Let Kemba go, Charlotte

Kemba talked about staying in Charlotte

Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker made no bones about it back in September: He said he wants to remain a Hornet and help to create some special.
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Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker made no bones about it back in September: He said he wants to remain a Hornet and help to create some special.

We write sparingly about sports in our opinion corner of the Charlotte Observer. When we do, it’s usually when professional teams intersect with public policy, such as when we suggested the city of Charlotte not give the Charlotte Knights so much money to move uptown, and when we cautioned the city not to open the vault for the Carolina Panthers and, hmmmm, maybe there’s a pattern here.

But we have sports fans on the editorial board — big sports fans, in fact. That’s why it’s been a pleasure the past eight years to watch Kemba Walker play basketball so magnificently and represent our city so admirably. It’s also why Charlotte needs to do a really hard thing right now.

It’s time to let Kemba Walker go.

This is not a sports argument, although there’s a case to be made that it’s better for the Hornets to let Walker sign somewhere else in free agency this summer rather than pay him more than any other team — which owner Michael Jordan can do — so that he stays.

This is a human argument — how a special player should get the opportunity to find something truly special someplace else. Walker is a legitimate NBA All-Star in the prime of his career, but he’s on a team that has too many players whose performance doesn’t live up to the big dollars they’re paid. That is, at least in the short term, a recipe for more of what fans saw Wednesday — Kemba lighting up the Orlando Magic for 43 points, but the Hornets losing and missing the playoffs for the third straight year.

Afterward, surrounded by reporters asking about his future, a tired Walker said: “I have no idea.”

Yes, it’s true that no one should feel sorry for an athlete about to make hundreds of millions of dollars. But Walker is an uncompromising competitor, and great athletes measure their careers not in big contracts but big wins. One moment this year that’s stuck with us: When Miami’s Dwyane Wade played his last game at the Spectrum Center in March, he exchanged jerseys with Walker as he has this season with many of the NBA’s best. Wade and Walker then posed with their swapped jerseys for the cameras — two great players but only one certain Hall of Famer who’s had the benefit of playing on championship teams with other Hall of Famers.

That jersey swap, by the way, came after the Hornets blew another lead in another important late-season game in which Walker led the team in scoring. It’s not a tragedy — few things in sports really are — but it’s a waste of a brilliant talent. And it’s sad.

As for the sports argument: Yes, the Hornets are better and more enjoyable to watch right now with Walker. But it will be tough for Michael Jordan and the front office to put the pieces around him that would make the team better than mediocre. It very well could be in the franchise’s best interest to start over, lose a lot now and get financially flexible so that it can finally provide the city with a winner.

But this isn’t only about us. It’s about him. The Hornets should let Kemba walk. Charlotteans should say goodbye. And thank you. And come back home when you’re done.