Sometimes, it’s not enough to simply crave the fairytale ending. Sometimes, reality gets in the way, takes a Zippo lighter to the final few chapters, turns them to ash. Sometimes, it turns out Thomas Wolfe was right. Sometimes, you can’t go home again.
That isn’t the way this leg of Kemba Walker’s basketball journey was supposed to go. Back in August, when the Knicks first imported him via Oklahoma City, there were immediate recollections of Walker the hoops phenom out of Rice High, the latest in a long lineage of New York point-guard royalty that dates to Dick McGuire.
There were red flags, sure: his age, his recent injury history, the 25,000 NBA minutes’ worth of tread already on his tires. The greeting he got from the Garden, opening night against the Celtics, was a welcome-home roar he’d waited his whole life to hear. And if only the closing credits could’ve rolled then, maybe everyone would’ve walked away satisfied.
But there was very little satisfaction from there.
“We knew there was risk involved,” coach Tom Thibodeau said Wednesday, after Walker decided to shut himself down for the rest of the season, effectively ending his tenure as a Knick. “And we thought it was worth it.”
As it turns out, the warning flares had all been fair. Walker was a step slower than before. He shot barely 40 percent from the field. He couldn’t guard anyone. Thibodeau was the first to do something about this, gluing Walker to the bench 20 games into the season, a healthy scratch for nine straight in December.
There he may have stayed, permanently, if the Knicks hadn’t gotten ransacked by COVID-19, if Derrick Rose hadn’t gone down with an ankle injury. Walker came back. He had a few throwback nights, including a 44-point explosion against the Wizards on Dec. 23, and a triple-double against the Hawks on Christmas Day.
But that was a mirage. He got hurt again, and when he returned he truly was a shell of what he’d been. Across his final 13 games as a Knicks he averaged only 8.1 points, shot only 37 percent. What happened Wednesday has felt inevitable for weeks; the question was really if it would happen this way or with a buyout. Now, Walker gets to try and get well enough to play again. It will almost certainly be elsewhere; with an expiring contract next summer, he is officially an asset for the Knicks.
More valuable as a line item than a basketball player. Yes. The Hollywood ending sure did wind up in flames.
“We fully support Kemba’s decision to shut it down for the remainder of the season and to use this time to prepare for next season,” Knicks president Leon Rose said in a statement. “His long-term success on the court remains our priority.”
That amounts to a concession speech from the Knicks’ boss, for whom Walker was (along with Evan Fournier) a prize pickup of the summer, in the hope the Knicks could build on last year’s 41-31 success story.
Instead, Walker (and Fournier, to a lesser extent) become emblematic of what sure feels like a troubling strand of dysfunction percolating between the two most important members of the Knicks’ hierarchy. Neither player fits snugly into Thibodeau’s favored system, and while the coach said the right things when they were acquired — and has continued to start Fournier — Walker’s benching was clearly a cudgel the coach used to prove his displeasure.
Walker was probably going to be further minimized anyway. Rose is expected back, and though Alec Burks will probably start at point for now, Rose will immediately gobble up Walker’s minutes. Thibodeau has said he is committed to turning the Knicks into a meritocracy over the rest of the season, and while Walker wouldn’t have been alone, there’s little question he would’ve fallen prey to that the way his game has decayed.
Either way, the narrative had already been broken. What began in The Bronx, at the Sack Wern Houses in Soundview and moved on to the Gauchos and to Rice and to one unforgettable week at the Garden while he was at UConn was supposed to culminate in this grand final act, a No. 8 on his back and “New York” on his chest.
Except someone got their hands on that version of the story. And someone took a Zippo lighter to them.