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‘They still have love for me’: Kemba blinks back tears in Charlotte as Celtics win

Kemba Walker came home Thursday night — hugging ushers, blinking back tears, shooting raggedly and still beating his old team, the Charlotte Hornets.

The Hornets’ all-time leading scorer, Walker wore a Boston Celtics uniform this time. It was weird. It was like seeing your former spouse, now happily married to someone else but attending the same party, and both of you trying hard not to make the night any more awkward than it already was.

The Celtics removed some of the drama by pounding the Hornets, 108-87, whipping them thoroughly enough that Walker didn’t even have to play in the fourth quarter.

As for the Hornets, the best thing they did all night was a gorgeous, 101-second Kemba tribute video they put on the scoreboard just before the game started. It was a compilation of Walker’s greatest hits in Charlotte — the night he was drafted, his 60-point game, his work in the community, his various buzzer-beaters. It brought Walker to tears, and some people in the stands, too.

After that, it was mostly downhill for the home team.

Said Walker afterward: “Just to be back here and the amount of love I’ve been getting throughout this day — the video just topped it off, really. It obviously made me really emotional. I was trying to hold it in but I couldn’t.”

As for the standing ovation he received following the video, Walker said: “It was amazing. Just a great feeling, to know that they still have love for me — even though I left.”

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Charlotte Hornets fans honored Kemba Walker prior to the team’s game at Spectrum Center Thursday with signs, a tribute video and a standing ovation. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Kemba was Kemba, which is to say he was gracious to everyone. And he was in a better place — it was impossible not to see that.

After eight minutes, Boston (6-1) already led by nine and Walker hadn’t even scored. At halftime, Walker still only had three points, was 0-for-6 from the field — and the Celtics still led by nine over Charlotte (4-4).

“He had the right idea coming into the game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Walker. “But you knew, right after they played that video, that probably was going to be a tough start.”

Walker then scored 11 points in the third quarter and didn’t play in the fourth, as the Celtics coasted to victory. He was cheered on throughout the game as usual by his mother, Andrea Walker, who still lives in Charlotte. She had on a Celtics jersey that showed Kemba’s number 8 on the front and read “Mama Walker” on the back.

Kemba ‘always nice to everybody’

The Celtics are good enough to have NBA championship aspirations. With Charlotte, in eight full seasons, the Hornets only made the playoffs twice with Walker and never won a single playoff series.

Everyone involved has moved on, and although Walker’s departure was a little messy, you wouldn’t have known that by the way he was greeted in Charlotte on Thursday.

The fans who used to bring him brownies before Charlotte home games still brought him brownies.

The Hornets bent over backwards to match Kemba in graciousness, turning those player introductions into something special. After the tribute video, they had their P.A. man, Big Pat, say Kemba’s name with the same echo effect they used to introduce him with for home games: “KEMBA WALKER-Walker-walker!”

Walker is the Hornets’ all-time scoring leader and made the NBA All-Star team three times in Charlotte. He was also, as he pointed out Thursday, “always nice to everybody” in Charlotte while he lived in the Queen City. He signed autographs, smiled for every photo and made friends everywhere.

So the reaction Thursday night wasn’t a surprise. It’s difficult to find anyone in Charlotte who would ever say a bad word about Kemba. His number isn’t in the rafters yet at Spectrum Center, but once he retires from the NBA it should be there within 24 hours. His career in Charlotte was exemplary, and it wasn’t his fault that Hornets owner Michael Jordan never surrounded him with the sort of talent that Boston boasts today.

With that said, Walker badly wanted to win Thursday night. Which the Celtics did, with ease.

Why did Kemba leave?

Why did Walker depart from Charlotte in the first place?

To boil it down, the Hornets and Jordan didn’t want to pay the NBA’s punitive luxury tax for anything less than a team capable of a deep playoff run. So they offered Walker about $62 million less over a five-year contract than they could have under the NBA’s “supermax” rules.

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Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker, right, embraces a friend following the team’s game against the Charlotte Hornets Thursday. The Celtics defeated the Hornets 108-87. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Celtics swooped in with their own offer — $141 million over four years as opposed to the Hornets’ $159 million over five — and Walker left. Charlotte decided to rebuild; Walker went with the win-now Celtics.

Walker said before the game that his return to Charlotte was “weird” and “surreal,” made all the more so by having to camp out in the visitors’ locker room.

Elton John played Spectrum Center on Wednesday, the night before Kemba did, and Elton’s performance included a lot more star turns.

For this one, Walker had a modest 14 points — well below his 26-point average — as he shot 4-for-12. He also had two rebounds and six assists. If he posted those sorts of numbers with the Hornets, that was a loss 95 percent of the time. With the Celtics, it was a comfortable win.

I asked Walker in the locker room later whether the evening was happy or bittersweet.

“It was happy,” Walker said. “I think the bittersweet days are over, honestly. It was a happy day.”

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.
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