UConn coach Jim Calhoun.
At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, Walker, who leads the Huskies into Wednesday's NIT semifinal against LSU, is the Big East's biggest misnomer. UConn coaches were sold on the hot knife-through-butter efficiency of his penetrations, but his perimeter play left them perplexed. "E-Z Pass", as Walker is known at Rucker Park, could blow into the lane, not even concerning himself with the initial defender. Once inside, he powered up. It was his outside shot -- foiled by a lack of confidence -- that failed him. "I just never felt comfortable," Walker says.
Three-point accuracy (27.1 percent) eluded him during last year's Final Four run. Over the summer, Calhoun and associate coach George Blaney diagnosed a structural malady in his form and did not allow him to shoot from more than 15 feet for 30 days. Higher arc is evident on threes now; he has increased his scoring to 14 points from 8.9 and improved to 44.4 percent from three-point range in UConn's 3-0 start. "If he really needs a shot, he can will it in," Calhoun says.
Walker never questioned his role as Price's understudy. The most difficult adjustment during his transition came on fastbreaks when he attempted to throw alley-oops to players like 7-2 center Hasheem Thabeet, 6-6 forward Jeff Adrien and 6-6 glider Stanley Robinson. Accustomed to four-guard sets in high school, Walker initially struggled with his accuracy. "He wasn't used to teammates flying the friendly skies like that," Calhoun said.
The Huskies also welcomed him into their kennel of attack-dog defenders. Whether with Price or former football player Dyson, Walker frustrated ballhandlers. "Jerome and Kemba are like pit bulls chasing meat," says assistant coach Pat Sellers.
Calhoun saw a chance to accelerate Walker's development in the Elite Eight win over Missouri last March. A day earlier, the coach told him "stop enjoying the ride." The Tigers would look to run, and Calhoun saw a chance for Walker to assume a greater role. In the second half, the Huskies lost their lead and Walker, who tied a career high with 23 points, told Price and senior Craig Austrie "get it together." Calhoun's back was to Walker at the time, but he turned to watch the transformation. "I thought 'Hmm, I like that,'" Calhoun said. "It was like no one ever told him he was a backup."
At Intermediate School 174 in the Bronx, Walker first learned what it was to be a substitute. He tried out for the team as a sixth grader, but coach Carl Nickerson was ready to cut him. He was a year younger than the others, but Corey Fisher, a similarly active guard, approached the coach. "I've seen him play," Fisher, now Villanova's starting guard, says he told Nickerson. "Keep him for when I leave."
Fisher was not the only one to take notice. Rice High (Harlem, N.Y.) coach Moe Hicks had heard about Walker, and saw him play the next summer. His body control impressed Hicks. "The ball would go east-west," says Hicks, "but he could position his hips to steal it and go north-south."
Getting to Rice required more than taking a bus over the Willis Avenue Bridge. Nickerson informed the family of Student Sponsor Partners -- a program that matched families with patrons willing to defray private school tuition costs. One benefactor was Arthur Black, then a 34-year-old in charge of his own wealth-management firm. "I didn't want to just help a smart kid to Harvard," Black said.
He was equally unaware that he'd be helping a Division I prospect. When he met the family for dinner at the Rice cafeteria, Black felt somewhat awkward. "I'm sure Kemba and his parents were wondering who I was," Black says.
He shifted the conversational onus. "What activities interest you?" he asked.
"I'm good at basketball," Walker said.
Black dismissed the statement as cockiness, but Walker's mom said, "No, he's really good."
For each of Walker's four years, Black's donation allowed the family's tuition contribution to be no more than $100. Black attended a few games, but realized his effect on Walker when he received a handwritten thank you note his senior year. "He needed a kick in the butt academically," said Black, who still exchanges text messages with Walker. "But you could tell his character."
Walker's legs were always his best means of ascent. He'd pushed pulse rates since dancing for dollar bills outside his family's Bronx housing project building as a toddler. His father, Paul, a construction worker from Antigua, would tell his son, "A dollar for the Bogle!" The boy, a fan of dad's Caribbean hand stands and backflips, performed the Jamaican gyrations, rolling waves down his body and shooting his arms in reverse karate chop motions.
His mother, Andrea, a homecare worker, tried to rein in his footloose tendencies. She attached a lock atop their front door to prevent her son from running wild, and the street sensation went underground to better his steps at a day-care center in his building's basement. There he quickened his paces, shuffling onto Harlem's biggest stage for Showtime at The Apollo when he was nine. He wore silky sky blue pants and a bandanna around his head. His troupe finished short of qualifying for the name-making Amateur Night. "I knew he would star," says his mother, noting his name translates to "Superior."
For all his city-wide recognition as a dancer, Walker needed to prove himself on the basketball court when he got to Rice. Edgar Sosa, now Louisville's senior point guard, started in front of him for two years, but Walker excelled in a "blocks and saves" drill during practice. Each player began with a score of negative five and earned points for blocks and steals. If a player finished with negative numbers he had to do defensive slides between the sidelines where three Master Locks sat. The player has to pick up 19 locks in 30 seconds. "Best defender I've had," says Hicks, who has been at the school 16 years.
One evening last summer, Walker returned to his neighborhood for a Watson Classic game. He was on a fast break with a two-point lead and 30 seconds left. The playground, which has an announcer who refers to him as the Prince of Zamunda (Eddie Murphy's character in Coming To America) had always welcomed him. But just past mid-court, he saw flashes from a gun to his left. It was not yet dark, but the sun was falling behind surrounding buildings. Walker sprinted opposite the gunfire. "To be honest," Walker said, "without Rice and Mr. Black, I'm not sure I make it out of the Bronx."
When Walker first visited UConn's pastoral campus four years ago, he drove past an apple orchard, open fields and questioned what life outside the city would be like. "Are those cows out there?" he asked.
Comfort has come over time. His mother frequently drives north 130 miles with her fried fish, oxtails, chicken and scallop potatoes in tow. Every two weeks or so, she brings Mike B., the only barber her son has known. "He's fierce but has a Hollywood smile," Calhoun said. "You sense he's happy with his lot in life."
Cemetery Hill can twist that grin into a grimace. At the end of the sprints, Walker, slowed by a tightening lower back, gathers his team.
"Huskies on three," Walker yells. "All hands in together."
One! Two! Three! Huskies!
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