Chances are pretty good that Kemba Walker doesn’t read this website. My guess is it’d be more likely that Jim Calhoun, John Calipari and Rick Pitino got together for a picnic in Central Park this weekend than that Kemba’s eyes ever cross this article.
But on the off chance they do, I just wanted to thank him for the incredible ride he took the fans on this season. With the announcement yesterday that he is leaving UConn for the NBA Draft, here is my thanks to him, in letter form.
So word on the street is that you’re leaving UConn, huh?
Can’t say that I totally blame you. Actually, I take that back. I can’t think of one good reason you should come back to UConn. Well, unless you enjoy the sorority parties and 15 degree January nights that much. Really, looking at this thing objectively, I can’t remember a college basketball player with less reason to come back to school for another year.
First of all, you just won a National Championship (Did I thank you for that, by the way?), and really, what’s cooler than going out on top? Come to think of it, Brett Favre really could’ve learned a thing or two from your example.
Also, you should be commended for earning your degree in three years, the first player since Jim Calhoun took over at UConn to do so. As someone who needed a full four years, and still barely got my piece of paper, you really ought to be just as proud of yourself. At some point your basketball skills will be gone, but that degree with be with you forever.
Plus, with all this fear about an NBA lockout, and a whole bunch of your pals deciding to come back to school for another year, it seems like you just keep climbing up everyone’s NBA Draft board. Every time I hear that a Perry Jones, or Jared Sullinger or John Henson is coming back to school, all I can think is, “There’s some more money (deservedly), in Kemba’s pocket.” On a different note... can a friend get a loan? Kidding, buddy. You earned every penny you’re about to get. Spend it carefully.
But whatever happens at the next level is kind of unimportant right now. Because at least for today, we need to celebrate everything you did at UConn.
For starters, everyone knows about the raw stats. Your 23.5 points per game was fourth in the country this year, and second in the Big East to only Providence’s Marshon Brooks. Not too shabby, huh?
Of course for those of us who had the privilege of watching you every night, your scoring prowess was just a small part of the Kemba Walker Experience this past season.
It’s easy to forget now, but you were also second on UConn in rebounding, a number that’s all the more impressive considering that you weigh about as much as one of Alex Oriahki’s thighs. You also finished with almost a 2-1 assist to turnover ratio, and averaged almost two steals per game, proving that the game of basketball is about much more than just putting the ball in the basket.
While we’re here, I should probably also mention how you took the UConn record book, and lit it on fire (It’s ok, according to a source within the athletic department all records were backed up onto floppy disk, so need to worry about said fire). Did you know that only two players in the history of the UConn program have ever scored more than 800 points in a season prior to this year? That’s right, Donyell Marshall scored 855 in 1994, and Ray Allen followed up with 818 two years later.
Well, not only did you join those two in the 800 point club, you also became a charter member of the 900 point club, crushing Marshall’s record with 965 points this year. Incredibly, not only did Marshall and Allen never come close to scoring 900 points in a season (let alone 965), but neither did Ben Gordon, Rip Hamilton, Rudy Gay or Caron Butler. And all those guys turned basketball into a pretty nice livelihood, no?
But Kemba, you’re a smart guy (again, congrats on that diploma you’ll be getting this May), so you know that stats only tell part of the story. After all, it was stats which told voters to give Jimmer Fredette the National Player of the Year award this year. And not to take anything away from Jimmer, but do you think he’d trade spots with you right now? My guess is no. Not only do you have a National Championship, but... you can drink alcohol whenever you please! Kidding Jimmer! Besides, that's not entirely true anyway, since you don’t turn 21 for another few weeks.
Really though, the fact that you’re still 20 is the perfect segue to the next part of this letter. Because despite being a boy in the eyes of the law, you played like a man all year.
As I mentioned before, looking at your stats won’t do your season its full justice.
Looking at the stats won’t tell someone just how much of a burden you had to carry early on. Sure the stats may say that you averaged 30 points a night over three games in Maui back in November, but how can any numbers signify the leadership you had to show over that same stretch? How can they explain that despite defenses being focused on you night after night at Lahaina Civic Center, you got the ball in key spot after key spot, and came through just about every time? How can looking at a box score explain how much sun and sleep Gregg Marshall, Tom Izzo and John Calipari (three pretty darn good coaches) lost worrying about you? And how no matter what they tried, they tried, you refused to be stopped? Stats can’t do that. Like I mentioned before, they’re wildly misleading.
The stats also can’t tell the story of how your teammates looked up to you in those early weeks, like the surrogate big brother you’d become.
Now obviously, UConn won the Maui title because of contributions other than your own. Alex, Jeremy and Shabazz were all phenomenal. Then again, it needs to be mentioned, that those guys rose to the occasion in large part because of the confidence you’d instilled in them. They had what I called at the time, “The Kemba Walker Security Blnket.” In other words, they didn’t worry about making mistakes, because they knew that no matter what happened, you’d come in, clean things up and make everything better. Like any good big brother would.
Stats also don’t tell the story of how much your game morphed over the year. Believe me, I watched every one of your games (What’s that? Yes, I know I’m lame), and whether you fully realize it or not, your game did in fact change.
