Here in Boston, we've watched a basketball team that's ridden the roller coaster from the top of the world to the bottom of the barrel and back up again. This Celtics franchise has been everywhere, seen everything, experienced everything there is to experience in the NBA.
We often forget what it was like around here when the Celtics were hopelessly out of the running for championship glory, when this town cared more about the draft lottery than the NBA Finals. These days, we only care about Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
We've forgotten names like Antoine Walker.
It's now been more than a decade since Walker, now 33 years old, signed the richest contract in the history of the Celtics, a six-year, $71 million extension agreed upon in February of 1999. It turned Walker into one of the NBA's biggest names overnight — the wide-eyed kid from Kentucky dove into the league headfirst and made himself a star.
He's since taken all those millions and all that fame and poured it down the drain. An ESPN Outside the Lines feature released this week details his downfall from superstardom — his DUI in Florida in January 2009, his failed investments, his massive gambling debts. The Celtics' $71 million man has become a disgrace, a notion that's incomprehensible to many.
Between his massive contract in Boston and the hefty paychecks he pulled down in Dallas, Miami, Minnesota and Memphis, Walker earned somewhere around $108 million in his 13-year career in the NBA.
How, you wonder, can anyone burn through that much money? And how could it be Walker, who came from a poor family in Chicago with five siblings and a single mom? Shouldn't he have known how to live a modest life?
Walker fell victim to the same pitfalls that have brought down far too many celebrities like him. They stumble upon money for the first time in their lives, and they overreact. They give it away to their families and friends. They spend too much on houses, too much on cars. They make bad investments. They gamble for insane stakes, losing more on a hand of blackjack than you and I make in a year.
It's now been eight months since the story of Walker's financial troubles. We heard last July about the three bounced checks that led to his arrest at Harrah's casino in Lake Tahoe. Since then, the details of his lifestyle have continued to come out — the traveling entourage, the houses, the "showroom for Benzes, Bentleys and Hummers" in his garage. We're now starting to fully grasp how foolish Walker was in his early twenties. And it's depressing that a generation of Celtics fans grew up idolizing a man who's now the object of all our pity.
Back in '99, Walker was the future of the Celtics' franchise. They had won just 15 games in 1996-97 and 36 in '97-98. They were on their way to a 19-win season the year after. The team was plowing on through a miserable decade, and Walker was the light at the end of that proverbial tunnel. He was the answer. He was all the Celtics had. He was worth every last penny of that $71 million.
Three years later, he had Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. For the Celtics, all that money was well spent.
For Walker, it was squandered for years and years, wasted away to nothing.
Walker's name has now been dragged through the mud for the better part of a year. In Boston, where he first rose to stardom, his career has become a train wreck — you don't want to stare, but you just can't bring yourself to look away.