The Wonderful, Terrible Bill Walker

Bill Walker was supposed to be a star in the NBA. He isn't one—and that's fine.
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Yeah, it is kind of hard to believe.

Image courtesy of Knicksnow.com.

Average together every NBA swingman of the last 10 years and you get something... pretty impressive, actually, but complicated. You have: a gifted athlete with intermittently dazzling but generally under-developed on-court skills; a player who shows flashes of brilliance, but who also can’t help but play outside his ability when on the court for too long. This is a player who clearly spent much of his pre-NBA life being far better than most everyone else on the floor. For very brief stretches, he can still look that good.

This player is fun to play with in a video game because he can dunk and he can shoot; this player, though, seems notably less fun to coach, if only because of how thin things can get between the dunking and shooting. This is why basketball video games are great, and why NBA Jam was the greatest, and why actual basketball is also great, and also nothing at all like NBA Jam’s distillation of the sport to its least-essential forms. This player is Bill Walker, an archetype currently earning his paycheck and variable minutes with the New York Knicks.

Bill Walker can shoot well, and he can sometimes do so against good teams. The inverse applies, there, too. Walker dunks against bad and good teams—not just open-court, nothing-at-stake jams, either. Virtuoso dunks visible a mile off, but which seem implausible until you hear the dunker screaming, and suddenly there’s a man standing under the hoop, staring into the stands and looking like he might’ve crapped his pants. Bill Walker gets up that way—higher and then higher, twisting as he does it, around and over someone who wouldn’t fit under your doorway.

Bill Walker can earn that sort of awe, but Bill Walker is also on balance a completely replaceable NBA player. His success—meaning, the few times he helps the Knicks and will help whatever other teams employ him before his career’s end—comes from him doing the Bill Walker things, and stringing together just enough dunks and threes, just enough times in a row, to create the appearance of consistency. Really, though, it’s just the very definition of randomness. Who and what he is is something fans across the league try to come to terms with on a nightly basis.

***

In college, at the beginning of soccer practice, our team played a game called speedball. The object was to score on a goal, and the ball could be moved only by hand-passing it or dribbling it with your feet. Passing was way more efficient—even though this was soccer—because you could move the ball quickly down the field, provided the team moved together, always with someone to support whoever caught the next pass. Bill Walker would be good at speedball, but the NBA is not speedball. There is the need to dribble the ball, whether to unsettle the defense or get out of a spot and move the offense toward scoring. Which is problematic, in this case, because Bill Walker cannot dribble. At least, he can’t do it in the second-nature way most wing-or-smaller NBA players can.

It’s the most basic skill. There is the natural impulse, upon finding a basketball in one’s hands, to bounce it as you decide what to do next; it is something you do simply by virtue of having a basketball in your hands. I don’t know how Bill Walker learned to play the sport, but I have a picture of him in my head, playing at a park. It’s cold. He’s in shorts, a hoodie, and probably a cowboy hat (don’t ask). He takes a shot, and then someone tosses him the ball, he takes another shot, and then someone goes to hand him another ball. This time he grabs the ball and runs toward the hoop and slams it without dribbling. He jogs back and does it all again, and then again. And he’s not doing this to show off; he’s doing it because, to him, that’s basketball, and no one ever told him it wasn’t.

***

Bill Walker’s actual hoop adolescence, cowboy hat or not, is the stuff of basketball-nerd legend. Walker grew up in West Virginia and then Kentucky and Ohio. He played basketball from elementary school on with O.J. Mayo and possible-grandpa and definitely-creepy mentor/AAU coach/guardian/weird person Dwaine Barnes, who orchestrated the duo’s rise from puberty to the pros. From middle school on, Walker was one of the “next big things,” a freak athlete, the next Vince Carter. He was always the best kid, somehow, unfairly, always playing with the other best kid. When you can dunk on everyone or—if you’re bored—hoist up a three, why on earth wouldn’t you? Miss, and you’ll just get the ball back and do it all again, and at the end of the game you get to win. It’s not that Walker’s coaches—Barnes, then Bob Huggins and Frank Martin at Kansas State—failed him so much as they let him do what he does best without ever really asking him to do anything else, or requiring that he learn to do anything else. And this is how Walker still plays, except that he’s not the best kid in the gym any more.

