Theoden Janes

How 2 Kemba Walker fans became Kemba Walker’s friends

Elizabeth and Mike Peeler chat with Hornets guard Kemba Walker before Monday night’s playoff win against Miami.
Elizabeth and Mike Peeler chat with Hornets guard Kemba Walker before Monday night’s playoff win against Miami. tjanes@charlotteobserver.com

Kemba Walker led the Charlotte Hornets to a crucial playoff victory by scoring a game-high 34 points on Monday night and – who knows? – maybe it was the brownies.

Brownies, which he seems to love more than any other type of chocolate. Brownies, which were discreetly handed to him in a plastic grocery bag as he headed to the locker room after the pregame shootaround.

And not just any brownies, mind you. These brownies were made and delivered to him by Mike and Elizabeth Peeler, Hornets season-ticket holders who by an odd twist of fate have become two of the star point guard’s unlikeliest friends in Charlotte.

“That is, we hope he considers us friends, rather than just some crazy fans,” said Mike Peeler, 65.

But his is a safe assumption: After all, Walker accepts the frequent pregame brownie deliveries from the Peelers with a smile, personally invites them to “just hang out” as VIPs at his youth basketball camp every August in Indian Trail, and – oh yeah – has been a dinner guest at the Peelers’ house in the Dilworth neighborhood on multiple occasions.

And it all started with a knock on the door on Dec. 13, 2011, two days after the then-Bobcats first-round draft pick had arrived in Charlotte.

There were four team representatives in suits on the porch, but it was Walker’s knuckles that did the knocking, and it was Walker who handed over the season tickets to the star-struck Peelers – winners of a raffle for the team’s most loyal fans that had set the stage for this unexpected Christmastime guest.

“They immediately hit it off with Kemba. It was like a light switch going on,” recalled Pete Guelli, the Hornets executive vice president and chief marketing officer, one of the other suits that crashed the Peelers’ living room that day.

“It’s turned into this really special relationship, and they were literally the first people he met when he got on the ground in Charlotte. I don’t know what the chances are. To this day, they talk before every game; they talk after games; they get together. I can’t imagine it happening with too many other athletes.”

It really, truly just sort of happened.

Many nights, the highlight of the game for us … happens before the game.

Mike Peeler, on chatting with Kemba Walker

The Peelers – who run their own market research company and therefore dictate their own work schedule – started arriving at their seats in Section 101 of Time Warner Cable Arena (near the Hornets’ bench) as early as possible, and would often hang out near the mouth of the player tunnel.

Walker, meanwhile, started noticing the familiar faces of these early birds, started waving hello to them as he came onto and left the court, then started chatting with them, sometimes for 10 seconds, sometimes for 10 minutes.

Eventually, there was a dinner invitation that was accepted by Walker, who showed up the first time with his girlfriend and since has made return visits with various family members – despite the Peelers’ two house cats.

“Kemba’s a little bit allergic … and he’s a little bit afraid of them,” Mike Peeler said, chuckling, as he and Elizabeth stood in their usual pregame hangout spot by the player tunnel on Monday night before Game 4 of the playoff series against Miami.

Mike was wearing a purple Hornets T-shirt from 1999, while Elizabeth had on a Kemba jersey and a pair of custom, handpainted Hornets shoes she bought on Etsy and now bear Walker’s autograph. The bag of brownies rested on the ground by her feet, about 25 feet from where Walker was methodically burying midrange jump shots during warmups.

“He always hugs me twice when he stops by to see us,” Elizabeth Peeler said, “before we first start talking and then when he has to leave.”

And as if on cue, Walker suddenly appeared at the railing in front of the Peelers on Monday and draped his arms around Elizabeth, before warmly accepting the homemade brownies from Mike.

Mike Peeler told Walker to be ready for a physical game against the Miami Heat, whom the Hornets trailed 2-1 in the best-of-seven first-round playoff series. Walker said: “We’re ready.” Peeler told Walker to tell big man Frank Kaminsky to watch out. Walker: “Frank’s ready. He’s tough.”

Then Walker embraced Elizabeth Peeler again and headed down the tunnel.

“It’s kind of funny,” Mike Peeler said after Walker disappeared around the corner. “I mean, we’re huge fans. We’ve been season-ticket holders since the second year of the original Hornets. But many nights, the highlight of the game for us … happens before the game. For us, that’s the best. We’re just a couple of ordinary people, and just by a strange stroke of luck, we got to meet him and develop this relationship.”

Almost exactly three hours later, the Hornets were celebrating two straight playoff wins for the first time since 2002 thanks largely to Walker’s 34 points, and the series was freshly guaranteed to return to Charlotte on Friday night – giving the Peelers at least one more opportunity this season to hand Walker a batch of brownies.

Theoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes

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