Jim Calhoun was on the phone, and in that familiar Boston accent he was talking faster than his Connecticut Huskies used to play. At 79, the Hall of Famer still watches a ton of basketball, college and pro, and he admitted that the Knicks have him a little confused.
“When they signed Kemba Walker,” Calhoun said of his former star, “he wasn’t 6-5. He was 5-11 before and after they signed the contract and it dried. That didn’t change.”
Up front, understand that Calhoun owes Walker a ton 10 years after the point guard led the Huskies on a surreal run through the Big East Tournament all the way to a national title. He loves Walker just like every member of the New York basketball community loved him when he was playing for the Gauchos in The Bronx and for Rice High in Harlem.
And Calhoun is a big fan of the Knicks’ head coach, too, which made Tom Thibodeau’s decision last month to banish Walker from his rotation tough for the former UConn coach to process. Thibs said he wanted to get bigger at that position, among other things, which naturally begged the question: Why did the Knicks sign Walker in the first place?
“It may have been above Thibs’s pay grade, I don’t know,” Calhoun said. “I just care about one of my guys who can still help a team. I can see it with my own eyes. I don’t know if Kemba is quite as good as he once was, but he’s still pretty damn good.”
Good enough, in fact, to have emerged from his Thibs-imposed hibernation to score 50 points, grab 14 rebounds, sink eight 3-pointers and pass for eight assists in a loss to his old team, Boston, and in a victory over Detroit, marking the first time in a decade that a Knicks point guard combined for at least 50 points, 10 rebounds and five 3s in a two-game span. What that would mean Thursday night in the Garden, where the Knicks were set to face Washington, was anybody’s guess. Walker was benched for a reason, and he was certainly capable of reminding Knicks fans of just that when facing the Wizards.
But he was also capable of having another big night on the rebound, which, frankly, was an easy outcome to root for. New York sports fans beaten down by the Giants and Jets, and disappointed by a Knicks team that hasn’t picked up where it left off last spring, could sure use a feel-good development to embrace. With Derrick Rose out eight weeks after ankle surgery, an improbable Walker resurgence would be a hell of a place to start.
On every level he’s played, Walker has led the league in generosity of spirit. His homecoming, at age 31, was a great story, and maybe it didn’t have to die such a grisly premature death after all.
“I haven’t coached many people like him,” Calhoun said, “and he still has something left to give. The day he walked into Madison Square Garden and their Westchester practice facility, you’re a better team. I’m not knocking Tom, who’s a terrific coach, and I know Tom likes big guards. I’m not saying it was a mistake, but to make the move after 20 games, I just don’t know about the urgency of that.”
The Knicks were 11-9 on Nov. 29 when Walker was removed from the first string and told he wouldn’t be part of the second string, either. They went 2-7 with the four-time All-Star planted at the end of the bench, before it took a half dozen COVID positives and Rose’s injury to get him back on the floor. But once he got out there, Walker looked more like the player who had averaged more than 20 points per game in five straight seasons (four in Charlotte) than he did the Knick who had a plus/minus of -122 in 444 minutes when Thibs pulled the plug.
“I know I should be playing,” Walker said after dropping 29 on the Celtics, “so no question, it feels great.” He admitted that he hated sitting and that he hadn’t spoken with his coach since the morning Thibs gave him the bad news.
Calhoun called his former player after he was demoted, and described their conversation as brief. “Kemba doesn’t want to get into negative stuff, and it’s one of his greatest traits,” Calhoun said. “So this is coming from me, not him. I don’t think Tom dislikes Kemba at all, but he has a preference for what guards look like. … I’m biased, but I wouldn’t tell you that a guy can do something if he can’t. And I know Kemba can still score and still help a team win.”
For the sake of an uplifting New York story, here’s hoping Calhoun is right.