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Who gets to want more?
Kemba Walker choosing a different definition of success, and the complex morals of athletes and money.
What you don’t say, always, is that you want more. Because implicit in that is the idea that there is more, much more, beyond success. That the brief bounds of success, in its concept or continual acquisition, are no longer enough to hold you, your interest, your life. Maybe it never was. Maybe it was once but in all the striving you’ve found the lulls, those dizzy rushes of recalibration, or the teetering toward failure but more so the unknown, to be what stirs you up deep down.
You don’t say this in life and you certainly don’t say it in the NBA. Kemba Walker did both.
What’s always confused me about Walker is the confusion around him, for him. That it wasn’t expressly clear that ever since he left Charlotte, he had a pretty rough go of it. Walker got to Boston after Kyrie Irving bailed, the city already roiling and then came Covid. Still, he was an All-Star that season and a big part of how the Celtics made it so far in the Bubble. The next year, Walker’s knee kept him spotty in terms of how much he saw the floor, and Boston traded him to OKC, who flipped him to the Knicks.
Walker’s from the Bronx, and the fit seemed, finally, like a breather. Tom Thibodeau doesn’t do that though, and after what felt like a contentious agreement, where I imagine Walker let it be known he didn’t want his knee to be ground to dust, the Knicks benched him for the rest of the year. I remember whenever I saw him in person, whether running through warmups or coaching his teammates in them, he was smiling, sunny. That was February 2022. Last July, Walker got sent to Dallas, where he played just nine games this past season but in one of them, recorded 32 points, five rebounds and seven assists.
Walker has always felt like an anomaly in that he’s technically skilled and explosively talented enough to be at the upward echelon of his Draft class colleagues (Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Irving) but in being fairly quiet and caught up with fraught franchises, when compared to the perfectly good and innately capable middle tier of the same class (Jonas Valanciunas, the Morris brothers, Tobias Harris, Nikola Mirotic, Isaiah Thomas — 2011 really was a great year) it feels like they all had extra seasons compared to him. That Walker was shorted something.
Which is why it feels so genuinely compelling to me, so deserved and considered a decision, that he’s going to play in Monaco.
The idea of success in sports, specifically basketball, is something that spins out endlessly for me because it’s tied to so much. Expectation, belief, personal preference, desire — all of it existing first in a duality of ours and the athlete’s, and then ours overlaid on the athlete’s, a perfect stranger. The abstract concept of reaching a top, let alone the top, when we readily admit via every renewed Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James debate that there isn’t really an undisputed mountain anyone can climb anymore, if there ever was.
Lately, like in the past few seasons, I get a thrill when people leave the NBA in what’s deemed a premature move. When Marc Gasol did it, it made so much sense to me. To be denied security by Toronto and then lied to by the Lakers, why wouldn’t someone who’s shown he values integrity, a life beyond the floor, decide to leave? Especially when there were better things to do? Mirotic, too, getting bounced around so much after the Bulls traded him, deciding in July 2019, barely out of the playoffs with the Bucks, to go back to Spain. It’s why I love how protective Nikola Jokic, the best basketball player in the world, is of his autonomy. For him, it’s life and then the NBA, never the other way around.
Walker isn’t the first American to leave the States before he “had to” — the distinction, whether deigned premature or not, is easy enough to gauge in the response to the decision — but he’s, to my mind, the biggest name. And with the biggest names come the biggest moral quandaries in the collective response of grappling with what it means to be successful. With what it means to want to be successful, or to reject the notion altogether. Where success still mostly falls into the dominant American accelerant pipeline of top ranked high school to top recruited college to top projected Draft pick or bust, and then everything else.
What sticks out about it, beyond Walker saying he wanted to be part of a club that wanted him, believed in him, is the respite inherent in the decision. Walker put himself first. The work will be there but the environment is acclimated to a shift of pace, a slowing down. That success in terms of, I suppose, just winning games, may come and go, but it will be more as something that bobs idly alongside Walker rather than something he must consume or be consumed by. He won’t quit being successful but success, in the NBA’s stark terms, will quit being the only thing.
Where you can say you want more, are encouraged to, is with money. Because money constitutes more and continued success. Is the physical proof — in our dominant organizational system — of it.