Based on roster rules and salary cap structures, every team has at least one Bill Walker: a player with definite NBA-level skills, but someone just too flawed—or too unfinished, maybe, is the word—ever to play consistently without risking the possibility of mutinous fans, unemployed coaches, and a cranky blogosphere. With the Knicks’ top-heavy roster, before Earl, Baron and Steve Novak, Walker briefly pushed closer to that tipping point.

Sonny Vaccaro, the famed ABCD Camp czar, has called Walker one of the first victims of the NBA’s straight-out-of-high-school ban. Walker would’ve bypassed college if he could’ve, and probably been a lottery pick. Instead, he was forced to go to Kansas State, where he blew out his knee in his first season and ate popcorn on the sideline. He played a year with Michael Beasley, hurt his knee again in pre-draft workouts, and fell to the second round.

Walker also blew out his knee as a high school freshman, and those two injuries—plus the time and on-the-job training they cost him—doubtless helped create present-day Bill Walker. If anything, though, the injuries muted his Bill Walker-ness, which is, perhaps perversely, almost certainly a good thing for anyone who’s ever been forced to root for him.

It’s tragic, in a way, when someone earmarked for greatness from such a young age never delivers on the promises everyone else made for him. It’s tragic because this is a kid, a fully un-formed human being, who’s supposed to make something of these extra-human physical gifts, and can’t, or doesn’t. Couldn’t have—shouldn’t have—someone made sure this worked out? And it’s tragic, too, because it all seems like an accident; the knee injuries, the bizarre path through high school, and the stone-wall timing of the early-entry rule all adding up to something that never fully formed.

But “tragic” might also be the wrong word. Because Bill Walker is still playing and getting paid to play in the NBA. Despite his past promise, Bill Walker is an utterly average basketball player, like so many other guys who’ve shuffled in and out of the NBA over the past decade and the decades before, but he is indeed an NBA player. The league is filled with guys who overachieved and proved people wrong, but it’s also filled with the one’s who were supposed to be something bigger and just became something normal. That Bill Walker was supposed to be so great and became so average is a symbol of American basketball’s volatility as good as any other.

***

Even still, it’s fun to watch Bill Walker play. It’s fun because his name is Bill Walker, he has 90’s-rapper hair, and he can occasionally hit a three or throw down a jaw-dropping dunk. It is, however, not always fun to watch Bill Walker play basketball as a Knicks fan. Walker doesn’t inspire any Jared Jeffries-ian ire, because his compensation is roughly fair given what he provides and because he’s insulated somewhat by his underlying ridiculousness. It cushions him, but it doesn’t make him any easier to watch. 

It’s so painful because Bill Walker comes into the game and dribbles the ball off his foot and misses shots and fouls his man. It’s even more painful because Bill Walker is totally lovable, and totally and inextricably Bill Walker. He’s still a quirky, seemingly sweet-natured kid from Huntington, West Virginia. He calls soda “pop.” He calls Al Trautwig “chief.” And he thinks the funky chicken is hilarious. That is, I like Bill Walker, and he seems like someone who might be a good teammate and an entertaining person to be around. I don’t know if this is true, though he definitely does and says things that seem different. I mean… the Funky Chicken is his idea of a good time.

When Javale McGee sprints to the other end of the court while his team still has the ball, he’s not helping the Wizards win, but he’s making everyone—outside of a handful of hopeless curmudgeons—happy, baffled Wiz fans included. When Manu Ginobili catches a bat with his bare hands, the Spurs don’t necessarily win, but some amusement and enjoyment results from him doing so. It’s somewhat sad, sure, that Bill Walker never quite learned to play basketball, but his absolute absence of polish is part of what he delivers as an entertainer—would he offer more to fans, besides those hoping his team wins, if he knew how to dribble or didn’t think a certain iconic board game was called “Mon-op-o-lay?” In the end, caring about a team is more than hoping that team wins a championship, and liking the team is finally just liking it. If Walker didn’t quite learn basketball from Huggins, or Martin, or anyone else, he still learned enough to teach us something—that there are things more entertaining, and maybe more important and certainly more human, than winning.


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