At the beginning of the year (in Hawaii and in early league play), you carried the boys, a lot like how Charlie Sheen carried Jon Cryer and that chubby kid over the first few seasons of Two and a Half Men. Those guys relied on you for an unhealthy amount of support. Unlike the television show though, over time the guys began to spread their wings, and began to hold their own. Jeremy became the second scoring threat the team needed, Shabazz became one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and Roscoe, well, he sure is a goofball, huh? And as I already mentioned, your game changed over that time as well. It wasn’t obvious to those who weren’t watching closely, but it did happen none the less.
After some mid-season struggles when everyone- including yourself- was still figuring out their role on this team (which seem like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?), your game continued to evolve, and you became a perfectly unstoppable superstar for this team. I’m quite sure when everything clicked, but by the end of the year your play was even more valuable than anything you did in November. You toed the line perfectly between phenomenal teammate who got everyone into the game early, before taking over and becoming a straight up assassin late. Jason Bourne would’ve been proud.
The first signs were obviously at the Big East Tournament, to start this whole wild March ride. You heard about that whole “Five wins in five days,” thing, right? The play that will always stand out to most was the crossover game-winner you had on Gary McGhee, the one which made you a March star, and made him a permanent poster boy for “ankle breakage.” That was Kemba being Kemba, the superstar returning from a bit of a midseason lull.
You know what I’ll remember though?
I’ll remember two nights later against Louisville, in the Big East Championship game. In the closing minute, when everyone in the arena knew you were getting the ball, when you penetrated into the lane, when you... passed to Jeremy Lamb, for the game winner. That’s when I knew you’d arrived as a complete player Kemba. Not only could you do it on your own, we all knew that. But the fact that you had confidence in your teammates, took this team to a new level. And that’s when everything started to relize that things were getting interesting.
And it only continued into the NCAA Tournament, where your game continued to evolve. At times you were deferential, like when you took just 11 shots in the opening round win against Bucknell. But at times you went back to being assertive and dominant, like when you dropped 34 points on San Diego State, including, what was it, 12 UConn points in a row in one stretch?
Maybe I’m naïve (or really, stupid is the right word), but it was after that game when I started to think you guys might just take home the title after all. And the credit all goes back to you. November’s Kemba Walker was dynamic, exciting and the best player in college basketball, but UConn wasn’t winning a title with him. The Kemba Walker of March, though? That dude, was, dynamic, exciting and the best player in college basketball…who also had an unrelenting faith in the other four guys on the floor, and made everyone around him better. Just understand that in November Kemba Walker was the UConn team. In March, he was just the biggest part of it. There's a big difference. And an important one too.
Speaking of the title, it automatically vaulted you into the discussion of the greatest players in UConn history. Now honestly Kemba, I’m not really good at putting these things into a historical perspective, so you’ll have to forgive me. But if Ray Allen, Caron Butler and Donyell Marshall didn’t even play in a Final Four, how could they rank ahead of you? And as great as Rip Hamilton, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon were, you can claim something they never could: You were a contributor on two Final Four teams, the only person in school history that can really say that (Tell your boy Donnell Beverly I’m sorry, but it’s true). Because for all your March heroics this time around, it’s easy to forget now, that UConn probably wouldn’t have gotten to Detroit in 2009 without your 23 points in the Elite Eight against Missouri. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget.
Ultimately though Kemba, what I will remember about your time at the school beyond the wins and titles, is just how fun it was to watch you play.
Starting with your physical “prowess,” I hate to bust your chops (ok, who am I kidding, I love to!), but you’re not much taller than me, and certainly not any heavier. So the fact that you took all those hits and fouls this season, and kept bouncing up, going to the free throw line, and hitting clutch shots was incredible to watch. It was Iverson-ian, really.
Beyond that though, was the mental toughness you brought to the court every night. It seemed like no matter the situation, the time left on the clock, or the amount your team trailed by, you never doubted your own ability to get things done. Not early, not late, and not when you were tired. You were like the Energizer Bunny mixed with Superman. And because of it, I’ve never had more faith in a guy to get things done in crunch time. Again, I just can’t describe how fun it was to watch you. Hopefully someday you’ll be able to sit back and appreciate everything we got to this year.
Alright Kemba, this letter has gone on long enough. By now you’ve probably stopped reading, and gone to shoot jump shots somewhere. If you haven’t, well you’re an even better guy than all those reporters say you are. Because if you can deal with my babbling, you truly are a saint.
So let me conclude by saying thank you.
Thank you for an unforgettable season. Thank you for making this UConn team maybe the most fun to follow ever. Thank you for the most unlikely of championships in any sport, I can ever remember.
But most of all, just thanks for being you. I speak for a lot of people when I say, it was our pleasure watching these past six months, and these past three years.
Good luck going forward, but honestly, you don’t need it.
See you down the road.
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Loved the letter Aaron, but you were erroneous when you said that Kemba was the first player on Jim Calhoun's watch to graduate in 3 years. Another very smart & talented player did it as well; Emeka Okafor. Other than that, it was spot on!
@joobie Thanks for writing in, and I actually got an e-mail from a couple other people telling me the same thing. Honestly, I think my UConn fandom should be revoked. How could I forget that??Either way, thanks for the nice words, and hope you're enjoying this post NCAA time. All I can say is, I'm glad we got our title this year, because the road to the championship is shaking up to be a lot tougher next year.
Still, that's a long way away, and right now, we need to just sit back and enjoy this. We may may never see another one like Kemba.Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment.