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BRONX, N.Y. — The news that Kemba Walker was leaving Charlotte for Boston did not come as a total shock to Elizabeth and Michael Peeler.
But the moving words that Walker had about them in his open letter in The Players’ Tribune announcing his decision was, well, very Kemba-like.
“She [Elizabeth] started crying when she read it,” Michael Peeler told NBC Sports Boston. “It was very heartwarming.”
“Thank you to people like Elizabeth and Mike Peeler,” it read. “And if you don’t know — they’re this older couple who are Hornets superfans, and they go to almost every home game. I met them during my rookie year, and we got to talking…and pretty soon we became good friends, and we’d talk at games all the time. It even turned into this cool tradition where they would have me over for dinner once a year. Mrs. Peeler’s homemade brownies….. I’ll be missing those for sure.”
It has only been a few months since Walker uprooted after eight years of his life in Charlotte to start a new chapter in Boston.
And as he returns to Charlotte for the first time Tuesday night to face his old team in front of an arena full of family and friends, it becomes crystal clear that what the Celtics gained - and the Charlotte franchise and community as a whole lost - goes beyond a talented basketball player.
“Every night I walk in the Spectrum Center, I feel like I’m in the wrong place,” said Michael Peeler who, along with Elizabeth, are season-ticket holders. “It’s a really different atmosphere now.”
DISCOVERING KEMBA WALKER
We’re only a couple of days into daylight savings when clocks fall back and nightfall emerges quickly.
The sun may have called it quits a few hours ago on this early fall evening, but the basketball youth inside the Gauchos Gym are putting in some serious work.
They are going through a series of drills, working on everything from ball-handling to footwork, sprinting around cones to running around the gym, pump-faking, shot-making…you name it and they’re doing it.
The work of those in the Gauchos AAU program now was once the work of Kemba Walker, a skinny kid from the Bronx who steadily worked to improve his game and leadership which prepared him for successful battles on any court, whether it be pickup games at the Gauchos Gym or having to pick up full court at Madison Square Garden as a prep star dueling with the likes of Derrick Rose.
Those battles gave him the necessary tools needed to gracefully handle the pressure of leading a top-ranked AAU team or carrying a team to an NCAA title as he did with UConn in 2011.
And from there, Walker began a slow but steady climb to where he is now one of the NBA’s top players, which was validated last spring when he was selected as a member of the All-NBA third team following a third consecutive All-Star selection.
Folks see the killer crossover Walker has down to a science and the wide array of skills he uses to remain one of the league’s most lethal scorers.
But Dwayne Mitchell has seen how Walker gradually stacked the building blocks of his success on this dimly lit floor in the Bronx, a foundation built upon two pillars - hard work and humility.
When asked to describe Walker, Mitchell’s initial response began with, “humble person, hard worker” followed by “dedicated, great teammate.”
Mitchell, an assistant coach at the time Walker was a star at Rice High School team, first took notice of Walker when he was in junior high.
But it wasn’t until Walker’s sophomore year at Rice did he really begin to show signs of being a special talent.
“His sophomore year, Edgar Sosa got hurt and Edgar [who went on to play at Louisville] wasn’t playing,” said Mitchell, who is now director of operations for the Gauchos AAU team that Walker also played on as a youth. “He [Walker] kind of stepped up and as a sophomore you saw signs that he could be really special.”
Walker would continue to stand out at Rice High School, earning prep All-America honors, which got a major boost in his junior year when his Rice team defeated Rose’s Simeon Career Academy from Chicago 53-51 at Madison Square Garden.
“It was exciting for me, being a basketball guy,” Mitchell said of the game against Rose’s high school team. “It was great to see the number one guard in the country [Rose] and watch Kemba go at him and compete. It was a great game; we won that game so that made it great.”
And it is that desire to win that fuels Walker in ways that we seldom see in the NBA in part because of the lack of success he had with the Hornets, a sharp contrast to what he did in high school (state title, 2009) and college (national championship, 2011).
And while Walker has this nice-guy, always-happy demeanor, Mitchell is quick to add that Walker can get fired up when he feels it’s needed.
“Due to his competitive spirit and wanting to win, I’ve seen him angry a couple of times with his guys when we were losing,” Mitchell said. “So I’ve seen that fire; he came back, energized his team and won some games when he got angry.”
And while championships in high school and college didn’t follow him to Charlotte, there’s no mistaking Walker’s time in the Queen City was very much a success on many fronts.
THE CHARLOTTE YEARS
Elizabeth and Michael Peeler have been season-ticket holders to the Hornets dating all the way back to when the team's nickname was the Bobcats.
Even though the team struggled to win consistently, the Peelers were committed to making the transition so many North Carolinians were making from being die-hard ACC hoops fans to embracing the pro game.
The Hornets ticket office had a two-fold mission that involved trying to add as many new season-ticket holders to the mix, while also providing special perks for season-ticket holders like the Peelers.
“They did a promotion where they had some of the players deliver tickets to season-ticket holders,” recalled Michael Peeler. “We got a call the day before that happened asking if we wanted one of the players to come over and deliver our tickets to us. They wouldn’t tell us who it was gonna be.”
But the way the Peelers figured, if it was a player they didn’t recognize it was either Bismack Biyombo, a 6-foot-8, 255-pound forward/center, or a guard named Kemba Walker, neither of whom the Peelers knew much about.
When they arrived, the Peelers were told they could ask whoever the player was a few questions, so the first question the Peelers had for Walker involved his height.
Walker said he was 6-1 which as it turned out, was Michael’s height.
But just for good measure, Elizabeth pulled out the yardstick and had Kemba and Michael back-to-back.
They were the same height and as it turned out, wore the same shoe size (11 1/2 ) as well.
“Everything pretty much the same except I’m not athletic and he is,” Michael said jokingly.
