CHARLOTTE, N.C – November 7th: the date every Hornets fan circled on their calendars from the day the NBA released their 2019-20 schedule. That day? Kemba Walker’s return to Charlotte.
Kemba was not rocking the familiar purple and teal in the Spectrum Center Thursday night but a foreign green and white – an unusual sight for most. Despite having a different name across his chest, he still received the same amount of love and support as if he never left.
The Hornets honored Kemba with a heartfelt tribute video. Walker could not help but beam up at the jumbo-tron with a look of pure bliss as he embarked on a journey down memory lane, reminiscing through all the extraordinary moments from his eight-year career with the franchise. Uncontrollable tears started rolling down his cheek as he took it all in.
“It was so special, and it definitely made me really emotional,” Walker said after the Celtics beat his former team 108-87. “I was trying to hold it in, but I couldn’t. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to.”
Following the conclusion of the video, all 20,200 fans in the Spectrum Center collectively conjoined to embrace their franchise’s former superstar. He was welcomed with a thunderous influx of emphatic cheers on the night of his illustrious return back to Charlotte. The city and organization embraced him as a 21-year-old kid, and throughout his growth into the man so many aspire to be. He has left a life-long legacy in Charlotte, in the community and on the basketball court, changing the lives of many.
“It was special,” Walker said after a 14 point and 6 assist outing against his former team. “It was special just to be back here, and the amount of love that I’ve been getting throughout this day and leading up to this day, it’s just been a lot of love.”
James Borrego articulated his compersion for Kemba and the commendable regard he rightfully deserved. “It’s always great seeing Kemba,” Borrego exuberantly stated post-game. “He has a great spirit, great competitor and a wonderful person. I think it was a good night for him and for all of us.”
Kemba Walker deserved every ounce of love he received in his return to Charlotte last night. His time and impact as the city’s centerpiece, both on the court and in the community, will have an everlasting impact. Last night both sides got to take a trip down memory lane and thank Walker for the heartfelt impact he left on the queen city.
No ill-will between Kemba and the Hornets
It was not a bittersweet reunion for Kemba but one full of graceful memories and distinct relationships formed that will be forever cherished. “It was happy. I think the bittersweet days are over,” Walker said. In the end, basketball is a business, and the two sides had to go their own separate ways. Walker feels no ill-will towards his former franchise.
“It was a really happy day. I was really, really excited to be back. Really excited to see my family, really excited to see all of my old friends and teammates, my coaching staff, the people who worked to keep this building apart. It was exciting.”
Walker still tries to keep up with his old team as much as possible. One way he does so is by watching his former team’s games this season. “I watch every game, whenever we are not playing at the same time,” Walker said at Thursday morning’s shoot-around. “It’s exciting, actually, to see their growth, especially Devonte’; he stole a couple of my moves. I see that in his game a little bit.
“But it’s so exciting. I know how hard those guys work, and I was their vet last year. Devonte’ and Miles (Bridges) and Dwayne (Bacon), we were always together, and even now we have a little group chat that we’re always in, talking. So yeah, we still communicate.”
Despite not being offered the full five-year/$221 million super max contract this past summer that Walker was eligible for, Kemba still has a special place in his heart for Hornets’ owner Michael Jordan. Their relationship has not changed. “M.J.’s always going to be a special guy in my life.”
In fact, Kemba credited Jordan – who drafted him in 2011 – to his holistic growth. “He’s one of the reasons why I am who I am today. He gave me the opportunity to flourish as a basketball player. He gave me an opportunity to grow as a man in this community. M.J. is always going to have a special place in my heart.”
Cody Zeller’s sneaker tribute illustrates Kemba’s everlasting impact in the Charlotte community
One thing that is for sure is Kemba Walker will always leave an astounding impact on the Charlotte community. His influence was not only felt between the painted lines on the court but just as much in the community. To emphasize his imprint on the community, Walker’s former teammate and good friend, Cody Zeller, paid tribute to him by wearing custom sneakers in Thursday night’s game.
