News of Antoine Walker's retirement will be met with head shakes. Half of the sports world will remark on what a shame it is how Walker's career ended up, while the other half will be surprised to learn he had still been playing.
Yes, Walker was still playing, downing fast food and huffing up and down the court in Idaho, as described in a recent Sports Illustrated article. Rather than ship overseas, where the paychecks are more lucrative, the food is better and the fans do not harbor disappointed memories of what he once was, Walker chose to soldier on in the NBA Development League.
At 35 years old, Walker is only 10 months older than his former Celtics teammate Paul Pierce. Their paths split when Walker was traded to Dallas in 2003. While Pierce has blossomed into a surefire Hall of Famer, Walker did not do so badly for himself, either.
Walker was a valuable contributor off the bench on Miami's 2006 championship team, playing all 82 games and actually beating Pierce to that elusive title. After the Heat were swept out of the first round the following season, Walker was traded to Minnesota, then Memphis, before departing the NBA amid a mountain of financial troubles.
The glow of the Celtics' 2008 championship team and the growth of Pierce make it understandable that many Celtics fans remember Walker as the shimmying turnover machine who shot way too many 3-pointers for a 6-foot-8 forward. He did not help himself with some foot-in-mouth comments. He made three All-Star teams, only once doing so in consecutive seasons, yet anointed himself a "perennial All-Star." If one quote encapsulated Walker's career, it was his response to a question about why he took so many 3s: "Because there are no 4s."
His peccadilloes were part of a player who was, on balance, pretty darn good for a while. Walker averaged at least 20 points and eight rebounds in four of his first seven seasons with the Celtics, and he averaged 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds in the other three seasons. It was Walker who spoke up in the huddle during Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals, imploring the Celtics to show some pride after trailing by as many as 26 points to the New Jersey Nets. The Celtics won that game with the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA playoff history, with Walker scoring 23 points, to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
Walker has a long way to go to rebuild his credit score, but rebuilding his reputation may be even more difficult. People hear stuff and forget all the specifics, except "That guy is a mess." In 10 years he could be back in good standing with his creditors and people will still see him on the street and say, "Didn't that used to be Antoine Walker?"
Perhaps the best lesson for one of Pierce's former teammates is the one provided by one of Kevin Garnett's former teammates. Ronnie Fields, a teammate of Garnett's at Farragut Academy in Chicago, once jockeyed with Kobe Bryant for the title of the nation's best high school player. Through a series of mishaps, some self-made, some not, Fields never made it to the NBA.
Fields is now cited as a cautionary tale, which is a fate he seems to have accepted.
"I pushed through the situation," Fields told Sports Illustrated in 2009. "I owned up to the things I did and became a better person, player and father. Those things are more important to me than playing professional basketball."
Walker is 35. He is the same age many players are when their playing careers come to an end. He had a full career and still has plenty of time to make things right. For now, his story is a tragedy, but there is ample time for him to make it a triumph.
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