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Knicks' Kemba Walker stays positive despite demotion

Kemba Walker #8 (2nd from right) of the

Kemba Walker #8 (2nd from right) of the Knicks looks on from the sidelines during the second quarter against the Nets at Barclays Center on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

When he sat down for his introductory news conference in August, Kemba Walker marveled at the feeling of seeing his image adorning the large screens outside Madison Square Garden, a welcome home he’d dreamed of since he was a child growing up in the Bronx and through his days starring on this very court while in high school and college.

It was a homecoming and easy to feel welcome. But there is a downside, too. When Walker was removed from not only the starting lineup but the rotation 20 games into the season in a difficult decision by coach Tom Thibodeau, it was an issue not only on the court but at home.

Walker had crowded that introductory news conference with friends and family. These are his streets, filled with his people. And now when he sees them, it is from the odd role as a player in limbo.

While Walker has not spoken about his demotion, Taj Gibson is one of those people around Walker, someone who has known him since high school. And he knows what it’s like to be home and have to face the familiar faces.

"When you’ve been around the league a long time, you don’t have to say much," Gibson said. "Mostly you talk about regular everyday life stuff, what’s going on with [your mindset]. Basketball is just part of everything that we do every day, but it’s mostly the mental part. You’re home, you’re dealing with your family, dealing with everybody on your block, everybody that constantly sees you. That’s the aspect you’re mostly dealing with. The basketball part comes with it. Just have to have your mind ready because New York City is New York, we’re born and raised here, we know what comes with playing."

To Walker’s credit, he has not sulked or hidden — even if he has yet to speak publicly about the demotion. He is visible on the bench, rushing out to greet teammates coming off the floor for timeouts, cheering wildly for his teammates on the floor, including Alec Burks, who displaced him in the starting lineup.

And Gibson, who has had to spend his career in a variety of roles for Thibodeau, said that what we don’t see is very much the same.

"Straight toughness. Straight professional. Straight great teammate," Gibson said. "He’s been in the gym with the guys who haven’t been playing, including myself, we’ve been playing a lot. His energy and his attitude have been phenomenal. He’s been staying late, coming in early. He’s always been one of the first guys in the gym. He stays extremely late. But in the locker room, he’s talking. On the sideline, he’s talking. Even in films, he’s talking and giving his critique. So he’s been great, and he’s been a phenomenal teammate the whole time.

"I know Kemba half of my whole life, so I know the character of person he is. He’s already a great basketball player. But outside of the game of basketball, he is an A-1 person. He’s a special person outside of basketball. For him to do that, it speaks volumes of how he is.

"I’ve been around Thibs a long time — [Walker’s] number will be hopefully called again, and when it does, he’ll be ready. Right now, even as I’m talking to you right now, he’s in the gym working out, he’s doing one-on-one pull-up drills right now."

Maybe Walker’s chance will come, although it is hard to tell when. He sat out for rest last Saturday in Atlanta and Burks got the start that night. The Knicks won, and when the team convened for practice Monday, Thibodeau made the change.

On Tuesday and Thursday, Walker never got the call — with even little-used Kevin Knox getting a few minutes Thursday. He also did not play Saturday afternoon as the Knicks fell behind by 30 en route to a 113-99 loss to the Nuggets.

Thibodeau said earlier in the week that he is not experimenting right now, but he complimented how Walker has handled it.

"He’s done a good job," Thibodeau said. "He’s a pro’s pro. He’s in there. He’s a great teammate. He’s been great in practice. So that’s what you expect."

If there is a thought from Walker or the Knicks about trying to find him a new home, he can’t be dealt until Dec. 15. He already was traded from Boston to Oklahoma City in June and then bought out by the Thunder in August, paving the way for a trip home to New York.

"Things can change in a minute," Gibson said. "Like one thing about Thibs, my whole career, you’re constantly going to get tested. It may go your way some nights, it may go your way a whole month, but then it can quickly turn bad. You have to just stay focused, keep your eye on the prize, the ups and downs.

"That’s one thing I love about our team: Even when things go bad, it’s not looking right, everybody on the team is in the huddle, everybody’s texting one another, everybody’s checking on one another, everybody has a strong belief that we can do the right thing. It’s just from top to bottom that we got a good group of guys, good group of teammates, that really believe in each other, trying to do the right thing. And it’s always a next-man-up mentality. You see how we play."

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