Employee #8 Feels Misunderstood

Employee #8 Feels Misunderstood

July 17, 1998

The coach wears prebleached, blue-jean shorts made by Maurice Malone. So, officially, the huge "M" sewn on one of his back pockets is the signature of the designer. But it could easily stand for misunderstood. Ask yourself: Do you know him? Now, ask more than 200 Chicagoans, most of them between ages 7 and 14, the same question.

Of course you recognize Antoine Walker. He is hard to miss. He is the tall one, 6 feet 9 inches, soon to be 22 years old, wearing a white T-shirt soaked with sweat. It is wet because the tall Celtic is now going hoarse, calling for a fullcourt press during an all-star game at his summer camp. Afterward, his campers will tell you how they hung out with Coach Walker for six 6-hour days at Mount Carmel High; watched videos and ate pizza with him; were instructed by him; received autographed posters, equipment bags, and water bottles from him and, most important, left with experiences and memories that cost as much as the entry fee to "Toine's Camps: Chicago '98": nothing.

The Celtics and Rick Pitino recognize Walker, too. Do they know him? Maybe they don't realize how he feels about his friends and his profession, strong enough to say that Pitino's summer camps in Boston are a waste of his time and that he will never attend. "Never," he repeats. Maybe they don't know how he defines loyalty, intense enough to say that he doesn't feel his coach is supporting him, he isn't sure if he wants to play for him anymore, sometimes he doesn't feel like a part of the team, and that if the NBA lockout ends soon enough for the Celtics to sign him in 1998 and they don't do it, he will say goodbye to Boston, guaranteed.

Maybe skeptics don't know how his sisters, Tywanna and Konosha, influence several of his dances and how many of his moves are daily love letters to them. Or how the cellphone that thrice fell from that big "M" back pocket while he was coaching is used to keep in constant contact with his mother, Diane. Or how he recently dropped $ 12,000 to bankroll a struggling AAU team that needed funds for trips to Atlanta and Las Vegas. There was even a meeting he set up between adidas and his friend, Ed Hall, a man Walker thought would be a nice fit with the athletic company's creative unit.

We all know that he is from Chicago, but do we know that most adults in his family don't want him to play for the Bulls and would prefer he stay in Boston? And since we are speaking of Boston, we must mention contracts. Six years at $ 100 million? Walker insists that Paul Gaston and Pitino have never received such a demand, from him or his agent.

Now ask yourself again: Do you know the man who has spent two seasons improvising on the parquet? And remember, ask the kids, too.

"I just do what I do," he says as he drives his silver Mercedes Benz north on Lakeshore Drive. "People always make their own impression of you and, maybe, give you a title that you may not want. So I just chill. What I do means more for the kids than what the media will ever see, so I do it for the kids."

But what of the Celtics? Their future depends on their understanding of Antoine Walker. He is their franchise player. They must know everything they can about him. And although he says there hasn't been a salary demand from him, you can be sure the price tag will be significantly higher than the nonexistent one Chicago adolescents paid to spend a few summer days with 'Toine.

Priorities questioned

Walker is inside his sparsely decorated loft, only a few minutes from the United Center. There are pictures of Ron Mercer, Chauncey Billups, and Walter McCarty. There are also pictures of Walker with his friends from Chicago. On the floor is a videogame that Walker masters, NBA Live. He leans back in a black leather chair and discusses the only coach who impressed his mother four years ago during recruiting season.

He is asked why he didn't attend Pitino's summer camp. Two weeks ago, Pitino said Walker's absence "disappointed" him.

"Some guys need to go," Walker said. "Some guys are rookies and need it. I think it's fine for the guys who are in the area. They are going to stay there and make Boston their home. That's fine. But here, I have my own little thing I do he works out with several NBA players, Juwan Howard, Tim Hardaway, and Randy Brown among them and it's worked well for me so far in my career. What do you want me to do, stop?"

