October 6, 1997
How Good is Antoine Walker?
He doesn't make futuristic references when he speaks. Talk to him for a few moments and you learn that he demands greatness. Now. Want to make his hunger worse? Tell him someone, especially a forward, is a better player.
That's what happened to Antoine Walker late last season. He heard someone say Vancouver's Shareef Abdur-Rahim was a better rookie. He was incensed. The next time he took the court he dropped 37 angry points on the Sixers. He walked off the court and asked, rhetorically, "Can Shareef do that?" Well, no, he probably couldn't. The Celtics, though, lost the game.
All of that will be taken into consideration this year. Rick Pitino is asking his 6-foot-9-inch forward to do something no other Celtic in history has done. The coach wants Walker to be a 21-year-old All-Star. Bill Russell didn't do that. Neither did John Havlicek and Sam Jones. Never mind that early entry has reshaped the NBA's terrain in the last decade. Twenty-one is young. Look at it this way: When Havlicek and Dave Cowens were participating in that thrilling, three-overtime Finals game at Boston Garden against the Suns in 1976, Walker was a few months away from birth.
So, uh, Coach. Did we hear you correctly? Please repeat yourself.
"Antoine is the guy we need to make the All-Star team," Pitino said. He did not flinch when he completed the statement. "When we look down the road, we're going to need three All-Stars to win a championship. Antoine is the one player who has the potential to make the All-Star team, and that's what we've got to develop in him."
But this year?
"Yes," Pitino said, "without question this year."
Pitino spent many nights last season watching pro basketball. He saw Walker's ability to score at will, an amazing accomplishment for a first-year player. He also saw the 67 losses, an amazing accomplishment for a non-first-year team. Pitino's point: He can help Walker become an All-Star, which will lead to the Celtics losing less.
"There are a lot of great players around," Pitino said. "But there are those who have greatness and can also make other players play better. Antoine is a terrific passer. He can break you down off the dribble and create easy shots for other players. That's the way we have to get him thinking."
It's safe to say he wasn't thinking that way last year. He averaged 17.5 points and nine rebounds for the worst team in Celtics history. It was not a case of the familiar NBA short story: Good Numbers On Bad Teams. Walker can play. He is closer to 6-10 than he is to 6-9 and he can handle the ball. One thing Pitino won't have to worry about is boosting his confidence.
"He has the reputation, he has that presence," Pitino said. "That's often half the battle."
What does he mean? Well, Walker is one of the few players who can yap with Gary Payton. He refused to back down from Chris Webber last year. He taunted Marcus Camby. He wasn't afraid of Kevin Garnett and Tom Gugliotta.
Walker says he can take occasional assaults on his game, too. "You've got to be able to take constructive criticism," he said. "Look, I ain't got no friends when I step on the court. I'm trying to get better. If I say something that offends you on the court, you can't take it off the court. Coach Pitino may say something, criticize your game when you're on the court. But that doesn't mean he thinks of you less when you step off the court."
Which, of course, leads to the next issue. What, exactly, is the status of the Walker-Pitino ticket? Pitino made a phone call to Walker's agent, David Falk, in April. He asked if it were true that Walker would leave if Pitino took the head coaching job. He wanted to know if there was any truth to the rumor that Walker wanted M.L. Carr to stay and would be quite pleased if Pitino kept himself rooted in the bluegrass of Lexington, Ky. The rumors weren't completely false, but Walker said they were distorted.
"I talked to Coach P frequently last season," he said. "I went down there for the Final Four. We have a great relationship. But someone can't ask me what I feel about coaches in March, in a season where we're losing 60-something games. I couldn't criticize M.L. and talk about bringing in someone else. Coach Pitino got me to the NBA. M.L. was a great person for me also. He did a lot of things for me, on and off the court. I have a great relationship with them both."
Carr drafted him. Pitino will coach him. If he reaches the historic All-Star level predicted for him, both of his coaches will be in-house to share the honor with him.