Kemba Walker is a fierce competitor. Kemba Walker is a gentleman.
Those aren’t mutually exclusive descriptions.
Walker, the Charlotte Hornets’ All-Star point guard, is hard-wired to win. You don’t make it to the NBA at 6-foot-1 without a multitude of toughness and persistence.
That doesn’t mean Walker must be a jerk to succeed. He was raised by working-class parents in a rough New York City neighborhood to respect others. To be humble. To treat those he encounters as he would want to be treated.
Last month, Walker received the NBA’s annual sportsmanship award, as voted by the league’s players. When Walker was told during last season he had been nominated for that award, he didn’t give it much thought. When he received a call a few weeks ago that he’d won, it surprised and delighted him.
That’s because his peers made this call.
“No question. That was huge for me,” Walker, 27, said of the players’ vote. “I love to compete against the best, but it’s just not me” to be a jerk about it.
That comes from his parents, Paul and Andrea, who raised him and his three siblings in The Bronx, each working long hours to provide for the family. Walker recalls his parents never missing work, even when they were sick and running high temperatures.
“I always saw that, and that made me work hard,” Walker said. “I never thought I’d be this good at basketball, but I worked at it. That was all because of my parents.”
Walker says his personality is a blend of his parents. He gets his excitement, his animation, from his mother (“Anybody who’s seen her at a game knows that,” Walker said). His more reserved side comes from his father. Also, his demands of himself.
“Nothing about the good stuff, just the bad stuff,” Walker recalled with a chuckle of his father’s critiques. “He was really, really hard on me, but never in a harsh way.”
Walker is playing on a four-year, $48 million contract. That’s below-market compensation in the quickly escalating salary structure for top NBA point guards. But Walker wanted financial security two years ago that his current contract provides.
His first priority was to make sure his parents never had to labor again.
“I’m blessed to be able to provide for my parents. That’s such a good feeling,” Walker said. “They taught me to be level-headed, to never fall out of character. To be the same person all the time.”
He doesn’t claim to be perfectly behaved. Walker was charged with six technical fouls last season. However, dignity and humility matter.
Speaking of humility, who received Walker’s vote for the sportsmanship award?
“I didn’t vote for me. Who does that?” Walker asserted. “I voted for (New Orleans Pelican) Anthony Davis.”