Pitino wasn't suggesting he stop his routine. But the coach did question why Walker was in Vancouver, British Columbia, for the draft with former Kentucky teammate Nazr Mohammed when he could have been in Boston working out.

"Well," Walker said, "I think it's summertime. I'm on my own. Nazr is a good friend of mine who asked me to be at his draft. Coach Pitino never asked me personally; he never said he wanted me to be in Boston. He sent someone else to call me. I think that has to be highlighted. If you want me there so bad, you have to call and explain that to me. Then I could have told him I'm not going to be there. Maybe if he said me being there would have made everybody else come, then maybe I would have made that sacrifice.

"But right now, there's too many negative comments being put in the paper. I don't even feel like a part of the team. My intention was to go. I would have went if I had known ahead of time. But then I found out we were going there for individual workouts; I thought we were going as a group, as a team, maybe get something accomplished. We were going for individual workouts. I think that's a waste of time. I can do that where I'm at in Chicago."

Reached last night, Pitino said he couldn't comment on any of Walker's remarks. "We're in a lockout," the coach said. "So I can't comment."

But it is clear the coach does not appreciate Walker speaking out against him. While at Kentucky, Pitino had a rule: If you can't say anything positive, don't say anything. Obviously, Pitino will not see Walker's remarks as positive.

Eventually, Walker will rise from his chair and excitedly clap his hands. At that moment, the childrens' all-star game will be conceived. It was not part of the original camp plan, but anyone who knows Walker can tell you that he loves competition. Eventually, he will sit down with 12-year-old Jamale Tidwell - "a young blazer," Walker says, pointing to the gifted basketball player - and make sure he has a pair of new adidas, the company with which Walker recently signed a 10-year contract. Eventually, he will ask Tidwell if he will be OK getting home with the new shoes because he knows that people sometimes do terrible things to acquire new sneakers.

But all that will happen later. Walker is upset.

"There's a lot I have to evaluate right now," he says. "Do I want to stay in Boston? Do I want to play for Coach Pitino? And right now, I don't think comments should be made. If your main goal is to sign me, just say, "My goal is to sign Antoine. We haven't talked to him yet.' Don't make comments in the paper about, 'Well, Antoine wants too much money . . .' when you haven't spoken to me personally or my agent. And that's the thing that upsets me the most. I don't want to get into the verbal back-and-forth of you said this and you said that. But a person can only take so much of negative publicity."

So does he want to stay in Boston? His uncle, Mike Walker, wants him to stay ("Best place for him," his uncle says). Mike Walker's sister, Antoine's mother, wants him to stay ("Rick Pitino was the only one who came to my home and stressed education," Diane Walker says. "He told me he would treat my son like his own and I appreciated that."). Does Walker, the All-Star, want to stay?

"To be honest, I would love to," he says. "But sometimes I have doubts. Right now with the comments being made, well, I don't like comments being made, know what I'm saying? Right now, I'm an All-Star at this level. And I want to be treated like that. You work hard to get at a certain level, you want to maintain that level. And I can't maintain it like this when my coach isn't behind me.

"I'm tired of this negative publicity that's been getting in the paper. They say, "We didn't say it like this; we didn't word it like that.' Why not just: 'No comment'?"

There is a lot unsaid in the Walker pauses. He remembers all slights and perceived shuns. For all the Walker Wiggles and technicals and scowls, Walker is described as a soft-spoken man who craves the every-other-week, Sunday-through-Friday sessions he has with his 4-year-old daughter, Crystal.

"She's built just like 'Toine," laughs Dennis Smith, a friend of Walker's. "She's knock-kneed and everything."

Walker remembers not receiving the Catholic League MVP at Mount Carmel, an award that went to a rival player named Jerry Gee, who played at Illinois. He remembers the taunts from fans, people chastising him for showing off, people saying he couldn't read. He remembers not getting consideration for Rookie of the Year. He remembers Grizzlies general manager Stu Jackson telling him that he couldn't pick him third in the 1996 draft because he wasn't projected that high. He remembers last month, how he wanted the Celtics to draft forward-center Mohammed and how they wound up with guard-forward Paul Pierce.

