After the Boston Celtics traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder in mid-June, Kemba Walker said he waited “patiently” to see what his future would hold.
The Celtics were done with him, and he knew he would probably be on the move again from Oklahoma City.
By early August, the Thunder had agreed to a buyout of Walker’s contract in which he reportedly gave up $20 million and reports surfaced that the Bronx native would be heading home to play for the Knicks on a two-year, $16-million deal.
On Tuesday, Walker was finally officially introduced as the Knicks new point guard and he embraced them as the team who “believed in me.”
“My guys, my home team Knicks, they believed in me and I’m here now so whatever happened in the past is irrelevant at this point,” Walker said, adding that he had “no other options” after the Thunder buyout.
He added of the Knicks: “I just need someone to believe in me and these guys do, and I appreciate that.”
Asked if he thought the Celtics — who reportedly were looking to trade him last fall — did not believe in him, Walker said: “No, I definitely feel like Boston believed in me but they traded me. That’s not the case. I don’t feel that they didn’t believe in me, not at all.”
Much has been made of the status of Walker’s left knee. He missed the final two games of Boston’s first-round series loss to the Nets with a bone bruise in the knee on which he had surgery in back-to-back years in 2015 and 2016 to repair a torn meniscus.
But Walker downplayed the seriousness of the injury last season.
“Last season, not much to be honest, not my knee,” he said of how it impacted him last season. “I was feeling pretty good. I just had a little hiccup in the playoffs, which sucked obviously. Nobody likes to be injured, especially at that moment. But I felt pretty good all year, to be honest.”
Jim Calhoun, Walker’s coach at UConn, previously told me that Walker is intent on being healthy for the upcoming season and has been working on strengthening his knee.
“The knee, he’s had operations on it twice now and he just feels it needs rest and he’s going to do all his rehab in the summer,” said Calhoun, who shares an agent, Jeff Schwartz with Walker, and spoke to Kemba earlier this summer.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that his goal is to work on his body, to get himself ready. And he brings something. A, they have a little more depth at point guard in New York and then secondly, he’s one of the few guys that can go get shots. And because of his experience as a point guard, not just a scorer, I think people forget that when he came back he averaged over 20 points a game for the Celtics. He’ll get it done.”
Asked if he would be able to play back-to-backs, Walker said, “You gotta ask Thibs.”
Calhoun pointed to Walker’s history of winning, including capturing the Nike Peach Jam and seven of nine summer grassroots tournaments with the New York Gauchos in 2007, and continuing to UConn where he won a Big East Tournament title and an NCAA Championship in 2011.
“It was crazy, man,” he said of the 2011 run at UConn. “That was just a special, special run…It was just a really dope time for me because I never beat Pittsburgh in my career. That was the first time, playing in the Garden in front of my family and friends, one of the biggest moments in the Big East Tournament. I hit that shot and there was an explosion in there.
“I love playing in this arena. It’s different because I’m from here and I’ve played here so many different times growing up, and it’s definitely going to be different now wearing a Knicks jersey. It’s going to be better, 10 times better.”
Calhoun knows Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau from Thibodeau’s time growing up in Connecticut and the Knicks coach used to attend Calhoun’s practices. Walker sees similarities between the two taskmasters as well.
“Yeah, I see a lot of similarities,” he said. “I’ve been around Thibs for a long time, I’ve never actually played for him. But he and [former Hornets] coach [Steve] Clifford are really close friends and Thibs would always come to Charlotte. He even came to Boston when I was first there…It’s going to be fun, I’m looking forward to it.”
Walker said he was “pretty close” to signing with the Knicks in the past, and can’t believe it’s happening for real now.
“Now it’s the most unreal feeling,” he said. “I can’t really explain it. I can’t really put it into words how amazing this feeling is being back home.”
But for all the friends and fans asking him for Knicks tickets, he has a message:
“I only get four tickets. If there’s anybody watching this, I only get four tickets.”