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Walker’s on the rebound

Ex-Celtic’s comeback is starting to develop

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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PORTLAND, Maine — Of the 3,045 fans who filled the Portland Exposition Building last night, scores still remember Antoine Walker in his prime, when he strutted down the court of TD Garden doing his customary shimmy after a crucial 3-pointer.

That Antoine Walker was a star. Along with Paul Pierce, that Walker helped make the Celtics significant again. Then Walker was traded, and the Celtics suffered, with Pierce left to shoulder the burden. After the acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the Celtics rose to dominance again and Pierce is now viewed as an all-time great.

Walker, 34, is in the NBA Development League, looking for a slice of the glory Pierce enjoyed Wednesday night when he canned the winning jumper in front of a packed house at Madison Square Garden. The Portland Exposition Building was packed, too, but Walker couldn’t have been farther from the spotlight of the NBA.

In the gym that houses Portland High School, Walker was in the fourth game of his professional comeback, or life comeback, rather. After complacency and declining skills derailed his NBA career, Walker endured myriad financial problems that nearly landed him in jail.

A series of financial settlements has allowed him to attempt a comeback without the fear of more legal troubles, and Walker signed with the Idaho Stampede, who compete in the NBA’s minor league that plays completely under the radar in places such as Boise, Idaho; Frisco, Texas; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Albuquerque.

He tallied 25 points last night as the Stampede lost to the Maine Red Claws, 105-99, and the crowd left doubly satisfied because the home team won and Walker displayed some of the skills that earned him three NBA All-Star Game appearances. Still about 30 pounds above his listed NBA playing weight of 224, Walker slyly maneuvered his way to points in the post — and even a couple of 3-pointers, without the shimmy.

“I’m having a lot of fun playing,’’ Walker said. “Having a good, close game, I love that. Every day is huge for me; it’s not really a day off for me. It’s coming. I’m feeling better and better. My body is responding better. I can feel it coming. I’m having a lot of fun. The guys are fun to be around. They welcomed me with open arms.’’

There were No. 8 Celtic jerseys scattered in the crowd and very few hecklers. The Celtics fans nestled in southern Maine still hold fond memories of Walker. They wooed in anticipation when he stood open behind the 3-point line and cheered when he canned 2 of his 6 long-range attempts.

It’s a humbling experience for Walker, who probably played in bigger arenas during his prep career in Mount Carmel in Chicago. He has taken a big step down to reach the highest level again, and there are no guarantees he will get another chance to play in the NBA. After winning a title with the Miami Heat in 2006, Walker didn’t exactly depart the league with a pristine reputation. He fought with the Memphis Grizzlies over a buyout after a trade in the summer of 2008, and found no takers when he was a free agent.

He hung out in Charlotte this past summer, hoping for a tryout with the Bobcats, but owner Michael Jordan wasn’t impressed, leaving Walker with one final recourse, the Development League.

“I look at it as basketball; my love for the game is tremendous,’’ Walker said. “What I’ve done the last 20 years of my life is play basketball. The crowd doesn’t bother me. Here was great. I thought it was a great crowd. Idaho has been great, they have welcomed me with open arms. There are going to be some nights when a couple of hundred people are watching, and those are the games you have to fight through. I’m prepared for that.

“I’m just so focused on playing basketball and getting better every day. I know I can play. I know there’s a lot of [NBA] teams I can help. I know it’s a process.’’

The consensus among those who have watched him is Walker is not kidding himself. Two NBA executives watched Walker last night, Portland Trail Blazers director of player personnel Hersey Hawkins and Charlotte Bobcats assistant coach LaSalle Thompson. Red Claws coach Austin Ainge, son of the Celtics’ president, fully agrees that Walker still possesses NBA skills.

“No question, I think he can help a team,’’ Austin Ainge said. “He’s big. He can still rebound. He can still score on the block. I don’t see why coming off a bench, he couldn’t help a team. He’s been the most versatile and one of the hardest big guys for us to handle all year. And there will be plenty of big guys called up from our league and I don’t see why he’s not at the top of that list.’’

It’s not difficult to see why Walker misses the adulation. He watches Pierce, only a year his junior, draining winning shots and playing at an All-Star level, transforming himself into a Celtics legend. Walker was on that road but Danny Ainge disliked his attitude and influence in the locker room and traded him to Dallas nine days before the 2003-04 season, beginning a series of trades and salary dumps that nudged Walker out of the NBA.

His best years were in Boston, and those times have never been forgotten.

“This is great, this is home for me,’’ he said. “Even though I won a title in Miami, Boston drafted me as a rookie. They embraced me. The eight years I spent here has been tremendous. I’m always going to root for the Celtics. People in the front office have treated me well. I have no complaints.

“The reception I got tonight was heartfelt, it makes you really want to get back to that level.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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