So often, they feel compelled to say what they say, as if they understand that there’s a required reverence for walking through the doors at Madison Square Garden, a necessary toll for stepping onto the floor. It’s still nice to hear, sure. It props up New York’s chronic basketball defeatism to hear stars prayerfully pay tribute to “The Mecca” and “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
But we know they don’t really know. Because most of them, they can’t really know. They only know what they’re told. They only know what they’ve read about.
Kemba understands the Garden. He understands what the Knicks mean to basketball New York, and especially what a good Knicks team means to the city. But even more than the team, there is the arena. There is the Garden.
“This,” Walker said Tuesday, “is a dream come true.”
The Garden was always a magnet for him, all the way back to The Bronx, Intermediate School 174, to the Sack-Wern Houses in Soundview and to the New York Gauchos, later across the river at Rice High. The Garden was where he found his star one forever week in 2011, when as a Connecticut Husky he engineered five wins in five nights over DePaul, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville.
And the Garden is home now, more home for Walker because New York is home for him, because the Garden isn’t just a famous name or a page out of a history book the way it is for so many other stars who genuflect reflexively in its shadow.
“I’m in a Knicks uniform now,” Walker said. “That makes it 10 times more special.”
Said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau: “Kemba has played so many games in the Garden, he knows what the Garden means, and what the Knicks mean to the city.”
Opening night Wednesday will be all about Walker in so many ways. He was one of the Knicks’ prime offseason additions (along with Evan Fournier) so that would make him a subject of intrigue anyway. And the opponent will be the Celtics, the team that traded him away after an injury-plagued 2020-21 season, a team the Knicks figure to jostle with all year for position in the Eastern Conference.
And, of course, he is home, maybe 10 miles south as the crow flies from Lafayette Avenue, where his signature is scrawled on the floor of the outdoor basketball court at Sack-Wern. The Knicks are hoping Walker can add his name to the shifting culture they are trying to build, one that yielded a 41-31 record and caught the attention of a lot of interested parties across the league.
“Playing against these guys last year, watching them, how hard they played and the great success they had was great,” Walker said. “These guys get along very well, and I hope I can come in and add to that.”
Walker’s chief challenge will be staying on the court, because for all the excitement his presence will generate, he is 10 years removed from that electric senior year at UConn, which culminated with a national title three weeks after his storybook run at the Garden.
He missed 29 games last season, and while he was an All-Star as recently as two years ago (his fourth straight nod), one of the reasons the Celtics were willing to part with him — dumping him to Oklahoma City last June so the Thunder could buy him out and waive him — was because they believed too much of the tread had already been frayed off his radials.
It will require some delicate management. It will mean he only plays half of a bunch of back-to-backs this year, and will force Thibodeau to think twice about loading up Walker’s minutes during the regular season, regardless of how well he’s playing. But Walker has a huge believer in Thibodeau, and that’s a good place to start.
The coach didn’t know Walker well before they began working together but Thibodeau is friends with coaches who’ve worked with him, and he got to know him a little when he was touring team training camps between jobs. He said the praise he’d hear about Walker was effusive and universal.
“You think, ‘They can’t all be true,’ ” Thibodeau said of the glowing reviews, laughing. “Then you’re around him and, yeah, they’re all true.”
Julius Randle, listening to Walker talk about his homecoming on the other side of the press-room door Tuesday, entered the room, smiled, said: “He’s home! What more do you all want to know?”
And then added his endorsement for his brand-new wing man.
“It’s fun,” Randle said. “He’s a great leader, he’s great in the locker room and he’ll make the game easier for a lot of us.”
If that happens? You can only imagine what the Garden will sound like. Kemba Walker knows. He’s only been dreaming about that sound his whole life.