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Ball Don't Lie

Antoine Walker’s D-League comeback isn’t going so smoothly

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Antoine Walker of the Idaho Stampede (Getty Images)

It's not a sad tale, that Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard wrote on former NBA All-Star Antoine Walker. It's not a confirming tale, either, or a heart-warming one, or a particularly inspiring one. There's too much going on with Walker to fixate on one part of his life -- his early promise, the poor hoop habits that never went away, his off-court largesse, his current struggles in the NBA's minor leagues -- and sign Ballard's story off as a one-note affair. No, it's just another expertly penned piece from one of North America's finest sports writers, on one of the more frustrating figures in NBA history.

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After the NBA collectively decided to take a pass on Walker's declining game back in 2008, reports started to surface about the former Boston Celtic's increasing debt. It appears as if Walker had for years emulated Michael Jordan's lavish off-court lifestyle (including frequent trips to casinos) with Jordan at times but without Jordan's accumulated wealth, and without Jordan's ability to say "no" to hangers-on and family members. As a result, Walker is deeply in debt, and playing for the D-League's Idaho Stampede in the hopes that one more NBA contract (even a year at the minimum would just about wipe away his debt) might be in the offing.

According to Ballard, it doesn't appear that a contract like that is a possibility. We'll quote one of the many must-read passages:

The air is thick with the smell of smoke. The blinds are drawn. A lighter sits on the coffee table, next to a giant jug of Crystal Geyser water. Unlit incense sticks are nearby. On the TV a game of NBA 2K12 is paused in the second quarter—the Pacers versus the Spurs. There is a large box of Cheez-Its on the floor and bagged-up cartons of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the corner. Boxes of Corn Pops and Cap'n Crunch line the top of the refrigerator.

In five hours Walker will take the court for the Idaho Stampede of the NBA's Developmental League. For now he has agreed to talk about how and why he came to be here—a three-time All-Star living in a $915-a-month apartment he shares with reserve guard Chris Davis, and playing for a salary of less than $25,000. He has no car, subsists mainly on cold cuts and fast food and plays in front of crowds as small as 155.

That paints a pretty sad picture, especially when Ballard relays later that Walker is at least 40 pounds over his NBA playing weight, and he wasn't exactly the sveltest specimen during his 12-year NBA career.

It shows in his stats with the Stampede. Walker starts about half his team's games, and averages 25 minutes per game. Despite his All-Star pedigree and accrued wisdom, the 35-year-old (that's it?) averages just 36 percent shooting, and takes over 4 1/2 3-pointers in those 25 minutes despite shooting just 20 percent from behind the arc. He makes less than half his free throws, and has nearly as many turnovers (82) as assists (84) this year. This isn't to kick the guy when he's down, we're just relaying the chance he's been given by coach Randy Livingston (who I think will make a fantastic NBA coach someday) at one last NBA tour.

Ballard's piece is predictably fantastic to read, and he makes a joyful noise to end it, with Walker showing brief signs of his old all-around game in a Stampede blowout win. But there are also tales of missed flights, and delayed interviews -- not just relayed to Ballard after the fact, but in SI's attempts to talk to Walker. This is a man desperate to get back to the NBA, and yet he still can't be bothered to keep up appearances when a major magazine sends a scribe all the way out to Idaho (sorry, Idaho; but you're pretty far away from midtown Manhattan), and Walker can't be bothered to even tidy up. Much less show up.

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It's a little depressing, and as it usually is with Antoine, frustrating. Like we mentioned earlier, Walker is only 35. He may only have a few years left by NBA standards, but … he has a few years left! He's a 6-8 guy with touch and basketball smarts that could still contribute to an NBA team if he got in terrific shape, cut out the bad habits off the court, and canned it with the perimeter obsession on the court.

You know, the sort of things people were begging him to do over a decade ago.

Walker had money back then, though. He had a chance at more contracts and his prime to look forward to. He may have been spending too much, and employing too many people, but the pressures and expectations were different. A smart stint in the D-League could have been his way out, and instead it looks like his old habits are getting in the way of Walker taking advantage of his last viable chance.

I suppose it is a sad story, after all.

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