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It was time to enjoy life. Walker played golf, drank cocktails and flew around the country to party with Jordan. They had become friends in 2001, when Jordan had cold-called Walker in Chicago, looking for a game while preparing to make his second comeback.
The two lived like kings, drinking and smoking cigars and spending long nights at casinos, an eight-year run that Walker now describes as "an honor." If Walker got sucked into Jordan's way of life-wagering enormous sums at the tables-he doesn't blame it on MJ. He insists he never gambled with Michael; he either watched him or played at a different table because "anyone who knows MJ knows he gambles by himself."
Walker's fall began a year after the championship, when the Heat traded him to the lottery-bound Timberwolves, who in turn shipped him to the Grizzlies, then one of the worst teams in the league. It was no place for a vet. Walker accepted a buyout in December 2008 and, at 32, left the league. A year later, in 2009, he was charged with a DUI. That same year, the Red Rock, Caesars Palace and Planet Hollywood casinos in Vegas filed a complaint after Walker passed bad checks and unsuccessfully tried to bargain for what he calls a "discount" on his gambling losses. Walker pleaded guilty to felony bad check charges and is currently on probation and saddled with a non-interest-bearing debt of roughly $770,000, which he likens to a "student loan or a house note."
To get back in the clear, all he needs is one more one-year NBA contract, but that appears highly unlikely. Ask G.M.'s, coaches and front-office execs about Walker, and they will tell you that he isn't on their radar. He's not a role player, not young enough, not a defender. They worry about his effect on the locker room, about the example he might set. "Let me put it this way," says one Western Conference executive, "if you have the pick of the bunch and could get Ryan Bowen, who was always a model teammate, or Antoine Walker, which one would you take?"
His current teammates and coaches are kinder. To a man, they say they like Walker. He is described as "99% good" and possessing, according to assistant Joel Abelson, "the best basketball IQ in the D-League by far." But they also worry about him. "This is a safe haven for Toine right now," says Livingston, his coach. "When you're done here, no one's going to care that you're an All-Star." Livingston would know. Once considered the best high school point guard in the country, he suffered a run of injuries and became one of the most acclaimed grinders in NBA history, playing for 10 teams in 11 years and setting a record with 19 call-ups from the D-League. The Stampede players now live their days hoping for that call. They invoke the story of Jeremy Lin and other less renowned cases of 10-day guys who hit pay dirt, the guaranteed contract. "There are a hundred Jeremy Lins in the league," Livingston says. "They just need a shot."
Walker is not one of them, though. Livingston instead sees a man adrift. "I keep telling Toine that you need an exit strategy," the coach continues, "but he can't do anything till he gets that paper. He has one and a half years left for graduation. He could have been doing that these last two years, but he hasn't." Stampede guard Tony Bobbitt, the former Cincinnati sharpshooter who once played two games with the Lakers, is sitting nearby and chimes in. "Hey, man, we all make mistakes," he says. "People don't understand that with athletes, a lot of us have big hearts, and people take advantage of that. How would you feel if you lost $100 million? Think about that."
The interview is Walker's chance to explain, to show that he's changed his ways, that he's ready for another shot, either as a player, a coach or a scout. He agreed ahead of time, knew the plan: A reporter would follow the Stampede for three days, traveling from Frisco back to Boise. Come 5:15 a.m. on Thursday, however, Walker's teammates are in the US Airways terminal of DFW, but Walker is nowhere to be found. In 15 minutes the team is to board a commercial flight to Phoenix, where the players will spend a three-hour layover draped over gate-side chairs, trying to steal a few more winks before squeezing back into coach for the flight to Boise. It is the end of a three-week road trip full of long bus rides-Sioux Falls to Des Moines, Des Moines to Tulsa, Tulsa to Frisco-and crappy weather. Everyone is bleary-eyed and grumpy; some didn't sleep the night before.
Still, they are here, assembled amid the fluorescent glow of gate E37, a collection of towering, headphone-wearing zombies. Center Mikki Moore, a 12-year NBA veteran, looks at his phone, troubled. "Toine musta slept in," he mutters. Then he turns to his teammates. "Yo, should we stall the plane?"
Bobbitt looks at Moore, eyes heavy.
"Nope," he says. "I just want to get home."