The Peelers and Walker continued to chat away and when Walker left, he was still the topic of discussion that night for the Peelers.
“We really liked him,” Michael said. “The word got back that he didn’t hate us so we invited him to come over for dinner. And he said yes.”
From there, Walker having dinner with the Peelers became an annual tradition that eventually involved him bringing some family and friends from time to time to join him at the Peelers.
And the time spent together wasn’t just about eating, either.
The Peelers learned that one of Walker’s favorite games as a kid was Trouble. So they went out and bought the game and when Walker would come over for dinner, they would play.
“After a while, we sort of got to the point where we made it less about the food and just having fun,” Michael said.
The Peelers later found out that Walker had a sweet tooth for brownies.
That led to them sneaking in brownies to games from time to time.
“We’re not supposed to take food or any beverage into the arena,” Michael recalled.
So how’d they do it?
“She [Elizabeth] was the smuggler,” he said jokingly.
It began as a monthly treat that soon evolved into them doing it before every game which is when according to Michael, Hornets security allowed them to bring them in knowing they were for Walker.
Even though he’s no longer a Hornet, the brownie connection lives on.
When Walker was traveling across the globe this summer with Team USA, yes, brownies from the Peelers made parts of the trek as well with different members of Walker’s family bringing the goodies with them, to give to Kemba.
And yes, there will be brownies for Walker when he returns to Charlotte tonight, the Peelers said.
The Peelers were just one of the many groups that Walker connected with in a way that went far beyond your run-of-the-mill player-fan interaction.
Walker was also involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas as a mentor.
Donna Y. Dunlap, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas, was admittedly skeptical when first approached about the idea of Walker being a mentor.
“We were a little apprehensive because athletes live a very busy lifestyle, and we didn’t want this to be … them being in and out of these kids’ life with no real commitment,” Dunlap told NBC Sports Boston in a phone interview. “But Kemba showed a level of commitment and dedication to our young people that was so amazing.”
Walker had four kids that he mentored, all of whom were of middle school age.
They will be at the game Tuesday night and, according to Dunlap, they will also have a gift for Kemba to remember them by while in Boston.
Even though he was the best player on the Hornets roster and had a number of different things he was committed to, he made sure to carve out a consistent amount of time for the four middle schoolers - two boys and two girls - that he was mentoring.
Said Dunlap: “Whether they go bowling, or to the movies, or Dave and Busters, taking them to dinner … just engaging them and being a friend.”
And the time he spent with them was truly about them, with Walker doing subtle but important little things like putting away his cellphone and not looking at it in their time together.
When Dunlap recalls what she remembers most about Walker’s time with the kids, it’s how the joy that was present was a two-way street.
Walker would come to talk to his mentees courtside before games which as you can imagine was a very, very cool thing for them.
But it was clearly a big deal to Walker as well, Dunlap says.
“That’s a very special moment, not just for the children but also you can see it on Kemba’s face and in his eyes,” she said. “He’s just as excited.”
ON TO BOSTON
And when it comes to excitement, that’s certainly an apt description of how Celtics fans feel about Walker.
Walker is averaging 26 points per game this season to go with 5.7 rebounds (a career-high) and 3.7 assists while shooting 40.4 percent from the field and 42.6 percent (also a career-high) from 3-point range.
But maybe most significant to Celtics fans, is the team’s record (5-1) which after the first six games is tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for best in the Eastern Conference.
“He’s come in here and he’s doing what Kemba does,” new teammate Marcus Smart told NBC Sports Boston. “He’s not trying to be anyone or do anything other than just be himself, lead the way he knows how to lead. He’s been great for us.”
Michael Peeler isn’t the least bit surprised at how well Walker has fit in with the Celtics.
From that first day he met Walker, he could sense he was someone who you just wanted to be around.
Which made the news of him leaving Charlotte a difficult time for them.
“It was the worst day we’ve had in a long time,” Michael said after a deep sigh. “There was some talk about what his landing spots might be if he left Charlotte.”
When Kyrie Irving decided to sign with the Brooklyn Nets and word had spread that the Celtics were a front-runner for Walker, Michael said he knew Walker was going to leave then.
“Part of his ambition was to play for a ring and we [Hornets] are not in position to challenge for that,” Michael said. “We’re excited to death for Kemba. He’s in a great spot. He’s got teammates he got to be familiar with this summer [with Team USA]. I think it’s gonna be great for Kemba and Boston.”
Dunlap echoed those sentiments.
“We’re excited that Kemba is moving on and has an opportunity to have a whole other experience being in Boston,” she said. “And I hope all the Boston fans realize they’re getting not only an exceptional player, but they are also having an exceptional human being coming to their community as well. We look forward to him coming home for visits; all the best to the Celtics.”
In many ways, Walker’s return can only help speed up the healing process for Hornets fans who are expected to shower him with lots of love tonight.
It began before the game Tuesday when he was reunited with the Peelers and, of course, those brownies.
Kemba Walker is reunited with his friends, the Peelers, who of course made sure to bring him some brownies as they used to do when he lived in Charlotte 💕 pic.twitter.com/WvhQGFd76j— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) November 8, 2019
The Peelers readily admit that they are more fans of Kemba than they are the Hornets, which is in part why they will be making a trip to Boston this season to see him play and potentially check him out when the Celtics are in Atlanta, too.
If Walker makes the final Team USA Olympic squad, Michael says they’ll make that trip to Japan to see him play as well.
As far as being all-in on Team Kemba, Michael said he came to that realization years ago.
“I don’t have anything against the [current Hornets] players,” Michael said. “We like the players we have. But it’s not Kemba. He’s spoiled us badly over the years. It’s hard to be excited about the games with him not playing here. But we’ll adapt and move on as best we can.”
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