Walker seems ready to run
Setbacks have only fueled this new Celtic
WALTHAM - Injuries have cost Bill Walker playing time and, perhaps, millions of dollars. But rather than being burdened by regrets, Walker has retained his eagerness and optimism; he is, after all, living his dream in becoming a professional basketball player with the Celtics.
And he plans to fully experience the opportunity.
Walker, 20, has immersed himself in a new life, far from the uncertainties of his Huntington, W.Va., upbringing. He moved to Boston soon after being selected in the second round of the NBA draft in June, and has been concentrating on both physical conditioning and his contract.
The forward out of Kansas State technically was taken by the Washington Wizards with the 47th overall selection, then immediately traded to the Celtics for cash considerations.
Walker appears recovered from the arthroscopic surgery (his third knee operation in five years) that caused him to fall from a likely top 10 pick. His negotiating knowledge has also increased, since he was immersed in the work leading to a contract signing last week.
"Having the scope changed everything," Walker said. "It knocked me down [in the draft]. When everyone got wind of that, they backed off. But that's life. You can't be mad. You just have to work hard and get past it. My job is to be as healthy as I can and get past it.
"It's a real thin line. Something as simple as not being courteous to people can easily put you off the [draft] board. It's more than being a basketball player, it's about being a well-rounded person."
Walker's athleticism, a combination of savvy and skill, set him apart as a teenager. He emerged as a future star soon after moving to Cincinnati when he was 14, dominating the competition until being slowed by injuries.
"I always thought I'd be here," said the 6-foot-6-inch Walker. "Ever since I was a small kid, I've always watched the NBA. I always worked hard to get to this level, it was just a matter of when. Now, I have to make the most of the opportunity."
But Walker also displays savvy off the court. He graduated early from high school, joined the Celtics after less than two years of collegiate experience, and, instead of hiring an agent, involved himself in the signing process.
"The setbacks helped him," said Chris Rivers, a Reebok executive who advises Walker. "He is very mature and he doesn't take things for granted. But he is also humble and very, very hungry. He has a calm sense about himself, like, 'I can play at this level but I don't need to talk about it.'
"His personal motto is to prepare for the worst but expect the best. He's had three surgeries in five years, but when he's recovered and healthy, he is one of the top players in his class. He is a great team player, a player who wants to win, and the veteran players are going to gravitate toward a young player who wants to do things the right way."
"We lived in Huntington until I was about 14," Walker recalled. "Huntington is more football than anything. Randy Moss, Chad Pennington, that's my time right there. I remember Moss wearing those candy-striped socks, he was amazing, he was doing everything.
"But there's not a lot of opportunities down there. A lot of guys deviate from doing the right thing, they get into a lot of other activities that aren't lawful. My mom didn't want that and she made a way out for me. I'm thankful for that. Without that, I probably wouldn't be here today."
Walker's mother currently resides in Topeka, Kan., but plans to join him in Boston, he said.
"His mother had seen enough of his peers and family members make the wrong choices," said Reebok's Rivers. "Huntington has troubled areas, like most American cities, where there are lost souls, a lack of male leadership, drugs, poverty.
"She made a lot of sacrifices to give him the academic and athletic, as well as a loving, environment he needed. They are not coming from a fantastic background, and his appreciation for things off the court translate on the court. He knows he is not entitled to anything."
Walker was on a similar career trajectory as O.J. Mayo; they grew up together in Huntington and played together at North College Hill High School in Cincinnati. But Walker tore anterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee (2003) and left knee ('07), then had a meniscus procedure in his right knee following a workout in San Francisco two months ago. Mayo, meanwhile, was the third choice in the NBA draft, by the Timberwolves, and was traded to the Grizzlies.
Walker could have returned to Kansas State and become a possible lottery pick next year.
"It's part of the competitor in him," Rivers said. "He had been competing against those kids the past six years, and he said, 'If I'm healthy, I can compete with those guys; I've been doing it forever.'
"You are going to see a different player, both physically and emotionally, than the one who left Kansas State after losing to Wisconsin [in the second round of the NCAA Tournament]. But he has to be patient and he is going to enjoy it every step of the way."
"We were thinking maybe of sending him overseas for a year," said general manager Danny Ainge. "But the more we saw him working out, the more we saw him here, it was 'let's keep him here.'
"He has had some knee injuries, but it certainly hasn't limited his athleticism. There are some maintenance issues, yes, but I think he's going to be fine to play. He has a chance to be part of our long-term future as well as short-term.
"He has been a special player for a long time. Most young players come into the league and find out how hard it is and how good the players are they are playing against. But I do believe he's very confident and I also believe he is very humble, just by how he works that knee injury.
"Things have not turned out as he probably envisioned them. Being a great high school player, he was probably expecting to be a top 10 pick in the NBA by now, but he's had some setbacks with his health, and we're the beneficiaries of that."
Ainge was not surprised about Walker's involvement in contract talks.
"We didn't talk with Billy directly, but we talked to his people, and they had counsel and legal help," Ainge said. "It's not that complicated. Gilbert Arenas just did his for $120 million."
In fact, Walker seemed to savor the opportunity to be involved.
"I pretty much learned everything I could, read anything I could get my hands on," Walker said. "I ask a lot of questions. If I'm going to the bank, I ask a lot of questions.
"It's not as hard as it seems, as people make it out to be. If you just stop being lazy and just read [the contract], it's that simple. I had some consulting, but for the most part, it's reading and deciphering the words, take some time and go through every word of the contract.
"You automatically think you should let somebody else do it. But it's a unique opportunity, and everyone here was helpful, they taught me the whole process, and I'm thankful for that. Not a lot of organizations would do that.
"I've learned a lot along the way, how things work, how to be patient, not to feel everything is supposed to be given to me. It's not like I'm owed anything. I've seen that with everyone that's been successful, they always had some type of humility to them. So why not have that myself?"
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.