Over the years, Antoine Walker became a butt of our jokes, whether we talked about his mythical four-pointers, shot selection, the extra lair of blubber which came to define his latter years, or the gambling problems and lavish lifestyle which led to his blowing more than $100 million in career earnings. But once, I was young, the Celtics sucked, and Walker was a symbol of hope for a proud franchise fallen on downtrodden times.
It’s easier to push aside the good memories with which Walker left us, mostly because he developed into an underachiever who floated as far away from the hoop as he could, loved watching himself shoot set shots from 27 feet out and claimed to want an NBA comeback, yet never got anywhere close to the shape necessary to achieve one. Walker developed, bluntly, into a fat, broke, former NBA All-Star who shot 36.1 percent from the floor and 20.4 percent from the arc during what he says is his final year of basketball, against D-League big men considerably less skilled (albeit better conditioned) than he. We know what Walker became, but still, there’s a part of me that remains 11 years old, makes an and-one during a CYO game and erupts into a Walker Wiggle because, hell, the Celtics once had nobody cooler than Employee Number Eight.
Walker’s story is one of squandered talent, squandered money and what happens when a seemingly nice man makes some serious mistakes fiscally and more mistakes in regards to harnessing the talent that gave him so much money to begin with. Rather than work on his game, Walker managed to float on talent alone. One year he gained an extra inch or two around the waist, and that inch or two eventually became five or six, maybe even more. Even during his largely unsuccessful D-League return, it was clearly evident that Walker possessed more ball skills than the guards and more size than most big men. There were times when his prodigious talent would still come screeching to the forefront, would slap spectators across the face and make them realize that yes, this player who got abused by Dennis Horner for most of the night is actually a three-time former NBA All-Star.
Yet Walker was too heavy to consistently allow his talent to prevail against his demons, too lazy with his offseason workouts to regain the form of the young, do-it-all forward who captivated Celtics fans during his youth. Still, there was a time when Walker represented light rather than darkness, hope rather than a spiral of debilitating mistakes. There was a time when Marty Conlon and Brett Szabo roamed the parquet floor and Walker arrived on the scene as a 6-foot-8 jack of all trades who immediately established himself as the team’s best player. He had fun, too, the type of player who wore a smile as he raced down the court, socks pulled up halfway to his knees, ready to erupt with a wiggle as soon as he made a big basket or dimed a clutch assist.
The Wiggle didn’t just become so popular because Walker celebrated with it after every key moment, although that was part of it — it partially became popular because we yearn to see NBA stars who relate to us on some level, and here was a star who demonstrated our enthusiasm for the game on an even grander stage. We jumped up from our couch at home and screamed words of encouragement at the TV screen while our budding hero simultaneously displayed his emotions, for the entire world to see, with his shoulders shaking back and forth. Walker wasn’t perfect, far from it, but he was talented and he was fun, and he was the only glimmer of light in those pre-Paul Pierce days.
And now he’s retiring from basketball after being reduced to the butt of our jokes. There’s a moral to this story, we know. Something about spending wisely and nurturing god-given gifts and remaining committed to accomplishing goals. With a different attitude, in an alternate universe, Walker could be aging like Paul Pierce, preparing to help the Boston Celtics during another postseason run. But instead Walker is leaving the game of basketball, at once an indictment of his failures and an opportunity to remember his successes.
Employee Number Eight, signing off. I didn’t imagine it would end like this, but Walker didn’t always make the most intelligent choices — and choices, for better or worse, lead us wherever we go.