There was a time when the Boston Celtics were as obscure, and as inconsequential, as any other NBA team. Though the current Celtics are just sixth in the Eastern Conference as of Monday, the team still seems to play on national TV every other day, and are the subject of great concern when things go terribly wrong, or exhilaratingly right. That wasn't always the case, though. And during Antoine Walker's first three NBA seasons, well, the dude might as well have been playing for the Grizzlies, or Warriors. Before the advent of League Pass, Antoine Walker was someone you had to see to believe. And by the time we got League Pass, nobody seemed ready to believe. Not with that shot selection.
Walker retired on Saturday, calling it quits following his D-League Idaho Stampede's win over the Bakersfield Jam. It was Walker's second stint with the team, and both versions saw the former NBA All-Star look decidedly out of shape. Nobody should have expected the 35-year-old to keep up with players a decade younger than him, but this turn was supposed to be rehabilitation of sorts. A run created to show that Walker's guile and smarts could aid one of the 30 NBA teams that happily employ players in their mid 30s because of their combination of production and leadership.
Instead, Walker showed up to Idaho completely out of shape. Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard detailed his fast food and sugar-cereal strewn apartment in his must-read feature on Walker's hoped-for NBA return, and Antoine's play reflected the unholy marriage of his shape and NBA stylings. He was still the same old Antoine, shooting endless 3-pointers because there were no 4-pointers to take, well over four per game despite playing only 25 minutes a contest and a terrible 20 percent mark from long range. It was every Antoine Walker stereotype, come true.
Walker left the team soon after Ballard's piece, but recently returned. Dan Devine detailed how the former NBA champion had to sell his championship ring because of financial difficulties, and though Stampede coach Randy Livingston was clearly in Antoine's corner, he couldn't be happy handing minutes to a big forward shooting 36 percent the field, while making less than half his free throws. These aren't even numbers fitting for 40-year-olds working in their last NBA season. Free-throw strokes tend to improve, with time and repetition; and Walker was working amongst minor leaguers. At age 35.
You may not approve of Rick Pitino's methods in college basketball or his ill-fated stint employing Walker as coach and president of the Boston Celtics, but he was spot on in one appraisal of Walker that he once shared with kids at his basketball camp. Walker was the king of the scrimmage, Pitino pointed out, but never worked out individually. It was just game after game after game, which is fun and a credit to Antoine's love of the game, but nothing to grow on. And as a result, Walker's game in those early years with the Celtics was exactly the same as the game he showcased in Dallas, and in Idaho, and in Atlanta, and in Miami. And Memphis and Minnesota.
The man is retiring from hoops, a sad occasion for anyone whose body is telling him that he has to find something else to do for the next two-thirds of his life, and I'm charged with writing nice things about his game. His peak, and his prime. The problem is that there was no sustained peak. He was an All-Star, but once you factor in minutes, pace and efficiency Antoine's numbers ring hollow. He was, by most accounts, a sweet guy who could certainly rile up a huddle in a good way, as we saw during Boston's Game 3 comeback victory in the Eastern Conference finals. A game in which Antoine scored 23 points on 18 shots, with 12 rebounds.
These games weren't the norm, though the per-game numbers sustained. And an out-of-shape Walker boasting the same bad on-court habits couldn't even help a D-League team. He was right to step away.
As we wrote last month, though, this doesn't have to be over.
Antoine turns 36 in August. That's barely even NBA-old, for 6-foot-8 guys. There's time to get in shape. There's time to get it right. There's time to show up to an NBA camp in shape far better than Boris Diaw, with a game that approximates Diaw's but featuring the competitive fire that Diaw sometimes fails to come through with. Walker wants to win, he was never in it for the money, and he clearly enjoys the game. Though he swears he's retired from basketball, and though some of us have no great interest in watching him again should he continue with his old ways, he doesn't have to divorce himself from this game.
Retire, sure, and develop a new identity away from the game. But also understand that even in your mid-30s, this doesn't have to end. Be it in the NBA, the D-League or overseas, Antoine Walker can still contribute to a team that wants to win basketball games.
As it's been for the longest time, though, he has to get in shape, and play smart basketball. For some reason, we'll hold out hope.