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UConn's Drive to Survive
April 11, 2011
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April 11, 2011

Uconn's Drive To Survive


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Walker smiled. He always smiles. "Junior year," he said. "At the gym."

That gym would be at Rice High in Harlem. "It was smaller than this room," said Calhoun, looking around the dressing area. "I saw Kemba, and I stopped looking at other point guards." Walker laughed out loud. While growing up in the Bronx, he began attracting attention at an early age—but as a dancer, not a basketball player. The son of Caribbean parents (his mom is from St. Croix, his dad from Antigua), he performed island-tinged hip-hop routines with a 13-member troupe that appeared three times on Amateur Night at Harlem's renowned Apollo Theater. "It was intense," recalls Walker. "Full house." By eighth grade, though, Walker had shifted his primary passion to basketball; judging from his animated and electrifying work throughout his junior season and into the tournament, his performance skills transferred nicely.

Walker first came to Storrs in the summer of 2008, before beginning his freshman season, looking for games. Beverly took Walker into his apartment for several weeks. "I remember two things about Kemba," says Beverly. "First of all, he was really into sneakers. He just loved Jordans. He loved talking about Jordans, more than anybody I know. But then when we went to play pickup games, he would take it inside against anybody, even [7'3"] Hasheem [Thabeet]. He was not afraid."

Walker had been playing for several years in summer leagues at Harlem's fabled Rucker Park, so he was unlikely to be fazed by competition at the college level. As a freshman he averaged 8.9 points off the bench while learning from senior A.J. Price (now a second-year guard with the Pacers) on a team that lost to Michigan State in the Final Four. Last year he started all 34 games and his scoring average jumped to 14.6, but this season he developed into a player of the year candidate, pouring in 23.7 points and entering the discussion of NBA lottery picks. The improvement is a function of his tireless efforts to transform himself from a penetrating high school point guard into a scorer who is as dangerous from 25 feet as he is in the lane.

"We've worked with him on his shot for three years," says Connecticut associate head coach George Blaney, 71. "He had too much arc on the ball, didn't hold his follow-through well enough, drifted front to back." Walker would drill with Blaney every day during the season, shooting jumpers from six feet, then eight feet, then 12, then 14, embracing mechanics and repetition. During the summer he was named to the 10-man USA Select team of college players that trained with the U.S. national team before it won a gold medal at the world championships. "You could see the change in Kemba then," says Blaney. "He was a more complete player."

Even before that Walker had begun trying to complete himself in ways that underscore the danger of painting any college basketball program—even one that will go on probation immediately after winning the national title—in broad, cynical strokes. Last spring Walker approached UConn academic counselor Felicia Crump and asked her to help him figure out how to earn his degree in sociology so that he could enter the draft this year and still graduate. Together they built a schedule that required Walker to take courses last summer in Storrs and then a full load in both the fall and the spring. "We're talking about a young man who was just an average high school student, at best, and who had always been more concerned with basketball," says Crump. "I told him, 'If you can do this, you'll leave behind a legacy that's more important than anything you do on the basketball court.'"

Walker took schoolwork with him throughout the Big East and NCAA tournaments, completing short required papers while postponing tests until after the season. He met with his campus tutor on Skype. And in his travel pack is a copy of New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden's Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, a book that Crump encouraged Walker to read as part of an independent study class on racism in sports. Before the Final Four, Crump suggested that Rhoden's book would be the first that Walker had ever made it through cover-to-cover. After the win over Kentucky, Walker confirmed this. "That's true," he said. "You can write that. It is the first book I've ever read."

His work on the court over the final 28 days ranks among the most compelling performances in NCAA postseason history. After those two grueling practices in Storrs, Connecticut won five times in five days to seize the Big East championship and earn a No. 3 seed in the West region. Walker scored a tournament-record 130 points and his magical roll carried straight through to Houston.

Walker's play, as well as his leadership, inspired and emboldened his young teammates. Lamb, a slender, 6'5" wing player, has matured most quickly in the tournament. He scored 97 points in six games, put pressure on defenses with his silky explosiveness and wreaked havoc in the passing lanes with his long, skinny arms. Off the floor he was a source of constant amusement to his teammates, gobbling Gummi Bears and Lemonheads from plastic bags he had stashed in his workout gear, and dancing horribly (according to Walker, the ultimate arbiter of choreographic matters) to Soulja Boy and Roscoe Dash. "Jeremy is just ... weird," says freshman center Michael Bradley, Lamb's roommate.

But weird with a sharply competitive edge. Blaney says that early in the year Lamb "didn't like to hear that he was making mistakes. But he was playing at what we call high school speed." Lamb, who speaks—but not much—in a deep baritone, says, "I'm playing at the same speed right now that I always played at. But I'm knocking down shots, and that makes me look faster."

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