Walker's goal was to return to the NBA-to get what the D-League insists on branding a "Gatorade Call Up"-and he was sure he had a shot. At 6'8" he was a gifted passer who filled the role of a "stretch four," spacing the floor with his shooting. He'd spent the summer working in Louisville with Rick Pitino, his former coach at Kentucky. The results with the Stampede were promising. Walker scored 27 one night, had a double double on a couple of others. In 43 games he averaged 16.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Yet there was no call-up, and Walker watched as, one by one, D-Leaguers were summoned, 20 in all, from unproven players like Zabian Dowdell to veterans like Antonio Daniels. That spring Walker returned to his hometown of Chicago, frustrated and disappointed.
Those close to Walker expected him to move on-maybe take the overseas route for the money or call it a career. Instead, he returned this winter to Boise to ride buses, make 25 grand and play against the dreamers, cheered on some nights, heckled on others.
The question is why.
Go back to Jan. 7, 1998, to the MCI Center in Washington. It is a midseason game, and Walker, a second-year player with the Celtics, is putting on an absolute show, making one spectacular shot after another. Trim and muscular at 240 pounds, he rips down rebounds and barrels down the court, pounding the ball with that awkward-yet-deceptive upright gait. He fakes, hesitates, slinks onto the baseline and flips the ball in the basket, then moments later squares up his defender, goes onto his tiptoes and sinks a three-pointer. By the third quarter he is closing fast on 30 points, and Boston announcer Tommy Heinsohn is practically hoarse: "Anothah incredible shot by Walkah!" Walker finishes with a career-high 49 points on 36 shots, hitting all five of his threes and pulling down 12 rebounds. He will remember it as the best performance of his career, the one in which "I showed every part of my game."
That game could be transcendent. Walker was a forward who could handle it and pass it like a guard, who possessed a seemingly endless variety of post moves and a soft shooting touch, skills that endeared him to Celtics fans. As the years passed, those fans chafed at his inconsistency. One night, he'd put up a triple double; too many others, he'd have no assists. It didn't help that he was putting on weight or that he was brash-talking trash to opponents, occasionally yelling at teammates-not to mention handsomely paid, signing a six-year, $71 million contract in January 1999 that led Pitino, then Boston's coach, to say his star player would "never have to worry about money again." Walker's signature shimmy, a wriggling dance he performed after big shots, annoyed as many as it delighted. The ghosts of Celtics past hovered, men like Larry Bird and Danny Ainge who both wondered when Walker would play defense, when he'd stop jacking so many shots from behind the arc. Walker responded by launching an astonishing 645 attempts in 2001--02. When asked why he shot so many threes, he responded with a phrase that would come to define him in the eyes of many: "Because there are no fours."
Despite his bluster, Walker was hurt by the criticism. One night in Boston, after a particularly vicious round of heckling, he nearly cried in the locker room. Other times he got angry, firing back. Walker was a sensitive man, a self-professed mama's boy who grew up on the South Side of Chicago but went to private schools while his single mother, determined to provide him with a structured environment, put in long hours as a clerk for the city. He cooked for his five younger siblings and acquired from his grandmother a love of soap operas. At Kentucky he set up his class schedule around All My Children; in NBA locker rooms he always switched the TV to his beloved soaps. He doted on his family and was generous to a fault with friends. A Celtics ball boy would bring him a $4 bag of McDonald's, and Walker would tip him $40. In all his years, one ball boy says, no player treated him better.
Walker is a different player now. On Wednesday, two days before the meeting in his apartment, the Stampede played a game against the Texas Legends in Frisco, a 45-minute drive north of Dallas. Ten minutes into the first quarter, Walker checked in for the first time. Last season he was at least in shape, or close to it. This year, he is a good 40 pounds above his playing weight. He is impossible to miss on the court, with his wide hips, ample rear end and sloped stomach. Within 60 seconds Walker began grabbing his shorts, forcing his breath out in great gusts. By the middle of the second quarter he looked as if he'd run a marathon.
The competition included such NBA talents as Daniels and Sean Williams, but Walker was the clear attraction. His face graced the ads for the game. In the courtside seats a thirtyish man holding a beer stopped cold when Walker first checked in. "Holy s---," the man said, turning to his friend. "Is that...?" The friend stared, then nodded, amazed, as if having discovered Steve Perry playing at the local dive bar. "It is! It's Toine!" Immediately both men lifted up their iPhones, like lighters at a rock concert, and commenced filming. Soon they began yelling, "Give us the shimmy!"
Ah, the shimmy. There hasn't been one game in two seasons during which someone hasn't beseeched Walker to do it. This season he's only pulled it out twice, both times on the road, largely because there's so little to celebrate. On Wednesday night's game against the Legends, it took Walker three quarters just to score. He missed layups, threw entry passes into the stands and clanged three-pointers off the front rim. Upon grabbing one rebound, he went back up with two hands but got little lift, and released the ball from so low, and so haphazardly, that it appeared he was tossing confetti. In a 93--84 Stampede loss Walker had only six points on 2-of-9 shooting and four turnovers. By hitting two of six threes, he actually raised his shooting from beyond the arc to 21.7% for the season.
The high point? That was June 20, 2006, when Walker won his ring, with the Heat. In Game 6 he went for 14 points and 11 boards as Miami completed its comeback from an 0--2 Finals deficit against the Mavericks. Afterward, the Heat players partied in Dallas's American Airlines Center until they were kicked out. Then they partied at the Ritz-Carlton, where team president Pat Riley had rented out an entire ballroom. At 5 a.m. the team voted to fly back to Miami to party some more. It was, Walker says, "the moment you work your whole career for."