Kemba Walker has always viewed himself as the Everyman athlete. His Saturday to-do list reflected that:
▪ Find the boss (Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan) a birthday card.
▪ Tell some out-of-town colleagues (all those other All-Stars) where to eat (Nakato, a Japanese steakhouse).
▪ Grab a nap before the evening company function.
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OK, Saturday was a bit out of the ordinary. For the first time in his eight-season NBA career, Walker was an All-Star starter and All-Star Weekend is in his adopted hometown, where he’s spent all eight of his pro seasons.
Walker was prepared for all sorts of questions from his fellow All-Stars about Charlotte. He had a fall-back plan in the event he couldn’t field something.
“I mean, they can always ask Steph!” Walker told a circle of reporters Saturday morning at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
“Steph” is Stephen Curry, who might not technically be a native (born in Ohio when his dad, Dell, played for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1987-88 season), but who is as Charlottean as they come. Curry reinvigorated Davidson basketball before going on to be a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player with the Golden State Warriors. Now he’s among the biggest stars in the NBA, but not too big to spend Friday back on campus, cheering Davidson on against Saint Joseph’s.
Walker and Curry will start together in the backcourt for the team Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo drafted in Sunday’s All-Star Game at Spectrum Center. It struck me that what those two share, beyond a gift for playing point guard, is the benefits of great parenting.
Different backgrounds, similar message
I’ve spent a lot of time around Walker and Curry, Stephen starting when he was a small boy. They both navigate fame with grace. They both understand they are exceptional at something that entertains and is extremely lucrative. The difference between them and some others of their stature is neither thinks he is above the world that surrounds him.
I’ve seen Steph eating Chick-fil-A at the student center at Davidson with former classmates. I’ve seen Kemba walk around SouthPark Mall like a teenager. They like being normal folk when it’s possible. I’m not saying their lives haven’t changed or they aren’t more wary of their surrounding or protective of their privacy. But they haven’t sequestered themselves from the rest of society.
Neither one is a diva.
Kemba has told me he’s somewhat uneasy with fame for just that reason; he doesn’t want it changing him for the worse. His parents raised him in the Bronx to be proud, but not haughty. When everyone else was pumping up his basketball performances in high school, his father pointed out flaws. Not in a discouraging way, but in a manner that provided balance and humility, that drove him at Connecticut and beyond.
Walker’s parents didn’t have a lot financially, but they always provided for Kemba and his sister. Kemba told me his parents’ behavior taught him work ethic. He’d see them troop off to provide for the family, even when sick, in a way that kept him from ever whining about some basketball drill.
The Walker family didn’t belong to a country club, but there was a Boys and Girls Club, where Kemba could play ball and swim and bowl and do his homework.
Advantages, not indulgences
Obviously, the Curry family had it better financially, thanks to Dell’s 16-season NBA career. The resources were there so that Steph and his two siblings - brother Seth (now a Portland Trail Blazer and in Saturday night’s 3-point contest) and sister Sydel - could have been spoiled brats. My view of those kids - and I saw them a lot - was just the opposite: They were raised to be respectful, polite and kind.
Sonya Curry did a great job in those years after Dell finished with the Hornets, overseeing the kids while Dell continued playing in Milwaukee and Toronto. The example I saw was, “Have confidence and pride - stick up for yourselves - but don’t indulge yourselves.”
I thought Steph’s coach at Davidson, Bob McKillop, articulated that well when he said Steph knows when it’s time to be humble and when it’s time to be arrogant. McKillop could just as easily have been describing Kemba.
Good ego, bad ego
Ego is not inherently bad. It is impossible to reach greatness, particularly in a forum as competitive as the NBA, without it.
Ego is corrosive only when it blinds judgment and puts up walls from the rest of the world.
Two sets of parents in very different situations got that message across. The Walkers and Currys get to sit back Sunday night and watch the rewards right here in Charlotte, USA.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell