Last week, I watched what may have been Kemba Walker’s last game in a Charlotte Hornets jersey. Now that he is a free agent, he has to choose whether or not to stay with the city that he has called home for his eight NBA seasons. Nothing could have summed up his eight-year career in purple and teal better than that game. Walker went off, going for 43 points with a 72 percent effective field goal percentage. It was as entertaining as it was dominant, with a slew of aerial acrobatics, mesmerizing handles and a jumper so sweet it would send you straight to the dentist.
The Hornets lost that game, 122-114. Nicolas Batum, the supposed co-star of the team (who was paid $24 million this year), produced a whopping total of zero points on one attempted shot. Big man Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky managed a -20 +/- over the game, as the nimble seven-footer managed just one rebound. One! The team currently pays five players more money than Walker. Of the three that play, only one, Bismack Biyombo even managed to score. Even then his contribution amounted to six measly points.
This has been the state of things in Charlotte, N.C. In Walker’s rookie season in 2011-12, the Hornets ended up going 7-59 (it was a lockout year). That is the single worst season in NBA history by winning percentage. Throughout his eight years, the team has managed to make the playoffs twice, both resulting in first round exits, and once via a sweep. In the 29 years of its existence, the franchise has amassed a total of three seasons with more than 50 wins — the last of which occurred in 1998. They have never realistically been championship contenders. The history of the Charlotte Hornets is a history of failure.
Despite this, I still watch 82 games of Charlotte basketball every year. Why? It is exactly because of that man at point who just put up 43 against the Orlando Magic; who put up 60 earlier this year against the Philadelphia 76ers; who has earned his nickname “Cardiac Kemba” time and time again. Since his drafting, Walker has been my basketball hero. As a player, he is immensely entertaining with his quickness, his handles and his acrobatics. As a person, he is humble and loyal. Despite the franchise’s failings, the Brooklyn native has made Charlotte his second home. In November, after hitting a dagger three against the Boston Celtics to cap off a 43-point game, he turned to the crowd and yelled “This is my city!” This moment was a beautiful reassurance of Walker’s love for the city amidst constant calls for him to leave by NBA insiders.
In that moment I was confident that he would stay, and I remained optimistic. However, after watching him hang his head as he left the court last week, facing another offseason without playing in the playoffs, I started to feel guilty. Loyalty is a quality I still value greatly in NBA players, but how much is too much to ask of your star?
Walker gave us eight seasons of excitement that kept interest in the team high, despite its mediocrity. With huge multi-year contracts for below-average players, it is clear that the team has little room to improve. Even given the chance, the front office never fails to underperform. Before the trade deadline this season, it was rumored that the team was inches away from trading for three-time All-Star center Marc Gasol, but the trade fell through at the last moment. If missing the playoffs is the cap, I’d be asking Walker to sacrifice the prime of his career just to delay the massive rebuild this team will inevitably have to go through.
The only thing the Hornets have to provide is a super-max contract, but anyone that knows Walker as much as a diehard fan does knows that this is not what he wants. He wants to compete. He wants to win a championship, and that’s something Charlotte can’t give him.
As a result, no matter how much it saddens me to see my favorite NBA player of all time leave my home team, I have to say — it’s time. Walker deserves to compete, he deserves to win. There are so many great opportunities in the league this offseason for him to go to a team where he can cement his legacy as a great. Whether it’s joining a well-rounded Brooklyn Nets team, helping the Dallas Mavericks’ young talent grow into stars or joining LeBron in L.A., the opportunities are aplenty. He shouldn’t have to sacrifice anymore for us Hornets fans. He’s already sacrificed so much.