A celebration of the NBA's most infuriating players, both past and present. Read other NBA Shit List entries here.
In April 1996, Antoine Walker appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first and presumably last time. The image of the airborne Kentucky sophomore—biceps flexed, legs split wide like a tripod's—would've made for a hell of a Fathead. It was also the perfect representation of the kind of pro the 6-8 forward should've been. When the Celtics traded up to take 'Toine with the sixth pick in that June's draft, my 13-year-old self assumed they'd be getting the same player I saw on the cover of SI. And for a little while, he was that player.
On Halloween in 1997, I watched him score 31 points in a season-opening win over the dynastic Bulls. Walker was both efficient (he shot 13 of 26 from the floor) and refreshingly insufferable. "You should have seen the look on Walker's face," wrote Michael Holley, at the time the Boston Globe's Celtics beat writer. "It was a sneer. He did his dance, a shoulder-shaker called the BK Bounce, and did chest bumps with everyone who came his way."
It's sad that that particular game, the first in the Rick Pitino era, was likely the high point of the coach's tenure in Boston. It's doubly sad that it was also—considering the competition—possibly the most impressive individual performance of 'Toine's career. Walker was barely in his second year in the NBA then, but instead of going on to blossom into a superstar, he spent the next decade regressing. His resume, which includes his signature shimmy, a 49-point game, multiple buzzer beaters, three All-star appearances, and a championship (with Miami in 2006), is sparkling to the naked eye, but ultimately feels hollow. That's why Walker was so head-bangingly frustrating. He entered the league with a startling amount of offensive skill, but devolved into a chubby chucker, one who devoted his pro career to exploring the upper and lower bounds of the break-even point for long-range shooting. As a friend put it: 'Toine was forever the tall, pudgy yet talented middle schooler who'd make his way past five flailing defenders before throwing up an off-balance 25-footer.
The man didn't just like to let it fly. Had it been possible, Antoine Walker would've fucked the three-point line. He led the league in attempts from beyond the arc for three straight seasons beginning in 2000-01, yet in that stretch, he never finished better than 53rd in three-point field goal percentage. (In 2001-02 alone, he heaved up 645 treys, the third-highest total in NBA history. Ray Allen, that season's second-place finisher, took 528.) His jumper was never particularly pretty to look at—he pinched his knees together before lifting off—and he became the fans' ultimate "NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! YES!" shooter. But after a few seasons, and after seeing him take too many bad shots, I found that I wasn't tacking on the "YES!" much anymore.
The Shit List archives: Nick Young | Anthony Carter | Toney Douglas | Bill Cartwright | Dahntay Jones | DeShawn Stevenson | Michael Sweetney | Eddie House | Sasha Vujacic | Voshon Lenard | Eric Leckner | Dwight Howard | Andris Biedrins | Antawn Jamison | Don Nelson | Nate Robinson | Tony Massenburg | Reggie Evans | Andray Blatche
Walker's shot selection wasn't always the most maddening thing about him. In July 1998, after failing to show up to Pitino's summer sessions, he sounded off to Holley with the still-infamous line, "Let me tell you, no veteran, All-Star player shows up for a camp like that. For the rest of my career, I'll never go to a camp like that. Never." Here we had a one-time All-Star with two seasons under his belt referring to himself as a "veteran, All-Star player," and that wasn't even the most ridiculous thing about the interview. At one point, Walker declared himself "the most loved player in the NBA." Holley also mentions that 'Toine wished the Celtics had drafted his college teammate Nazr Mohammed instead of Paul Pierce. "Pierce is a good player," Walker said. "He's a guy who can come off the bench and give scoring to our second unit. But I know our team needs. We need big people."
Holley's story moved the Globe's Bob Ryan to pen what in hindsight appears to be his version of a Deadspin NBA Shit List column, but without the nuance and underlying love you've surely come to find here. Ryan went full paternal in his takedown, to an uncomfortable degree. He calls Walker "a punk," "an arrogant, misguided, yes, punk"; "a snotty punk who has no idea what it takes to win a championship at this level"; "one of those great jokes of nature"; and "an AAU baby who has never worked at anything other than basketball in his life." Ryan also advises Boston against signing Walker to a long-term contract, because "he will immediately take it as a validation of his greatness. He feels no need for improvement." Beneath the smarmy bluster, Ryan does offer a smidgen of constructive criticism, scolding 'Toine for leading the league in turnovers, for his "atrocious shot selection," and for being "an erratic defensive player, as befits a soon-to-be-22-year-old."
Walker got his big contract in 1999, but he never turned into a steady defensive player. In fact, his inability to slow New Jersey's Kenyon Martin in back-to-back postseason series in 2002 and 2003 contributed to truncated playoff runs. By then, 'Toine had already begun to look slower and puffier. He was only in his late 20s, and he could barely jump. I remember scalping a ticket and spending most of the decisive Game 6 of the '02 Eastern Conference finals angry at Walker. That afternoon, he managed to shoot 1 of 9 from three-point range. On the way out of the Fleet Center, my cousin got drilled with a half-full beer cup.
Soon, the Celtics had had enough, too. Boston actually traded Walker twice: First to Dallas in 2003, then, after a brief return to Massachusetts in 2005, to Miami. I didn't think much about 'Toine for the next few years—at least until last March, when he once again appeared in the pages of Sports Illustrated. This time, Walker was prominently featured not on the front of the magazine but in the back pages. That, as you probably know, is where the emotionally heavy stuff goes. Chris Ballard's well-told story explained how the generous but irresponsible Walker went broke. It was a depressing read.
At the time, 'Toine, who's since announced his retirement from basketball, was playing for the D-League's Idaho Stampede. One of the accompanying portraits, of Walker alone inside the locker room, made me sad. The sky-walking SI cover boy from '96 was gone. In his place was a chubby 35-year-old gunner staring off into space, everything still and quiet and as cold as the ice on his knee, nothing moving, nothing shimmying.
Follow Alan Siegel on Twitter @alansiegeldc.