Walker Deserves Better by Gabe Kahn
From what I've been reading lately, I'd think that Antoine Walker was the one who pretended to find a human finger in the chili from Wendy's or who faked his own abduction to avoid his upcoming wedding. Assuming there was a gender change in both stories, at least.
Be honest. We've all been dumping on 'Toine since the Celtics' season ended so unceremoniously on Saturday, May 7th against the Pacers. Antoine takes too many threes. Antoine needs the ball in his hands. Antoine shoots too much. Antoine's got no lift. Antoine makes terrible decisions. Antoine can't play defense. Antoine's not coachable. Antoine's taking too much time away from Al Jefferson. Antoine was paid off by Larry Bird to take the C's down in the first round.
Yes, while I did make that last one up, it's only a matter of time until it starts to make the rounds. I mean, if a class act like Pete Rose can be accused of betting on baseball then... wait, he admitted it? OK, scrap that. If a guy like Mark McGwire, who saved baseball, can be accused of using steroids, then... you don't say. McGwire too. Who knew?
Anyway, I've had enough with the 'Toine-bashing. It's overdone, and it's not so accurate, either. Not to go all Rose on you, but I'd be willing to bet that half the people complaining about #8 are the same guys that tore Danny Ainge apart for a year and a half for sending him out of town in the first place. Please. That's just what Slippery Rick was talking about when he coined the phrase "Fellowship of the Miserable." Glad he got something right during his stay in Beantown.
The bottom line is this: Antoine Walker is a good, valuable player and an even better person. If not for Walker, there's no way anyone's talking about the Celtics at all right now. The draft is still a good four weeks away and the Green and White haven't played for close to a month, but they're still in the minds of a number of Bostonians, something that couldn't be said between November and February. More than anything else, that might be the lasting legacy of the Second Coming of 'Toine: People actually care about the Celtics. The attendance figures don't lie. The pre-Walker Celtics of 2004-05 were attracting just over 13,000 fans for each game. Post-Walker? Over 17,000.
Let's remember, also, that Antoine almost single-handedly gave Boston their only distraction between the Pats Superbowl victory and the beginning of the Red Sox title defense. Between February 25th, when Walker played his first game (again) for the Celtics and the night of March 23, the C's ripped off 11 wins in 12 games, sparked by Antoine's return. While he wasn't necessarily the star of all those games, he was the leading scorer and/or rebounder in eight of those contests and anyone who watched knows that Antoine was the catalyst in almost all of them.
That winning streak and the energy that was suddenly evident from the rest of the team and the fans was a direct result of Antoine's fiery spirit and competitive drive. No one in that locker room, and dare I say it, in the Celtics' organization wanted the team to win more than Antoine. No one can argue that Walker's shot selection is, to be kind, questionable. That, as well as his unfailing need to have the ball during key stretches, however foolhardy, comes from his desire to win games. I challenge you to find a player on the 2004-05 Celtics who wanted to win more than Walker. Not Paul Pierce. He wanted the glory. Not Ricky Davis. He wanted the points (his armband says "Get Buckets," not "Get Wins" for heaven's sake). Gary Payton just wanted to be in control. Mark Blount wanted to get out of the arena every night. And the young guns don't yet know what winning is.
Two days before the Walker trade was made, the Celtics played the Lakers in a game that perfectly demonstrated this point. Boston had a solid lead for most of the night until LA went on the obligatory late game run. As soon as the Lakers went ahead on a Brian Grant free throw, it was obvious that the C's just put their heads down, as if waiting for the guillotine. They were going to lose, and they knew it, so why try? The team's indifference led to a nine-point loss.
Following Walker's return, the change was startling. Against Utah, a fourth quarter deficit that surely would have spelled defeat in the past turned into a Celtic victory on the strength of Antoine's baby hook shots. There was a thriller against Phoenix when Walker's will to win clearly affected his teammates (specifically Delonte West, who was willing to get into a tiff with Amare Stoudemire) as the Celtics triumphed in OT. And there was that incredible, double OT statement win against the world champion Pistons when Walker played horribly, but his never-say-die attitude raised the game of Pierce, Davis and Payton. Say what you want about Cyber-Toine, but on this team, he was the King of Hearts.
One other thing: I wasn't covering the Celtics during Walker's first stay, so my initial impressions of him were pretty much the same as the rest of league. You know, all pouty and entitled, unhealthy grasp on the franchise and stuff like that. Fact is, though, Antoine's a gentleman and a genuinely good guy. When Antoine screwed up he didn't duck out early to avoid the questions. He faced the music; he took his medicine. He did it politely, too, no matter how upset he was (something that can't be said about a certain Celtics' Captain). Say what you want about the man, but don't tell me he's not a team player. Any coach would love to have his attitude in the huddle and in the locker room.
You know what? Antoine's shot selection drives me crazy most of the time. His yearning to be a point forward and three-point shooter is devastating to his game. He will never be a good defender. If he wants a cent over $7 million for his next contract (and that might be too high), just say thanks, but no thanks. But don't go trashing him when he is one of the only guys on this team who understands what it is to be a Celtic. He's also one of the few players left in the league that actually wants to be a Celtic. Personally, I think that's worth our respect.
That may be one thing that Antoine has never really gotten in Boston.