The celebration was on from the moment Kemba Walker’s name was announced by the team’s public address announcer Mike Walczewski Tuesday morning at Madison Square Garden, the scoreboard lowered nearly to floor level to display highlights of his career and fellow Bronx native and Knicks fan Fat Joe seated in the front row of the introductory news conference alongside family and friends.
But as he recounted highlights of his 10-year NBA career — even mustering a shake of the head hearing it had been that long — and reminisced about his magical Big East Tournament run with UConn, there was the underlying reality. What will he bring now at 31 years old with a history that includes a troublesome left knee that limited him to just 43 games last season and had him watching the final two playoff games from the sideline?
Walker insisted that the troubles are behind him and he is ready to take on the challenge of running the point for the Knicks, elevating them to the next level. Sitting on stage beside the Knicks' other free-agent acquisition, Evan Fournier, he insisted he is coming back home with a hunger.
"It means everything," Walker said of proving himself on the stage after last season’s injury woes and a trade that ended his time in Boston. "It’s driving everything. Because I know what kind of player I am. I know what level I want to be at. It’s added motivation."
Walker underwent a stem-cell injection before last season which cost him the start of the year and then he was sidelined at the end. But he vowed when the season was over to spend the summer getting right and he believes he is ready.
"I feel great. My knee feels great," Walker said. "Honestly, I haven’t been playing as much since the regular season. I feel really good. I haven’t had this much time off in a little while, in a few years, to be honest. It feels good to have this rest and time to get my knee right. I intend to come in feeling super good and continue to feel super good."
Even if he is a lesser version of himself it’s still an upgrade from the Knicks point guard situation last year which was a mess until Derrick Rose arrived and saw his minutes escalate until he was a starter at the end of the playoffs. Walker shrugged off any notion that he would be limited now. When asked if he would sit back-to-back games like he did last season in Boston, he pointed to Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau in the front row and said, "You’ve got to ask him. Ask Thibs."
Thibodeau laughed and said, "He’s playing."
Walker admitted that he came close to signing with the Knicks in the summer of 2019 when he opted instead for the Celtics. Even if it was delayed, he was thrilled that the homecoming finally came. But as a New Yorker, he also knows that the goodwill for a local hero only goes as far as his production takes the team.
With Fournier, who he played with briefly in Boston last season, beside him, he predicted that the results will be good, taking the Knicks from the 41-31 team that was ousted in the opening round of the playoffs to a legitimate threat.
"I'm going to be honest, it happens everywhere," Walker said of the fans. "If fans don't like you, they don't like something. It don't matter where you're at. I'm from here, we got the best fans in the world. I know what's up. I'm not really worried about that. I know what he's going to bring. I know what I'm going to bring. I see what those guys brought last year — the intensity, the passion for the game, things are going to be fun.
"We’re going to be really good. My ability to get in the lane, hopefully I can draw multiple defenders and get rid of the basketball. Trusting my teammates. I know this guy right here is going to light it up. For sure he’s going to shoot the crap out of the ball. We got a bunch of young guys. We just drafted some really, really good players. I was really impressed watching Summer League and some of the other guys who have been here. Me and Evan plan on coming here, bringing some leadership and adding on to what they have."