Come next month, it’s within the realm of possibility we'll get to see Kemba Walker wearing an NBA All-Star uniform for the first time.
But even if we do, it’s unlikely that getup will be as memorable as Walker in a cowboy hat, duster coat and longhorn belt buckle – an ensemble he gamely sports in a so-intentionally-bad-it’s-good marketing campaign aimed at getting him to New Orleans for the Feb. 17-19 All-Star Weekend.
You might also wonder whether Walker, who turned 11 about the time it ended its run on CBS in 2001, had to be clued in on the joke.
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But the more times you watch Walker free a boy from underneath a pile of cardboard boxes with a hard chest pass, and the more times you watch teammate/“deputy” Frank Kaminsky crack his air whip, and for sure the more times you hear Hornet center Spencer Hawes sing the “Eye of the Ranger” theme song, the more ridiculously sublime the whole thing becomes.
And for the record: “I’ve seen it a few times,” Walker said of Chuck Norris’s famously corny TV series. “My dad used to watch it back in the day.”
The idea to pump up Walker’s All-Star candidacy had been gestating for months – the Hornets were determined to do something after they felt he was snubbed last year, said Pete Guelli, the team’s executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer – and “Charlotte Ranger’s” gimmicky charm falls in line with other silly ads the team has concocted in the past. (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s “MKG Security” comes to mind, and in fact, MKG makes a cameo in Walker’s series as a security guard.)
But the casting came together somewhat on the fly: Kaminsky earned the sidekick role after Nic Batum had to drop out for scheduling reasons, and Hawes essentially muscled his way into the production.
“We were in Dallas at the hotel and I met Frank in the lobby to talk to him about the idea and asked him if he could participate the next day,” said Brian Travis, senior manager of basketball communications for the Hornets. “And he was actually going out to dinner with Spencer, and Spencer was like, ‘Well, what’s my role? How am I gonna be involved?’ ... That’s kind of how the process worked.”
Shooting took place in various exotic locations inside the Spectrum Center back in Charlotte, on Dec. 6, and wrapped in just a couple of hours – though it’s unclear how many takes it took Walker and Kaminsky to pull off this exchange:
Kaminsky: “Need me to call for backup?”
Walker: “The bad guys are gonna be the ones that need backup.”
The sneak preview launched online Dec. 23, the two just-over-one-minute-long episodes dropping on Christmas Eve, and the NBA opened voting on Christmas Day.
“A high-quality production like that – what, you didn’t think it took six months to a year to produce?” Guelli quipped. “But seriously, the point was to get something that was a little bit campy. This is supposed to be irreverent, tongue-in-cheek, fun ... it’s more about awareness.
“I mean, candidly, it’s gonna be really tough to get somebody voted in. Even with the changes to All-Star voting, it’s still more of a popularity contest. But if we could get the media to pick up on it, and continue to talk about how he’s a legitimate candidate for the All-Star game this year, that starts to sink in with coaches, and when they pick the alternates, it increases the likelihood that Kemba’s top of mind when that happens.”
Walker’s selection is far from a slam dunk. According to the first of two how-voting’s-going-so-far updates released last Thursday, the Hornets’ point guard is ninth in votes among players at his position in the East. (Ultimately, fans will account for 50 percent of the vote, while – and this is new for 2017 – all current players and a panel of basketball media will account for 25 percent each.)
So he has zero chance of being a starter. But the league’s coaches select the reserves, and based on his numbers this year, Walker can make a strong argument: His 23.1 points per game is a career best, and he’s also averaging 5.4 assists and 1.3 steals for the Hornets, who have the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference at 20-18. He’s also fifth in the league in clutch-time stats (meaning he’s stellar when the game is on the line), and third in charges drawn (meaning he’s willing to give up his body for the team).
Still, his numbers were pretty good when he was passed over last January, too – 20 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, all career-high averages.
“Stuff like that doesn’t bother me,” Walker said of how he felt after last year’s coaches’ decisions were rendered. “Obviously they thought that I wasn’t ready to be in the game that year, so there’s nothing I can really do. I just go out and play as best as I can each and every night.”
As for the “Walker, Charlotte Ranger” campaign, at least on some level, it’s achieved Guelli’s stated goal by successfully turning the heads of the national media. USA Today and NBC Sports both tagged the campaign “brilliant.” Yahoo! Sports hailed it as “ludicrous and good.” And an ESPN anchor declared it “clever” and “my new favorite show.”
Based on these reviews, even if Walker winds up once again holding the short straw when the All-Star reserves are announced on Jan. 26, perhaps something good will come out of the fun the guys had making the videos.
“Frank – I think he definitely has a chance at Hollywood after his basketball career,” Walker said. As for his own acting prospects post-NBA? “I got no chance,” he added, with a laugh. “No chance.”
‘Walker, Charlotte Ranger’
Check out the website for details: www.walkercharlotteranger.com.
Fan voting will conclude on Jan. 16; starters will be announced live on TNT at 7 p.m. on Jan. 19; the Eastern Conference and Western Conference All-Star reserves, as selected by NBA head coaches, will be announced on Jan. 26. For more information on NBA All-Star Game voting: www.nba.com/vote.