THE VISIONS CAME TO KEMBA WALKER AT SOME POINT during his historic comet ride through college basketball's postseason. The Connecticut guard can't remember when they began, but he knows that by the time the Huskies arrived in Houston for the Final Four, he couldn't close his eyes without seeing them. Walker's mind had crafted a hoops fantasy slideshow. A ladder. Scissors. A net. His teammates standing on a stage, smiling and singing along to One Shining Moment.
Of all the players in the 2011 NCAA tournament, Walker was one of the handful who could make those visions come true almost by himself. When he sat in Reliant Stadium a day before UConn's national title showdown with Butler, he had already dragged the Huskies to an unprecedented five wins in five days in the Big East tournament. Then he had willed them to five more in the NCAAs. With one more victory he could turn those mental pictures into real ones. "I can't stop thinking about it," Walker said. "Hopefully, my visions will come true."
The next night, they did. And to a man, the Huskies agree they couldn't have done it without their leader. In the words of sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi, "He carried this team on his back."
Most of the Huskies tower over Walker, a native of the Bronx who is generously listed at 6' 1" but who might be no taller than 5' 10". Still, they would follow him anywhere. UConn coach Jim Calhoun has known that for some time, but his Huskies reinforced it on the morning of their national semifinal win against Kentucky. After finishing breakfast Walker strode out of the hotel dining room, and six teammates followed like puppies chasing their pack leader. The image, Calhoun says, perfectly described the team hierarchy. "It was just the way they were leaving," he says. "But I thought as I saw that, That's kind of who we are and what we are in many, many ways."
While UConn needed the crunch-time shooting of freshman guard Jeremy Lamb, the playmaking of another freshman guard, Shabazz Napier, and the post muscle of Oriakhi, Walker made all those players better. His outside shooting attracted the defense and left open shots for Lamb. His ability to move without the ball allowed Napier to deliver it to him for easy baskets. His knack for slicing into the lane and drawing the attention of every defender within 10 feet allowed Oriakhi to get open underneath.
Walker's postseason scoring average (25.5 in 10 games leading into the NCAA final against Butler) might suggest he shot first and didn't worry about his teammates. That wasn't the case. If Walker scored in bunches—as he did when he hung 36 on San Diego State in the Sweet 16—he did so because no one else was doing it. If he scored less, as he did when he had 18 against Kentucky in the semifinal, he did it because teammates had a hotter hand.
HOW DOES ONE OF THE BEST SCORERS IN COLLEGE basketball know the importance of being so unselfish? Because at every level Walker has played a supporting role before taking his star turn. In junior high he backed up Corey Fisher, who went on to star at Villanova. At Harlem's Rice High he backed up Edgar Sosa, who went on to start for some excellent Louisville teams. As a freshman at UConn he played 25.2 minutes a game, but it was A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien, Hasheem Thabeet and Jerome Dyson who led the Huskies to the Final Four. When a writer asked Walker if he could appreciate the sacrifice of Butler guard Ronald Nored, who had embraced a less prominent role as a Bulldog in 2011, Walker smiled. "I was in that position," Walker says. "This is really the first year that I'm starting to blossom."
Walker believes the time he spent as a backup at each level taught him patience. It also taught him to make the most of the opportunities he has on the court, whether he is slashing for a layup, ripping a rebound from a larger player or diving for a loose ball. "For guys to take on that [backup] role just makes them a bigger person," Walker says. "Guys have to sacrifice. Everybody is great coming out of high school. Everybody is the man on their team, the leader. But when you go to another level, things change. For people to sacrifice their games makes them better people."
Walker has a long list of people he thanks for making him a better person. His parents, Andrea and Paul, are a good place to start. They instilled in him his work ethic, and when Walker needed an academic push, they found a way to get him to a school that could provide it. Andrea and Paul contacted Student Sponsor Partners, which connected them with Arthur Black, a New Yorker who runs a wealth-management firm. Black helped the Walkers pay the tuition at Rice, an all-boys' school known for its basketball team and its academic rigor. Walker admits he wasn't the best student when he arrived at Rice. When he left, though, he was ready for college courts—and for college classrooms. "It turned me from a boy to a man," Walker says. "They showed me the importance of education. Going into college, I was prepared."