The parameters here are still largely set toward those who already have a lot of it, money and success and because of that pair, power. And though those who have, or have historically had, a lot of it are the people who’ve historically had access to it (“it” in this case is all three, the trifecta of money, success, power), pro sports can be a way to upend that, at least for a time. I think this caveat is crucial if we’re going to criticize the athletic ideals of success through either material wealth, or the idea that an athlete who isn’t demonstrating constant propulsion toward American concepts of success becomes a failure, a cautionary tale, the second they stop.
There’s a moralistic underpinning to Black athletes accruing generational wealth. Does it make me feel weird at an immediate, surface level seeing LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Draymond Green joke about Saudi contracts? Yes. Do I feel weirder knowing that, if pressed, they could fall back on the justification that if they were ever to take the kind of deal that Kylian Mbappé was offered by Saudi football club Al Hilal, and play for a basketball equivalent in the Saudi Premiere League, they were just doing their jobs? That in order to continue to be successful in the way we demand of our superstars, our very best, it’s been socially prescribed to go where the money is, no matter how dirty that money may be? Absolutely.
The revisionist responsibility of wealth, to be a “good” rich person, is mostly placed on those newest to it, and even that’s not hard and fast. Sam Bankman-Fried was always a con, but was never called on it until he started to destabilize the people richer than him, a few rungs up the ladder. But he’s white, had the elevating lilt of academic lineage and the amorphous shroud of tech working for him. Elon Musk has shown to be so far removed from basic logic and guiding principals of the real world that if he weren’t so wealthy (e.g. made to seem smarter because money automatically makes us clock someone as successful) and you met him in real life, you’d just call him a moron to the next friend you caught up with. It wouldn’t even be the first thing you talked about.
In this context, those newest to wealth are Black men who happen to have made their money via the innate and honed talents of their body’s knack for a basketball court. There are so many layers to that that I understand why it might seem easier to draw a smooth, straight line between ‘Saudi money bad’ and ‘star NBA players should know better’, but those direct lines rarely go both ways and when they do, with Black athletes, it tends to be diminishing.
I know why we want NBA players to be bastions of ethical wealth, because the league they’re a part of never goes that long without reminding us of how progressive it is. And we’ve helped to paint it that way because we want so badly for it to be true. I do! Of course I do. It’s easier to invest so much time, attention, money, care and energy into something that seems to be good, and in the NBA’s case something that wants to try to seem to be good is sometimes enough. I can’t really think of another reason why I keep coming back to a business that readily operates on a slippery spectrum of disparaging to outright betrayal of women so regularly, other than benefit of the doubt which is, at its heart, hope. It’s a pathetic bare minimum but here we are.
At a personal level, I would love to believe that the people I interview and write about, work hard and respectfully to talk with beyond the repetitions of the game and its dominant storylines of the day, who I genuinely feel a curiosity and care for, also feel those same measures for the world around them. Might wonder at the wider world, what’s good and bad about it, where it might be uncomfortable or not pay as much to be responsible or principled, but do it anyway. I know this is projecting, but I also don’t know a better way to reconcile my feelings toward basketball, personally and professionally, and the way that I want to live.
“I remember the beauty of the city,” Walker said, asked about the last time he visited Monaco. When Michael Jordan brought some Nike athletes there, years back.
Tell me you don’t picture Walker, who grew up in the blocky brick compound of the Bronx’s Sack-Wern Houses, downtown Manhattan just a six and change mile ride but no sight-lines to the city, looking down from the cobbled walkways that ring the limestone cliffs the entire country’s cut out of at the bright and bustling port of La Condamine against the turquoise wink of Port Hercule, basically a fingernail’s breadth of a harbour in the Ligurian Sea, and smile. Walker, who first couldn’t really access the endless sprawl of his city in the way he might have wished for, who came back and could, but couldn’t work for it in the way he probably pictured, now walking the entire length of this new city, the world’s tiniest sovereign-state, in just 45 minutes.
Walker, who was, briefly, a dancer, feeling what it is to really stretch into his limbs again, coming from practice to step out under the flamingo and saffron spill of mimosa trees in bloom, tall palms leaning to whisper into fuzzy pink tamarisk, the most assaulting thing to the senses the sharp snap of pine under persistent sun mixing with salt, sea. All of it available, opening up.
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