Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

NBC Sports

Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE -- Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning greet customers as they walk into the buzzing North Davidson Street establishment. Immortalized on a painted mural on the wall, the legendary Charlotte Hornets trio is a deliberate fixture of Salud, a local hangout nestled in Charlotte’s art district.

Jason Glunt, a lifelong Hornets fan, opened Salud’s doors in 2012, two weeks after his daughter Jade was born and three months before Charlotte lost the Anthony Davis draft lottery. Three life-changing events, Glunt says now, with a laugh.

Glunt makes sure the painting -- a reminder of the Hornets’ glory years -- is the first thing people see. The whole place is one big play on nostalgia. The shop’s motto hangs on the wall, “Sour Beer. Old School Hip Hop. Pizza. Nintendo. Salud.” 

Behind the line of beer taps rests a team-issued Kemba Walker campaign poster from the 2015-16 season during the presidential election year, urging voters to “Win With Walker” and stuff the ballot box for Most Improved Player. Fans in Charlotte adore Walker, who ascended from the wreckage of a dreadful 7-59 season and developed into an All-NBA talent. When Charlotte hosted All-Star weekend last year, the team marketed Walker’s All-Star candidacy with the tagline: “His City, His Time.” For years, Glunt kept losing Walker souvenirs in the shop because patrons would take them home.

“I just do old-school Hornets memorabilia,” Glunt says. “But I made an exception for Kemba.”

His daughter Jade grew up watching Walker on a nightly basis, wearing his jersey to games (Jason and Jade share season tickets with Jason’s brother-in-law, Dalton). This summer, when Boston acquired Walker in a sign-and-trade, the 7-year-old asked her father why Walker wanted to leave.

“It’s not that simple,” Jason told her, before attempting to translate complicated cap machinations into terms that a first-grader can understand. 

We couldn’t afford Kemba, you see. 

“She’s so confused,” Glunt says. “It’s really weird here. For kids, Kemba was a good role model. Kids loved him. And he was their size.”

Earlier this season, Glunt flipped through the channels when his daughter saw the Milwaukee Bucks-Boston Celtics game pop up on the TV. She told him to stop.

“Kemba’s on the Celtics,” Jade said. “I want to watch Kemba.”

Together, they watched Walker do the things he used to do in purple and teal. He crossed over the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, for a game-sealing bucket and unleashed a wide grin, celebrating two of his 32 points in a victory over the towering Milwaukee Bucks. Glunt couldn’t help but sigh. He knew what it meant. 

Another beloved Hornet went elsewhere in search of playoff glory.

* * *

In many ways, Walker embodies what a franchise pillar is supposed to be. Selected with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, the UConn legend became a three-time All-Star and averaged 25.6 points last season while playing in all 82 games. A beacon in the Charlotte community, Walker is a two-time recipient of the NBA Sportsmanship Award and has never been ejected in his NBA career.

Jeremy Lamb knows what kind of person Walker is. He played four seasons with Walker in Charlotte, reuniting with his college teammate after they won a championship together at UConn in 2011. Two years older than Lamb, Walker used to put his arm around Lamb as the freshman struggled in Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun’s system. 

“I didn’t really know my way,” Lamb said. “One day, Kemba told me, ‘Keep working hard and you can do whatever you want on the court. You’ll go as far as you’ll want to go.’ That really stuck with me.”

Last season, when Lamb hit a game-winner at home against Detroit in December, he was mobbed by his teammates and promptly doused with water. In the postgame interview, Walker snuck up from behind him and hugged him on camera, rubbing his head like a big brother. But it was clear this moment went a little deeper for Walker. Lamb had gotten off to a cold start that game, but Walker trusted him with the final shot.

“Of course!” yelled Walker. “That’s my son! I raised him!”

It was hard to see then what laid ahead for the Hornets. Walker and Lamb posted career-highs in scoring, but the Hornets finished 39-43 and out of the playoffs. Charlotte let both players go in free agency. This week, as Walker comes back home to Charlotte, Lamb reminisced about their time in the Queen City.

