My Sportsman: Kemba Walker
UConn reeled off 11 straight wins in elimination games to take the NCAA title
Walker scored 130 points in the Big East tournament and 141 in the Big Dance
All the focus on Walker's offensive heroics obscured his total value
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 5. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
So miserably sick was I during this year's Big East tournament that despite living only a 30-minute subway ride from Madison Square Garden and being on the credential list, all I could do was view it horizontally, from my couch. I say this not for sympathy, but just to establish the state in which I processed the heroics of Kemba Walker -- that five-wins-in-five-days tour de force in which he elevated UConn from a Big East nine-seed to an NCAA tournament three-seed. In my feverish condition, watching telecasts of an event I had covered in person for the previous four seasons, it did not transmit as entirely real. (Were Gary McGhee's ankles really broken?) I figured that once I came to, the magic would expire, and in the NCAA tournament, someone else would be the story.
It's not entirely clear why, but in retrospect, the college basketball community (myself included) kept trying to make this past season about someone other than Kemba. Last November, he averaged 30 points per game in the Maui Invitational and led the then-unranked Huskies to upsets of Michigan State and Kentucky ... but there was still skepticism around the notion of Kemba as a Naismith/Wooden Award favorite and UConn as a contender. By midseason, the country was fixated on Ohio State's Jared Sullinger as the Player of the Year. (In the one-and-done era, we are suckers for elite freshmen.) The Huskies stumbled during their Big East schedule, finishing 9-9, and by February, Jimmermania had gone national. No one could resist The Jimmer, and Kemba was but a memory from Maui. He wasn't even an unanimous pick for first team All-Big East.
What Kemba did, after that, is now legend: He put a young UConn team on his back and reeled off 11 straight wins in elimination games to take the NCAA title. No one, as SI's Tim Layden wrote, had carried a team like that since Danny Manning did it for Kansas in 1988. Kemba scored 130 points in the Big East tournament and 141 in the NCAAs -- and when SI did an exhaustive study of UConn's defense for a recent feature, it was revealed that Kemba was actually its most valuable defender over the final 20 games. It's very possible that all the focus on Kemba's offensive heroics obscured his total value, and that it was much greater than Fredette's one-sided contribution.
"I always felt like there were other guys who scored," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "Jimmer scored, but Kemba was the total package, he could score, get seven or eight rebounds, disrupt on defense, was sound as heck with the ball, got to the foul line at crucial times. And he led his team. It was a magical season, but when you say 965 points, you aren't even getting close to what he meant to us."
The case for Kemba-as-Sportsman, as Calhoun says, goes deeper than scoring. Consider the circumstances that preceded Kemba's junior season: He was a much-hyped recruit from New York City (nickname: EZ-Pass) who had a glaring flaw in his game -- an unreliable perimeter shot -- and was in danger of never fixing it. He had never been the focal point of a UConn team, or even a UConn backcourt, waiting behind A.J. Price as a freshman and Jerome Dyson as a sophomore. The Huskies were dealing with the specter of NCAA sanctions from the Nate Miles scandal, and Kemba was the de facto leader of a team that was so inexperienced, he was the only one who'd already played in an NCAA tournament game. He was not expected to do all that much.
But Kemba would accomplish plenty. He fixed his shot and became a lethal scorer who could hit threes and destroy defenders off the dribble. He became one of the great leaders in UConn history, setting an example for the baby Huskies with his work ethic, and bringing them along on an unlikely championship ride. He was the college game's most graceful star, a joy to watch when a game was on the line. He also had the foresight to accelerate his academic courseload so that he could graduate in three years. When he was selected No. 9 overall in this June's NBA Draft, he turned pro with a degree. That's all he did as a junior.
It took me until the Final Four to finally see the Huskies in person in the postseason. When I was on the court at Houston's Reliant Stadium shortly after they'd cut down the nets, someone from their contingent chided me for showing up so late to the story. "I was sick," I said, apologizing. "I wanted to be there." Only when it was all over, could I see it clearly: this was the Year of Kemba.