NBA All-Star's inspiring journey strikes chord with Chinese youth
NBA All-Star Kemba Walker's journey from underdog to franchise leader of the Charlotte Hornets is providing young Chinese with proof that perseverance pays off.
A sudden rain that drenched downtown Beijing on Saturday afternoon didn't wash away the hoops fever engulfing Dongdan Sports Center as fans mobbed the outdoor court for the arrival of Walker, a guest mentor invited to attend the Beijing leg of the NBA's 5-on-5 grassroots tournament and interact with Chinese fans.
Witnessing the efforts by amateurs to shine in the national spotlight regardless of their size, skills and backgrounds, Walker recalled his own journey fighting long odds to reach the summit.
"It's nothing about where you come from. I wasn't always the best player when I was young ... I was always the smaller guy. People always said I couldn't do things, but I never let that get in my head," said the 6-foot-1 guard, who has become a prolific scorer and playmaker in the NBA.
"I always overcame what everybody said I couldn't overcome. That's all I needed as my motivation. It's the same for the Chinese players. Their passion is always there, but they have to work that much harder to keep their dreams alive."
The NBA 5-on-5 tournament, which kicked off on July 21, involves 32 teams from the Chinese mainland battling at regional competitions in Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Nanjing for entries to the Grand Finals on Sept 1 in Shanghai, where four regional champions will face off against four squads from Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, South Korea and the Philippines for a total prize of up to 1 million yuan (about $146,000).
A group of NBA stars and legends, including Walker, Hall of Famer Alonzon Mourning and Detroit Pistons All-Star forward Andre Drummond, have visited or will attend regional legs and the tournament finals, along with NBA dance teams and mascots. A variety of activities, such as skill challenges, shooting contests and slam dunk competitions, give fans an authentic NBA experience.
This marks Walker's second appearance in China after playing two 2015 preseason games against the Los Angeles Clippers in Shenzhen and Shanghai. But visiting Beijing for the first time provided an opportunity for him to realize a "bucket list" dream of climbing the Great Wall.
"I've heard the saying in China that you are not a true man unless you come to the Great Wall. It was amazing to climb on it, so I am a true man now," Walker said of Friday's side trip to the world-famous landmark.
With the new NBA season tipping off in two months, the Hornets leader is facing a much bigger challenge.
The 28-year-old has spent all seven of his NBA seasons with Charlotte. But speculation the New York native might eventually leave for the Knicks has been raised by US media since the Hornets finished 2017-18 with a 36-46 record and missed the playoffs.
Walker, however, doesn't anticipate leaving Charlotte any time soon.
"As a leader of the team, I have to take my leadership to the next level," said Walker, who was selected ninth overall by Charlotte in the 2011 NBA Draft after leading the University of Connecticut to the NCAA Championship.
New Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak recently said he and team owner Michael Jordan view Walker as the "focal point" of the franchise.
After failing to make the postseason for two years in a row, Charlotte fired coach Steve Clifford in April after five seasons and replaced him with former Spurs assistant James Borrego.
The Hornets also signed former San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker to a two-year, $10 million contract last month after trading center Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets.
Walker, who averaged 22.1 points and 5.6 assists last season, embraced the team's offseason changes.
"The addition of Tony is going to bring a whole new culture to our team. I am excited about the chance to learn from him," he said.
"Everybody else has to improve their game. Last season was really disappointing, I don't think anyone want to experience that again."