“Everyone knows he’s a great player on the court,” Lamb said. “But he’s a great person off the court. He continues to get better, continues to be a great leader, night in and night out, he brings it. There’s never any excuses, whether it’s a back-to-back or five games in seven days, whatever is, he gives it his all.”

Walker was the only player on the team that played all 82 games last season and helped instill a  culture of hard work. 
“I’m excited to see Kemba, I’m excited to see him,” Hornets coach James Borrego says. “He was wonderful for me and to me. I will always think highly of that player and that person. Special player, special person.”

* * *

When the NBA and the NBA Players Association agreed to implement luxury tax punishments to the collective bargaining agreement, they were intended to discourage deep-pocketed teams from bullying small markets in free agency. Then, in 2017, Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to go to the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. Later that summer, the league and the union came to an agreement to add supermax contracts to give teams with a homegrown superstar a financial carrot to keep those players from bolting for bigger cities or brighter lights. Or so the league thought.

In the case of Walker, both provisions backfired. By making the All-NBA team, Walker locked in his “supermax” eligibility, which, in theory, would give the Hornets an upper-hand in free agency. The other 29 teams could only offer Walker a four-year, $141 million deal, while the Hornets could entice Walker with a package totaling $221 million over five years, including a $32 million supermax bonus thanks to the All-NBA selection.

But that supermax bump had the opposite effect. When asked when they felt Walker was going to leave, multiple Charlotte team officials told that it was the day he earned All-NBA status. For Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, whose net worth is pegged at about $42 billion, a supermax contract that pushes L.A. deep into the luxury tax might be a drop in the bucket. But that’s not the case for the Hornets principal owner Michael Jordan, whose net worth is but a small fraction of his technocrat peers in NBA ownership circles. In late June, Charlotte general manager Mitch Kupchak was asked whether the Hornets would go into the luxury tax if it meant keeping its team together. Kupchak confirmed what Hornets fans dreaded, saying: “I would not anticipate that is something we would look to do.”

The Hornets indeed balked at paying the tax and reportedly offered Walker about $60 million less than the supermax, a gulf Walker saw as too wide to overcome. Months after telling ESPN’s Zach Lowe that “he couldn’t care less about big markets,” Walker agreed to a four-year, $141 million max with one of the biggest markets in the NBA. 

In the same summer when Anthony Davis, Paul George and Russell Westbrook fled small markets for bright lights and big cities, Walker stood out as a potential worst-case scenario for the league’s more frugal franchises. The Hornets helped Walker develop from an undersized combo guard into one of the league’s most dangerous perimeter players, only to watch that success make him nearly impossible to keep.

Borrego spent 11 seasons on the Spurs’ coaching staff and had a front row seat for the Kawhi Leonard experience, which saw the homegrown superstar miss almost an entire season en route to forcing his way out of town over, at the very least, a difference in medical opinion. In the player empowerment era, teams can only do so much to keep their stars, especially if you’re in a market like Charlotte.

“It’s a reality in today’s NBA,” Borrego says. “That’s not going anywhere. That’s our new NBA. The days of San Antonio are gone.”

* * *

When Charlotteans look at Kemba Walker, many see themselves. Charlotte is a shiny metropolis in the New South, a growing center of transplants who migrate south for a warmer climate and an easier cost of living. Walker, a New York City native who went to college in New England, came south for work and instead found a second home.

For many, this is why it was so painful to see Walker leave. It’s the story of Jason Glunt, who moved to Charlotte in 1988, the inaugural season of the Hornets, when his family decided to leave the cold winters outside Detroit, Michigan, for the promise of a bright, new future. Glunt was 6 years old then, about the same age as his daughter is now.

“They just don’t get it,” Jason says of Walker’s departure. “A lot of the kids are sad.”

And then Jason remembers his childhood heroes Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Glen Rice leaving Charlotte and reaching the Finals elsewhere, and in the case of Mourning and Rice, winning titles.

“It was like when I was growing up,” Jason said. “When you think of Glen Rice, what do you think about? You think about the Heat. Same with ‘Zo.”

Glunt wonders if Walker will have the same story. After a series of rebuilds, the Hornets still haven’t made the conference finals in his lifetime. He cheers himself up by reminding himself that Walker still has a house in Charlotte. Perhaps he’ll come back one day and live in town, just like Muggsy Bogues did.

“I’m kind of sad, but also excited for Kemba,” Jason says. “He can try to make the Conference Finals. And we can move on, and try to rebuild.”

After watching the Celtics-Bucks game in their apartment living room, it was time for Jade to get ready for bed. After Jason turned off the television, Jade looked up at her father.

“Can Kemba come back next year?” she asked.

That probably wouldn’t happen, Jason explained. Contracts and all that.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Habershow Episode 47: Marc Stein says NBA might not return this season

NBC Sports

Habershow Episode 47: Marc Stein says NBA might not return this season

The NBA might not return until at least September, New York Times NBA reporter Marc Stein predicted on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.
“It sounds like an extreme, extreme, extreme long shot to be able to make any of this happen by July or even August,” Stein said. “But at this point, at this juncture early April, there is still time. There’s no reason to rush, so let’s just see. But yeah I think people need to maintain a sense of realism here that as badly as NBA Twitter and hoops fans everywhere want the league to come back, it just may not be possible this season.”
But Giannis Antetokounmpo and the first-place Milwaukee Bucks shouldn’t schedule fittings for a championship ring quite yet.  
“I don’t think we are going to get to some point where they say, ‘the season is canceled, congratulations Milwaukee Bucks, you are the champions,’” Stein said. “I don’t see that happening.”
Stein has interviewed a number of NBA players about how they are keeping busy without basketball. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. told Stein “I feel like I lost two seasons” because he is not able to play basketball nor watch Premier League soccer. 
“This is the first time in our lives we don’t have sports as that outlet from the bad stuff,” Stein said.

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Stein:
7:30 -- The whirlwind of the season being shutdown
11:31 -- Biggest Premier League fan in the NBA
25:45 -- Options the NBA is exploring at this moment
34:06 -- Potential NBA calendar
47:01 -- How different the NBA Draft and evaluation will be this year
For more on the coronavirus, listen to Haberstroh’s podcast with former UCLA star Michael Roll, who is now under a total lockdown in Italy while playing for Olimpia Milano:

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

NBA's 'bubble' idea has major holes

NBC Sports

NBA's 'bubble' idea has major holes

Just over three weeks into the suspension of the NBA season, there’s still no official word from the league office on when it expects to reopen its doors and play basketball again. 

The coronavirus continues to keep the league in a holding pattern as the calendar flips to the month of April. Teams have anywhere from 15 to 19 games remaining on their regular season schedule and several teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans hope to make a late-season push into the playoffs. 

Whenever the NBA does come back, it might look drastically different. One possible scenario, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, being considered inside and outside the league is a quarantined bubble. Under this idea, according to Windhorst, the league would reassemble in one or a pair of cities and resume the season in a locked-down hotel and venue without fans in attendance. 

Plans are being drawn up to do just that in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), which has been shut down since January, and NBA executives have suggested the league consider the same in possibly Las Vegas or the Bahamas, according to ESPN. The CBA hopes to restart in a bubble scenario in mid-May after several delays due to COVID-19. On a smaller scale, the BIG3 basketball league partnered with the production company of the hit TV show “Big Brother” to quarantine 16 basketball players in the same Los-Angeles-area home for three weeks with plans to play a 3-on-3 tournament and broadcast the reality show in early May. 

The bubble is an outside-the-box idea that actually does have some roots in the NBA ecosystem. 

Every December, the NBA hosts the MGM Resorts G League Winter Showcase, which convenes inside the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. Over the course of four days, all 28 G League teams play several games in front of NBA general managers and player personnel executives -- and, most importantly for this time, no fans. 

