Charlotte Hornets

‘Magical’ Kemba Walker back in Charlotte for the first time as a Boston Celtic

Kemba Walker was better than any other Charlotte Hornet.

He just never acted that way.

That was the strongest impression former teammates have of Walker, who returns to Spectrum Center on Thursday night for the first time as a Boston Celtic. He was a three-time All-Star in Charlotte, an All-NBA point guard last season, and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Yet, he was continuously just one of the guys.

“That’s Kemba Walker. We’ve been watching him since (winning the 2011 national championship at) UConn,” guard Malik Monk said. “Him being as humble as he is — being cool and laid-back — he was always talking to us. Everywhere we’d go, it was with him. He always wanted us with him.”

Walker scored 12,009 points in eight seasons in Charlotte. He had every intention of re-signing in Charlotte until the Hornets’ offer — about $160 million over five years — fell far short of the maximum allowed of about $221 million. So when the Celtics offered the most they were allowed — $141 million over four years — he left.

In an exclusive interview with the Observer in September, Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak explained the underlying reasoning in not going further to retain Walker.

“We had great years with him, and we didn’t get into the playoffs,” Kupchak said. “What makes us think that next year (would) be different?”

So Kupchak replaced Walker at point guard with ex-Celtic Terry Rozier on a three-year, $57 million deal. The two teams face each other tonight (8 p.m.) at Spectrum Center in a game nationally televised on TNT.

What sort of reception does Walker anticipate?

“I expect it to be a great reception,” Walker said Wednesday on WFNZ. “There isn’t any reason for me to get any boos, or anything like that.”

No, indeed. Walker is the most likable of stars. Despite the breakup, he appreciates his time with the Hornets, particularly the faith owner Michael Jordan showed in him.

“On draft night, I had no idea where I was going. (Jordan) gave me an opportunity to live out my dreams,” Walker told the Observer last month in Boston.

That classy, low-maintenance disposition is what former teammates mentioned most in recalling Walker’s legacy.

“If you didn’t know basketball, and you walked into our locker room, you wouldn’t guess that guy was the star,” guard-forward Nic Batum said. “He never acted crazy with any of that star stuff, like skip practice or be lazy today.”

Yet on the court, he was the alpha male, capable of wild scoring bursts, like the 60-point game he had against the Philadelphia 76ers a year ago. Forward Marvin Williams recalls when Walker would say it’s “winning time” during a timeout, teammates knew he was in attack mode.

“It was magical” when Walker would say that, Batum recalled. “You knew he’d do something in the next two minutes that would put us back in this game.”

Rozier, who spent most of his time in Boston as a backup, is the first to say he’s not Walker. He is posting career statistics (16.9 points and 5.6 assists). He was careful after practice Wednesday not to make too much of this first regular-season meeting with the Celtics.

“Probably emotions will be a little higher, a little different, (than) my first time in Boston” in the regular season, Rozier said. “I’m treating (Thursday) like every other game — big, and I want to win.”

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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