Walker was a regular volunteer at the local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter where he closely mentored four kids in the Charlotte community. Kemba would mentor these kids on life, take them to dinner, teach good nutritional habits to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Additionally, he encouraged them to stay engaged in school and maintain good grades, along with providing them tickets to Hornets games.
Zeller’s sneakers contained heartfelt messages from each of Walker’s four mentees.
Kemba had legendary success on the court during his 8 years in Charlotte, but I hope people also realize the impact that he had in the community! I reached out to 4 of the kids that he personally mentored through @bbbscc and asked for help designing these custom #KicksforKids pic.twitter.com/1ISVkaTEon— Cody Zeller (@CodyZeller) November 7, 2019
Before the game last night, Kemba had a special moment catching up with his four mentees. “It was great. Those were my mentees. I’ve been mentoring those kids for about two or three years now,” Walker said with a joyous look postgame. “And we still have a special relationship, so it was really good to see them. We’ve been communicating through videos and stuff like that, but for me to be here and see them in person was really special for me.”
Kemba was beyond grateful for the respect Cody Zeller paid him. “The shoes were dope. They were cool, man. Cody is a very close friend of mine. We played together for a very long time. And for him to pay a tribute to me and my mentees like that was pretty special.”
Kemba focused on winning despite an emotional reunion
Kemba may have been focused on winning games for the Celtics this season – a big reason for their 6-1 start – but he was looking forward to his return to his former team for some time. “I knew it was going to be special time, a special night. If I could 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.”
Kemba garnered all the admiration he rightfully deserved in an emotional pregame standing ovation. Essentially every person in attendance at the Spectrum Center arose delivering an electric, sensational ovation to Kemba both prior to his tribute video and directly following his introduction into the starting lineup. That moment was one of those moments where your body is immediately injected with a rush of chills.
“It was amazing. It was amazing. Just a great feeling to know that they still have love for me even though I left. But you know, to be back and to get the reception was really cool.”
Despite a sentimental ceremony to welcome back the UConn product after eight years of service to the Hornets and the city of Charlotte, Kemba was focused on winning the game and that alone. Walker had a rough start to his welcome back party in Uptown Charlotte last night. He started the game 0-6 from the field and had just three points at halftime. Ultimately, he finished the game with 14 points and 6 assists as the Celtics defeated his former franchise 108-87.
Kemba Walker had a below average performance considering his All-NBA standards. Postgame he spoke on if the emotional roller coaster of the day’s entirety affected his play. “No I don’t think so, I was just off. That’s it. It’s just a part of the game, I thought I was missing. Just missed shots and I thought I took good shots, I was just missing,” Walker said. “I don’t think the way I played had anything to do with the emotions or anything like that. My main focus was just to get a win and help in any way possible.”
Kemba’s new teammates understood the magnitude of the night for Walker
Gordon Hayward has been through a night similar to the one of his new point guard. Similar in terms of returning to a team he spent close to a decade with, not the reception he received. During Hayward’s return to Utah he was welcomed with an influx of boisterous boos. During pre-game, player introductions, and every time Hayward touched the ball he heard a thunderous chorus of boos.
Hayward understood the significance of the night for his teammate and how much he meant to this city. “We were all cognizant of what was going on. It was a special moment with the video, and we wanted to play really hard for him tonight,” Gordon told the media following the game. “He meant so much to this organization and this city with everything he did, the tribute video was really cool. I’m happy for him to come back here and for us to get the win and for him to get the ovation and stuff. That was really cool.”
Celtics’ forward Jayson Tatum voiced his compersion for Kemba, acknowledging how Walker was fully deserving of every bit of commendation. “It was great. I’m very happy that they gave him the tribute video. He more than deserved that. You see he got emotional, as he should,” Tatum explained. “He gave that organization everything. Kemba will tell you first and foremost he wanted to win, that’s all he cared about. It was great for him and the fans.
“We all realized the moment and what was going on and for sure just wanted to help him have a good night here. So we definitely wanted to win for him.”
As Kemba Walker left the court at the conclusion of the game, vast crowds gathered to give their former franchise player one last emphatic roar of gratitude as he exited into the tunnel.