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CHARLOTTE — The sheer number of No. 15 jerseys — in an endless array of Hornets (and even Bobcats) colors — that filled the Spectrum Center on Thursday night tell you a bit about how much Kemba Walker meant to the city of Charlotte.
So did the standing ovation he received after a tear-inducing tribute video during lineup introductions. But what really confirmed Walker’s impact here was the crowds he drew at every turn. Fans, arena staffers, and even former teammates eager for a tiny slice of time with an old friend.
Like after the final buzzer of the Celtics' 108-97 triumph, when a gaggle of Hornets players surrounded Walker near the midcourt stripe. Walker had already visited the Hornets’ locker room on Thursday morning, lingering long enough that he came sprinting out while fearful he was going to miss the start of Boston’s shootaround. Hours later, those same former teammates all waited for another chance to be a part of Walker’s big day.
Or like 100 minutes before tipoff when two of Walker’s young mentees from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas waited on the baseline near the visitor’s tunnel to present Walker with a gift. Walker brought new Celtics swag for the kids, which they couldn’t change into fast enough. Nearby, Mike and Elizabeth Peeler waited with fresh brownies, the same sweets that helped them morph from Hornets season ticket holders to real-life friends with Walker years back. The Peelers had already upgraded to Celtics-themed threads.
Walker only experienced two playoffs series in Charlotte, both ended quickly. But Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted that sometimes the measure of a player goes beyond wins and losses.
"Here’s the legacy thing to me: You can argue the great players, you can’t argue great winners, you can’t argue great teammates,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "So you might want to compare this guy to this guy, whatever the case may be. When you leave a place, how your teammates talk about you, that’s the definition of your time there. I think that sums it up to Kemba.
"I read the article this morning where all of his [former Charlotte] teammates were gushing about him and that is consistent to every team he’s ever been on. And we’re seeing that here [in Boston]. That is, as a team sport, as a teammate, that’s the legacy, that’s the one that matters.”
New teammate Jaylen Brown told Walker he was going to cry at some point Thursday. Brown had seen how emotional these things can be and, knowing Walker’s strong ties to the region, Brown figured waterworks were coming.
For the first minute of the Hornets' tribute video, Walker held himself together. Over the final 30 seconds, his blinking intensified as he tried to hold back tears. It would be the one battle he lost on this night.
While Walker wouldn’t use his emotions as an excuse, it’s hard to look at someone who started 0-for-6 shooting without wondering if he had just a little too much adrenaline pumping.
"I was just off,” said Walker, not convincing anyone of the suggestion. "It’s a part of the game. I just missed shots. I took great shots. I was just missing. I don’t think the way I played had anything to do with the emotions or anything like that.”
Even coach Brad Stevens knew it was going to be a tough night for Walker.
“It’s really hard. He had the right idea coming into the game but you knew right after they played that video, that probably was going to be a tough start,” said Stevens. "That was really cool and great tribute by the Hornets. I know how much he appreciated it. Going out and playing a game after spending [eight] years here is probably really difficult.”
Walker seemed like he could finally exhale as he exited the visitors’ locker room late Thursday night. He had joked about how he only came into that room when he had been randomly selected for NBA drug testing.
On Thursday, his high came from simply seeing old friends.
"I knew [Thursday] was going to be a special time, a special night,” said Walker. "If I had to do it all over again, I would. I can’t lie. It was special. I was really looking forward to this day for a really long time.”
Walker downplayed a suggestion that he had a temporary brain cramp when he took a step towards the home locker room after the horn sounded at halftime. He insisted he knew which way he was supposed to head and quickly caught himself.
Walker came out looser in the second half, scoring 11 of his 14 points in the third quarter. A trio of 3-pointers in the frame helped Boston stretch open a lead that allowed them to coast to the finish line.
The Celtics have now won six in a row and they are feeling good about themselves while sitting atop the Eastern Conference. The Hornets? There’s been some encouraging glimpses early in the season and yet it feels like more of the same for the franchise.
In a fourth-quarter timeout, the Hornets ran a HivesTunes promotion with fans singing the moving-on anthem, “I Will Survive.” Even if by coincidence, it was an eyebrow-raising choice. And unlike the scorned lover in Gloria Gaynor’s hit, the Hornets were OK with letting Walker back in that door for one more night.
After all, everyone just wants a little more time with Kemba.
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