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The NBA
Jackie MacMullan
April 26, 1999
No RespectAntoine Walker can't get a break in Boston
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April 26, 1999

The Nba

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SI RATING

RANK AMONG ALL PLAYERS

1. Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers

61

1

2. Alonzo Mourning, Heat

55.0

3

3. Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets

49.0

13

4. David Robinson, Spurs

44.8

15

5. Vlade Divac, Kings

43.2

19

6. Dikembe Mutombo, Hawks

41.2

23

7. Arvydas Sabonis, Blazers

36.9

35

8. Patrick Ewing, Knicks

35.3

43

9. Rik Smits, Pacers

33.8

48

10. MatfGeiger, 76ers

31.1

56

11. Shawn Bradley, Mavericks

30.7

60

12. E. Campbell, Lakers-Hornets

28.9

68

13. Kevin Willis, Raptors

28.4

71

14. Olden Polynice, Sonics

27.4

78

15. Jayson Williams, Nets

26.7

85

16. Bison Dele, Pisfons

25.9

90

17. V. Potapenko, Cavs-Celtics

25.8

92

18. Erick Dampier, Warriors

24.0

109

*SI Player Rating Formula: [2 x (3-Pts. Made + Assists + Blocks) + 1.5 x (OR + Steals) + Total Points + DR + FTM-(TOs x 2)-(Missed FTs + Missed FGs)] ÷ Games Team Has Played.

No Respect
Antoine Walker can't get a break in Boston

It was a high-percentage, routine jumper from the foul line. Too bad Boston forward Antoine Walker missed it. As soon as the ball rolled off the rim, the Fleet-Center crowd began booing the Celtics, captain. The game against Atlanta on April 14 was less than a minute old, yet already the fans wanted blood, and it was clear whose they wanted.

Before the Hawks put the finishing touches on a 77-70 win, the so-called home crowd was hooting Walker every time he touched the ball. In that atmosphere Walker, a third-year player out of Kentucky, produced one of the worst lines of his career: six points on 3-of-12 shooting with four rebounds and one assist. "I guess I'm not the kind of player these fans want," he said, near tears, following the loss.

Two nights later, on the same parquet floor, Walker banked in a difficult three-pointer with .7 of a second to play, propelling the Celtics to an 82-81 win over the Heat. The crowd, roaring with delight, gave him a standing ovation. Then last Sunday, in the first quarter of a game against the Wizards, Walker's season took another twist when he sprained his left ankle. Team officials feared he would miss the Celtics' final 10 games.

As a Boston team that had delusions of playoff grandeur fights to keep itself out of the Atlantic Division basement, Walker's injury may have a devastating effect. Before going down, though, he had become almost as infamous among Celtics fans as Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, the poster boys of the Celtics' darkest days. No other team leader in the history of this storied franchise was exalted and then condemned the way Walker has been, with sentiments often shifting from one quarter to the next.

The Celtics clearly consider Walker their star of the future, having signed him to a six-year, $71 million contract extension in January. Walker was deemed a sound investment three months ago because he's only 22 years old and can score, rebound and pass. Yet Boston fans, spoiled by decades of excellence and blinded by faith in coach Rick Pitino, have not warmed to Walker, who has never been to the playoffs and whose career record in Celtics green was 67-137 at week's end. Some parochial Bostonians despise his signature celebratory move, the wiggle, which he performs even after scoring meaningless baskets. Walker's declaration last summer that he was "a veteran All-Star" also cost him, and he did not endear himself to Celtics fans this season by reporting to camp out of shape.

What Walker's critics fail to note is that he had played extremely hard over the past month, and his once reckless shot selection had been remarkably judicious. "If I have a bad game and they boo me, that's fine," Walker said after the loss to Atlanta. "I make the big money. I'll take the blame. But if I take a shot and it doesn't go in, you're going to boo me? It's ridiculous."

No athlete could have endured the scrutiny Walker was under. His heroics against the Heat last Friday were a welcome salve for his wounds, but he understood such relief was only temporary.

The larger issue is how Walker's woes have affected his teammates, notably rookie forward Paul Pierce and second-year swingman Ron Mercer. Team sources say that Mercer, who can sign an extension with the Celtics this summer but was shopped before the trading deadline, will think long and hard before reupping. Mercer recently changed agents. He dumped David Falk—who has a cozy relationship with Pitino and handles a number of Kentucky alumni, including Walker and Celtics forward Walter McCarty—to go with Master P. Mercer also severed ties with financial adviser Puck Avare, a Pitino pal from Kentucky who is now on the Boston payroll.

Mercer says the moves were business decisions, not a declaration of independence from a controlling coach. He has spoken very little about his future, but after the Hawks game he was visibly shaken by the treatment Walker had received. "Antoine is a strong person," Mercer said. "If anyone else on the team was going through that, I don't think we could deal with it. It's so unfair to put all the blame on him."

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