Of course, that’s just a four-day affair. Restarting the season would likely require several weeks of play and the league has to find a way to protect players and staff from a virus that’s been detected in over 200,000 individuals in the United States and nearly a million across the world, according to Johns Hopkins University tracking

To properly shield its teams and league personnel, the NBA would have to establish extensive precautions to ensure the health and safety of those inside the bubble. It’s not enough to think about the 450-or-so NBA players and the surrounding staffs of all 30 teams. According to Dr. Caroline Buckee, an associate professor of Epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the NBA is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle.

“It sounds like potentially a bad idea,” Dr. Buckee said in a Zoom interview. “I don’t think it’s realistic to completely isolate and quarantine the players. For a start, there are people who will need to clean their rooms, feed them, wash their clothes, janitorial staff and so forth. And those people will not be protected and they will be interacting with their communities. 

“It is very difficult to truly self-isolate. Purposefully putting people at risk seems foolish.”

It’s not clear if the NBA is also considering hiring the necessary hospitality and support staff and housing them in the proposed quarantine facility. From an operations standpoint, the bubble could theoretically be staffed and run like a cruise ship on land where workers are prepared to feed, clean and operate for weeks at a time. The owner of the Miami Heat, Micky Arison, is also the chairman of Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise operator. 

However, the cruise ship industry has been hit hard during the pandemic, a warning sign for the NBA as it tries to workshop plans for a closed-off community.

“I’m not sure the bubble scenario is wise,” said Dr. Charles Branas, professor and department chair of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “The chances of pulling that off for the entire NBA seems highly unlikely. All you need is one unintended case of COVID-19 and the whole thing goes bad, like a cruise ship.”

Safely staffing the entire facility is one obstacle that must be addressed if the NBA wants to seriously pursue a restart in a closed community. Another is convincing players to go for it. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James isn’t fond of the idea, saying on the Road Trippin’ podcast last week: “I ain’t going for that s***. I’m not going for that.”

James, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children and is observing California’s shelter-in-place order, is far from alone in his thinking. Dr. Neel Gandhi doesn’t call himself a die-hard sports fan, but as an infectious disease expert and associate professor of Epidemiology at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, he has found himself monitoring the coronavirus response of the sports world and worries about the practicality of a quarantined restart.

“It’s an interesting idea,” Dr. Gandhi says. “In theory, it can be done. But the question ends up being the details of what it means to quarantine these individuals. The key for me would be to truly create a closed community that they’re in.”

For Dr. Gandhi, who has been assisting at a drive-through COVID-19 testing site in Fulton County, Ga., several protocols would need to be in place for an NBA bubble to work. 

First, anyone who planned to be inside the bubble would need to be self-isolated offsite for 14 days to ensure they are free of the virus. Dr. Gandhi also recommends testing five to seven days into the self-isolation period and a second test at 14 days for all isolated individuals. This way, doctors could ensure, as much as possible, that an individual is not infected, and that there isn’t a false negative test before they enter the bubble and potentially transmit the virus throughout the community.

In an ideal scenario, Dr. Ghandi says, pre-bubble isolation would require extremely strict measures that go beyond the typical shelter-at-home protocol. If a player was self-isolating with family at their home, for example, no one could leave the property or enter during that two-week period. No grocery runs, no accepting deliveries from restaurants or the postal service, no trips to the pharmacy or doctor’s office. No interactions with the outside world. It’s a different world from most shelter-in-place protocols. 

Columbia’s Dr. Branas agrees with that self-isolation timeline, suggesting a strict quarantine for two to three weeks before anyone entered the bubble. 

And that’s just the beginning of the precautions. According to ESPN, the Chinese Basketball Association is considering doing daily temperature checks for its athletes. To Dr. Gandhi, that’s not enough. 

While it’s good news that players on the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets are no longer showing symptoms after several tested positive last month, more needs to be done before they could re-enter society or participate in a quarantined bubble.

“Part of why it’s become so difficult to get a handle on the novel coronavirus in cities and communities is this idea that people can transmit it before you’re symptomatic,” Dr. Gandhi says. “Simply checking temperatures on a daily basis would not be enough. There’s a possibility that a person can become infectious before they have manifested a fever. You have to be very meticulous and strict about it.”

Dr. Zachary Binney, adjunct instructor in Epidemiology at Emory University Rollins School of Public Healthy and sports injury epidemiology consultant, is fascinated by the proposed solution, dubbing it the “the National Bio-dome Association,” a reference to the 1996 comedy film featuring Pauly Shore about a biological experiment inside a closed ecological system.

But Dr. Binney wonders whether it’s worth the trouble and risk of infection.

“The National Bio-dome Association is an intriguing idea in theory but there are a lot of details to be worked out,” Dr. Binney said, reiterating the concern for the non-basketball staffers. “Are they staying there or do they go home to their families? Because now you’ve opened the closed loop. And you risk opening someone with COVID-19 going back into the system. It’s a really difficult question.”

Dr. Binney also worries about the finite resources it would take to protect hundreds of people under one metaphorical roof. He agrees with Dr. Gandhi’s estimate that thousands of tests would need to be set aside for an NBA bubble restart. And while new coronavirus test systems, like the Abbott Labs’ test that produces results within minutes, could be promising, epidemiologists that spoke to NBC Sports were skeptical that quick and accurate tests could be  to be available at the volume the NBA would need.

“We need to think about the fact that we can’t even staff our hospitals properly right now,” Dr. Binney says. “We don’t have enough tests and personal protective equipment for the folks who are on the frontlines of the epidemic and the people who are showing symptoms, they can’t even all get tested.

“To divert the resources to the NBA to allow them to do something like this right now, that strikes me as a question worth asking whether that’s actually something we want to be doing right now.”

To be fair, the NBA isn’t considering any sort of bubble plan to go into place in the short term. Timetables are fluid. Last week, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban expressed optimism that the NBA could return to the court as early as mid-May, but on Wednesday, he backed off those estimates.

“I have no idea,” Cuban told ESPN. “I mean, the only thing I know is that we’re going to put safety first and we’re not going to take any chances. We’re not going to do anything that risks the health of our players, our fans, our staff, the whole organization.”

Those words are powerful. For epidemiologists, the NBA has played a central role in sending the message to Americans about the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not just by shutting the league down, but also in community outreach. Dr. Binney applauded Stephen Curry for his Instagram Live interview of prominent infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“Sports leagues and athletes have a really big role in society. They can really get the public health message out there,” Dr. Binney said.

It’s something that troubles Harvard’s Dr. Buckee when she thinks about resuming the league even under a quarantined state.

“NBA players and the NBA are important role models for a lot of the country,” Dr. Buckee said. “And as people stop playing basketball themselves and parks and courts close around the country, I think it’s important that the NBA sets an example to show people that saving lives is more important than money right now.”

So if it’s untenable to restart the season in a bubble, what alternative options does the NBA have? 

From an epidemiological standpoint, the most prudent plan may be to wait this out and not risk a closed-community outbreak. In the short-term, the NBA has set up a 2K league that will be broadcast on national television. Those types of esports might be the closest we get to real competition for a while.

It’s still too early to think about organized basketball being played any time soon -- bubble or not. Dr. Gandhi points to China and South Korea as examples of countries that have taken months to return to any sort of normalcy even after their COVID-19 infection curve has flattened. 

“It’s going to be a few months before we can even really consider an athletic team taking the field or taking the court,” Dr. Gandhi says. “To think April, May or June, from my point of view, would be quite optimistic and to the point of potentially not being realistic, to think that the NBA could resume any type of normal game structure until this summer, at the earliest.”

In other words, there’s plenty of time to watch Bio-Dome before a possible NBA version of it reaches our screens.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.