"Pierce is a good player," Walker says. "He's a guy who can come off the bench and give scoring to our second unit. But I know our team needs. We need big people."

Whoa. Pierce off the bench? How about Pierce starting?

"It could happen," Walker said. ". . . But I don't see it."

Walker is a sensitive man. So if the Celtics choose to wait and see how he performs in 1998-99 without first signing him to a contract extension . . .

"If that happens, I won't re-sign. That's a guarantee. If the lockout works out where I can sign this year and they don't sign me to an extension, I will not come back. If they don't sign me? I'm gone. That's not showing loyalty to me. It shouldn't be a question. If that happens, no matter what I do in '98-99 I'm gone."

Twenty-four hours after her son says this, Diane Walker - often mistaken as a 20-something sister of Walker's - will be wearing a Celtics T-shirt. She knows her son is a pro star. In Boston.

"I want to win, man," he says. "I'd like to stay in Boston. The fans are excellent. It's a great place to play. It would be weird to go into a new city and establish a new identity when I already have one there. But I know I was on the trading block. I guess that's business because maybe the Celtics could get three players for me or something."

But there is an echo in this room, with its exposed brick walls and hardwood floors. The topic echoes, too, going all the way back to the summer camp Walker did not attend.

"Let me tell you," he says, "no veteran, All-Star player shows up for a camp like that. For the rest of my career, I'll never go to a camp like that. Never."

A happy camper

The camp that Walker doesn't believe is a waste of time takes place at his old high school. Walker is here, sitting at a table in a noisy Student Center. He is eating pizza and watching a tape from 1994 when a skinny high schooler in a brown and white jersey - No. 23 - is on his way to a 35-point night.

Here, all Walker has to do is make sure he is around for the children, his brothers and sisters among them. A few campers watch as a team led by Walker and Donovan McNabb take on Miles Simon's team. Some of Walker's friends have volunteered as coaches and referees. They tease him as he watches the tape.

You can see hints of his game, then: the swagger, the ballhandling, ld disagree with that. So would Walker.

"I think I'm the most loved player in the NBA," he says, smiling. "Really, people in the NBA love each other. No one in the NBA really hates someone else. Maybe there was something extra in the Larry Johnson-Alonzo Mourning fight, something that went beyond the court. But most guys love each other. We're playing in the best league in the world and many of us are millionaires; why would you hate anybody?"

Hall adds of the on-court Walker, "Once you open your mouth you've got to do something. A quiet person can get away with playing bad and delivering nothing. But a vocal person has to accept the criticism. When Antoine is on the court, he's mean-spirited. When he steps out, he's a human being like anyone else. He has compassion; he has concern for the youth."

Hall points to a gym full of smiling children. "This is like wanting the ball right here," he says. "Creating a camp for the kids. Giving them an opportunity to mingle with him, learn a few fundamentals and have fun. He wants the ball. He's stepping up. Off the court."

Walker will leave today for Miami where he will play in Mourning's charity game. At the end of this month, he'll go to LA and play in Magic Johnson's game. At some point, he will have to sit down and think about his future, a future that goes beyond a free camp at Mount Carmel High.

"I don't know what I'm going to do and I don't know what the Celtics want to do," he said. "I'm not saying I'm trying to break the bank; I don't know what I'm looking for in terms of a contract. But I have a lot to think about. Right now I'm at the point where I need to get to the next level. And that means making the playoffs and winning a championship. I have to look at all my options. I want to win. And I have to look at what the Celtics do. Hey, we could finish 36-46 again. That's something I have to think about."

A future in Boston?

When Walker's camp is over, he walks toward his car and heads for Lakeshore Drive. He has said a lot about Pitino, about the options he has to explore and about the Celtics' loyalty to him. He has also made one revealing comment:

He wants to have this camp again. Next year. In Boston.

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