Sports writer

KEMBA WALKER IS READY TO PROVE DOUBTERS WRONG, AGAIN

In SB Nation on November 20, 2014 at 11:25 am
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Emanuel “Book” Richardson’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing.

Why would you let Kemba Walker go to UConn? He’s too small. He’s never going to play.

Richardson, Walker’s former AAU coach with the New York Gauchos, had similar reservations. When he first heard Walker wanted to be a Husky, he laughed. UConn hadn’t even shown any interest and Walker was projected to be a mid-major player.

“I don’t think you’re good enough to play there yet,” Richardson told the Rice High School point guard, prodding him to think more realistically about his future. “There’s not a lot of late bloomers that are six foot.”

But reality wasn’t a message the kid with sky-high dreams wanted to hear, even if scouting reports sent him back down to earth. He could make shots when needed — but could he become a consistent shooter? He could dazzle — but could he defend? His crossovers could leave defenders’ legs twisted in ways they shouldn’t — but could he command a team?

Walker heard all of the questions. He longed for a chance to give answers.

“He took everything personal,” said Richardson, now an assistant coach at Arizona. “Religiously, he was always in the Gauchos gym. He never allowed himself to be complacent with just being good. He always wanted to be great.”

***

It’s a hot morning in Los Angeles in early November, almost reaching the 80s before noon. The Hornets are shooting around in STAPLES Center, preparing for the Lakers later that night.

Walker is in a light mood, knocking down shots, inching closer, stepping back, finding his rhythm.

In a larger sense, the fourth-year pro is trying to find his stride in a league saturated with point guards. He’s years removed from his prep days, let alone leading UConn to a national championship in 2011. Yet those same questions about his outside shooting and defense still remain.

This is a pivotal season for Walker, whose four-year, $48 million contract extension secured him as a key piece in the franchise’s future. Will he grow into an elite point guard or will he not rise to the occasion? This is a critical year for the Hornets, too. Last season’s first-round playoff appearance set the bar high for this season. Will they take the next step in winning a series or crack amid the hype?

Charlotte’s success is tied to Walker’s and Walker’s to Charlotte’s. Both have potential. Both have something to prove. And both know their fates are intertwined.

“I just want to win,” Walker said while sitting courtside after shootaround. “Of course I can say, ‘Oh, I want to be an All-Star’ and things like that. But in order to do all those things, you have to win.” (READ MORE.)

STAYING READY: KIWI GARDNER CHASES NBA DREAM

In SLAM magazine on August 6, 2014 at 10:11 am
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/NBA

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/NBA

The Warriors and the Lakers traded baskets back and forth in an overtime NBA Summer League game in July. But the fast-paced game slowed down for Kiwi Gardner, the fresh-faced, 21-year-old point guard from Oakland who cracked Golden State’s roster after spending a year with the Warriors’ D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz.

Gardner stood up from the bench midway through and realized where he was. He saw the Lakers jerseys and the NBA logos. He saw Steve Kerr coaching on the sidelines and other legends watching in the stands.

This is what standing on an NBA court felt like; this is where he’s always wanted to be. And like any player on the outside looking in, uncertain when this moment will come again, Gardner tried to salvage every conversation or play around him.

“I feel so close but still I feel so far away. You know it’s right there,” Gardner says of the NBA. “I’m really looking to, you know, break in. Break in the door sometime soon.”

After playing a few minutes here and there throughout the summer, he exploded for seven points in a single minute of the Warriors’ final game against the Bucks.

Every minute counts for Gardner, who remembers the feeling of not having any. He remembers traveling to different cities to D-League tryouts last year.

With a hundred bucks for his entry fee in one hand, his NBA dream in the other, Gardner tried out for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Idaho Stampede, Bakersfield Jam, L.A. D-Fenders, Reno Bighorns and the Warriors.

Gardner, 5-7, had something to prove. He was known for his dazzling dribbling moves on YouTube, but had little college experience. He committed to play at Providence, but never gained eligibility to play. Then he transferred to a JC in Texas, Midland College, playing in just nine games before deciding to turn pro. Gardner was undrafted.

But everyone who paid their hundred bucks to get in the gym had their own back stories, too. None of it mattered anymore; everyone at D-League tryouts wanted the same thing: a chance.

“It’s hard to even get a real look in that kind of setting. In that situation, it’s hard to make the people that’s important, or make the people that’s looking, even know you exist,” Gardner says. “I was hanging on by a thread the whole time.”

Gardner didn’t try to do too much. Knock down the shot when it’s open, make the extra pass, push the ball up the floor as quick as possible; he tried to play a role and play it well. (READ MORE.)

BEYOND THE BEAM

In OC Register on October 20, 2013 at 10:04 am
Photo courtesy of Cal State Fullerton Athletics

Photo courtesy of Cal State Fullerton Athletics

Carol Johnston didn’t see herself the way others saw her. Born without a right arm below her elbow, Johnston fell in love with gymnastics and didn’t think twice about competing.

She had done everything else up to that point, learning how to tie her shoes, braid her hair, put on clothes, run, eat. Having one arm was normal – she didn’t know anything else.

“Carol was more concerned about being 4-foot-10 than she was about having one arm,” said Johnston’s former Cal State Fullerton teammate and roommate, Julie Bowse.

Reporters from around the country would line up at Cal State Fullerton meets from 1977 to 1980 to catch a glimpse of her. She was even the subject of a Disney movie, “Lefty,” in 1980.

To the outside world, she was ‘Carol the one-armed-gymnast.’

But to those who knew her best, she was just Carol. Another member of the team. A college student. A 19-year-old who loved double-stuffed Oreos.

Johnston wanted to be known for being a great gymnast, not for being different.

But she was different, and she inspired countless young girls and women with her athletic success.

The two-time All-American on balance beam and floor exercise was a conference champion, a national championship runner-up and a key member of the Fullerton squad that became one of the most dominant gymnastics teams in the country.

Johnston, now 55, was inducted into the Cal State Fullerton Athletics Hall of Fame at a ceremony on Friday.

The woman who spent her life overcoming odds is now facing something beyond human control. A year and a half ago, Johnston was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

She struggles to start and finish sentences, and her memory is declining. But like living with one arm, she is once again trying to live as normal a life as possible with the same spirit that captivated all who watched her compete.

“We want to own the disease instead of letting it own us,” said her husband, Scott D. Koniar. “It’s hard to draw inspiration from something like this, but Carol is the same wonderful person that I met, loved and married. Her spirit is so ingrained in her that it has not changed.” (READ MORE.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.