Kemba Walker told me recently one of the things he loves about Charlotte is people here treat him like a regular guy.
He is a regular guy, after all: If he walked past you on Tryon Street, and you didn’t recognize his face, he wouldn’t stick out. That’s rare in the NBA, where most of these guys are such giants, they can’t help but stick out.
That’s what made Wednesday night even cooler: This regular guy did something extraordinary in becoming the Charlotte Hornets’ all-time scoring leader.
Walker is listed as 6-foot-1. Maybe, if he’s on his tiptoes. But when he gets up to speed, he blows by most anyone guarding him. Add the 3-point shot he refined in the summer of 2015, and he is among the NBA’s toughest covers.
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So even on a substandard night Wednesday – he started this game 1-of-8 from the field – he managed to score 21 points to top Dell Curry’s longtime mark of 9,839. It took until a layup with 18 seconds left and the Cleveland Cavaliers up double digits, but that’s OK. He crossed it off the to-do list at the Spectrum Center, where Hornets fans haven’t had much else to celebrate this season.
Walker says he wasn’t pressing to get this behind him, although it appeared so in the first half.
“Not really,” Walker said, when asked if he felt pressure. “It might have seemed that way.
“It was on my mind; I wanted to get it tonight. I just wish it had been a more competitive game.”
Walker finds it incredible that a little guy from the Bronx, in New York City, now can call himself the all-time scorer for one of 30 NBA franchises. Most Charlotteans probably don’t get how preposterous that seems to a guy from Walker’s neighborhood.
“From where I started, I don’t think anybody would have thought I’d be this franchise’s all-time leading scorer.”
Walker meant both because of his common-man height and his rough upbringing. It was no given he’d even get to a college program like Connecticut, where he eventually won a national championship in 2011.
“I’m from a rough place in the Bronx. Not a lot of people make it this far (from there), especially as a professional athlete,” Walker described. “My city loves me to death, and I love where I’m from.”
He’s from New York and still of New York, but seven years into this, he’s now as much “y’all” as he is “youse guys.” The calm, welcoming tone of Charlotte suits him. Kemba told me Monday morning he loves that he can go out to dinner with family, and others in the restaurant respect his space.
That doesn’t mean he’s disinterested in interacting with fans; rather, he appreciates the courtesy ingrained in Charlotte culture.
That’s part of why Wednesday was big to him. He mentioned postgame how much Hornets fans endure: The seasons without playoffs (five misses in Walker’s seven in the NBA) and the inability to match talent with the LeBrons and James Harden’s.
They show up and they show him love. This was his way of saying thanks for caring.
“I wanted this for the people who have seen me grow as a basketball player,” Walker described. “I wouldn’t have gotten that same ovation in Washington (where the Hornets next play Saturday). I wanted them to be the ones.”
He cried when he was presented the ball that fell through the hoop to set the record. He was embraced by James, who appreciated the historic significance.
“He just told me congratulations, and it’s a huge accomplishment. He’s the best player in the world; coming from him, that means a lot!”
Coming from anyone, it means a lot. He’s a kid from the Bronx whose life exceeded his dreams.
The tears were real, and they were earned. It was a sweet, genuine moment in a season overloaded with disappointment.
Cavaliers 118, Hornets 105
CLEVELAND (118)—James 14-26 9-11 41, Green 6-15 5-5 18, Thompson 1-2 0-0 2, Hood 5-12 1-2 13, Hill 4-13 0-0 9, Osman 1-2 0-0 3, Nance Jr. 2-5 0-0 4, Zizic 0-0 0-0 0, Calderon 2-2 0-0 4, Perrantes 0-1 0-0 0, Holland 0-0 0-0 0, Smith 8-9 2-2 19, Clarkson 2-6 0-0 5. Totals 45-93 17-20 118.
CHARLOTTE (105)—Kidd-Gilchrist 5-7 1-2 11, Williams 0-4 6-6 6, Howard 7-12 5-5 19, Walker 7-18 5-5 21, Batum 2-5 2-2 6, Bacon 3-7 0-0 6, Kaminsky 7-9 1-2 16, Hernangomez 0-0 0-0 0, Monk 3-6 0-0 7, Lamb 4-6 2-2 11, Graham 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 39-76 22-24 105.
3-Point Goals—Cleveland 11-28 (James 4-8, Hood 2-4, Osman 1-2, Smith 1-2, Clarkson 1-3, Green 1-4, Hill 1-5), Charlotte 5-21 (Walker 2-8, Kaminsky 1-1, Monk 1-3, Lamb 1-3, Bacon 0-2, Batum 0-2, Williams 0-2). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Cleveland 38 (James 10), Charlotte 40 (Howard 10). Assists—Cleveland 22 (James 8), Charlotte 20 (Batum 5). Total Fouls—Cleveland 19, Charlotte 16. Technicals—Charlotte coach Hornets (Defensive three second). A—19,474 (19,077).