Goodbye to Kemba Walker, one of us

Update 7/7: Kemba Walker has officially become a member of the Boston Celtics:

Let’s begin with a story that’s not about Kemba Walker.

A few years back, my younger son and his then-middle school friends were at a Chick-Fil-A in Charlotte when Thomas Davis of the Carolina Panthers walked in. The boys did what boys do — they stared, then stared some more, then finally worked up the courage to go up to Davis and ask for a picture.

He was great. He posed for the photo, then did the same for others who also were starstruck. It probably happens a lot to Davis, and his graciousness was a reminder of something that people in sports, including journalists, already know: More often than not, extraordinary athletes are closer to ordinary in all the right ways.

Now Charlotte is saying goodbye to one of them.

Kemba Walker is not like us, of course. He’s the best basketball player to ever play for Charlotte’s NBA team. He’s an electric and exquisite talent who will now thrill fans in New England. This city has been lucky to have him wear Charlotte across his chest for eight years.

But Walker is also a humble and gracious man. The guy you see in interviews is the same one people have seen around Charlotte, whether he’s doing an officially nice thing for the Hornets or just walking into the grocery store. A clue to who he is: Before leaving, he held a group chat with his young Hornets teammates, the Observer’s Rick Bonnell reported. It was the kind of thing the nice guy at work would do. Ordinary in the right ways.

In many respects, Kemba’s is a common Charlotte story. He moved here from the northeast because of work. He did his job, but also something else. He invested himself in his new city. He built a life here. It became home.

Then, like a lot of us, he had a hard time leaving. If you’re a Hornets fan, you probably remember an unvarnished post-practice interview Walker gave in 2018 in which he said he’d built a house in Charlotte and wanted to stay here. Maybe you recognized that — the feeling of knowing you’ve put roots in a place, that it’s a part of you in ways you’d rather not let go.

But now he has to. The Hornets, in not offering Walker the contract he deserved, made a decision they needed to make for their future. It also was a decision made necessary by past mistakes, which is why so many people in Charlotte lit into the Hornets on social media and sports talk radio this week. That included one Charlotte City Council member who fired off a tweet that criticized Hornets management and noted that the city owned the building where the team played. As if this was a regular landlord-tenant sort of thing.

But that’s OK. Sports make us do weird and emotional things sometimes. And in a way, the reaction to Kemba leaving says a lot about the time he was here. This is about more than a great athlete going to play for another team. It feels a little like a neighbor is leaving. For that, we should say thank you.

NC Opinion editor Peter St. Onge can be reached at pstonge@charlotteobserver.com; @saintorange