Though his NBA career may be over, Celtics fans will have a lot of fond memories of Employee Number 8 to look back on.
With his announcement to his NBDL teammates last week that he is ending his comeback and retiring, Antoine Walker will bring to a close a career filled with ups and downs. Though he won a championship in Miami and ended up earning over $108 million during his career, his legacy has been tainted by legal troubles and personal bankruptcy that followed his playing days.
It seems that many Celtics fans have blocked out all memories of the pre-Big Three era, and as a result Walker has become an almost mythical figure in Boston. His exploits, both good and bad, have been lost in all of the accolades given to the post-2007 Celtics, which is unfortunate given that Walker’s contributions helped put the franchise back on the map in the first place.
From the start of his NBA career Walker was a difference maker, leading the team in scoring as a rookie. What ensued after that first season was a six year odyssey that saw the Celtics set a franchise record for losses in a season, only a few years later to come within two games of reaching the NBA Finals.
All along the way, Walker (along with Paul Pierce) was the backbone of an otherwise mediocre team. Though he was often criticized for being a selfish player, he often had very few talented players to work with and did what he thought was best to help the team win. While his style of play occasionally angered fans, he delivered in the clutch and was a beloved figure in the city.
While he never got the Celtics further than the Eastern Conference finals, Walker should be remembered as an important part of team history. He had the unique ability to make fans laugh, cry and high-five complete strangers all in one play.
While it is difficult to narrow it down, here are Antoine Walker’s top 10 most enduring moments and accomplishments as a Boston Celtic:
Walker came to the Boston Celtics after a brief two year stint at Kentucky, where he won a National Championship in 1996 playing for future Celtics head coach Rick Pitino. The Celtics selected him sixth overall in the 1996 NBA Draft, just after Ray Allen and before 13th pick Kobe Bryant.
Walker’s high draft status meant he would immediately be expected to contribute, and he delivered with a promising rookie season in which he averaged 17.5 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. In being named to the All-Rookie first team, Walker cemented his status as a future franchise player in Boston.
Walker's ability to score in bunches was put on display the night he dropped 49 on the Washington Wizards.
On January 7, 1998, Walker set a career high in points with 49 in a game against the Washington Wizards. Playing alongside fellow former Kentucky players Ron Mercer and Walter McCarty, Walker and the Celtics struggled all season in finishing 36-46.
Walker’s performance in this particular game was stellar. He made 21 of a stunning 36 shots, including hitting all five three point attempts. He certainly could have easily eclipsed 50 points, but he only made two of his seven free throws.
Walker also grabbed 12 boards, but it was not enough as the Celtics ended up losing the game 110-108. A big night from Walker in a Celtics loss would be a familiar refrain throughout the forward’s career in Boston.
Walker's leadership and all-around play played a huge role in the Celtics' success in 2001-02.
After weathering sub-.500 records in each of Walker’s first five seasons in Boston, the Celtics finally broke through in the 2001-02 season. Buoyed by the emergence of third-year player Paul Pierce and the steady leadership of Coach Jim O’Brien, Walker and the Celtics won 49 games and secured their first playoff berth in seven years.
Walker had an excellent year, averaging a 22-9-5 en route to his second All-Star selection. He led the way in a number of categories including rebounds, assists and minutes played, and together with Pierce formed one of the best young tandems in the league.
In the playoffs the Celtics went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell to the New Jersey Nets in a grueling six-game series.
Unafraid to hoist up a shot from pretty much anywhere, Walker is one of the most high-volume three-point shooters in Celtics history.
Walker’s three-point shooting was prolific, and not always in a good way. He holds the Celtics franchise record for three-pointers both made and attempted in a single season (in 2001-02). Second on that list? Walker again, this time in 2000-01.
Walker’s 645 attempts in 2001-02 rank just shy of the all-time NBA record of 678 set by the immortal George McCloud for Dallas in 1995-96. However, the 2002-03 Celtics do hold the NBA record for most three-point attempts per game in a season with 26.28, and Walker certainly did his part in contributing an average of 8.0 attempts per game.
Whether you loved watching Walker hoist it up from anywhere or if it made you want to run on the court and tackle him every time he squared up, he was always compelling to watch. Celtics fans always knew the Walker was a man confident in his shooting stroke, for better or for worse.
Ah, the wiggle. Some might call it a walking metaphor for the immature antics of Walker's generation of NBA players, a sign of an ego run amok.
I call it hilarious.
Yes, perhaps Walker’s bizarre gyrations after hitting big shots were a bit showy, but who wants a superstar to be without personality? Especially during an era where they had so little to cheer about, Celtics fans embraced Walker and his ridiculous dance, and in turn he kept the shoulder shimmies coming.
Even though he has long since left Boston and taken his act to other cities, Walker and his wiggle live on in local lore.
After the retirement of Larry Bird and the tragic death of Reggie Lewis, the Celtics lacked a marketable All-Star. Dee Brown’s brief rise to prominence, though attention-getting and fun to watch, was ultimately stymied by his inability to do anything except pump his shoes, cover his eyes and dunk a basketball.
When Walker emerged onto the scene, he gave the Celtics the kind of personality they had lacked for years. His enthusiasm was unquestioned despite the occasional lapses in judgment on the court, and this love of the game coupled with his natural ability won him several endorsements.
It had been a while since a Celtic had appeared in a national ad campaign, so the release of “Employee Number 8” was a big moment for the Celtics. It vaulted Walker into the national spotlight and gave him a career-long nickname as well.
Walker was welcomed back with open arms for the stretch run of the 2004-05 season.
The 2004-05 Celtics were a listless group. Through 55 games they were 27-28 under first year head coach Doc Rivers, and looked like they were going nowhere. Then, on February 24, GM Danny Ainge traded Gary Payton, Tom Gugliotta, Michael Stewart and a first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Walker.
Unfortunately for Employee Number 8, when he returned he found that Al Jefferson was already wearing his namesake number. Walker briefly became Employee Number 88 until, in perhaps a harbinger of further financial irresponsibility to come, Walker paid Jefferson an undisclosed sum to regain the rights to his signature digit.
The Celtics went 18-9 the rest of the way and won the Atlantic Division. Walker put up 16-8-3 averages–including a 33-13-6 in just his second game back–giving the team a badly needed second option on offense to pair with Paul Pierce.
Though the team would ultimately lose in the first round of the playoffs to a talented Indiana team, Walker’s return–and the contagious energy he brought to the court every game–coaxed far more effort out of that group than many fans thought possible.
Walker was given a maximum contract to become the face of his franchise, sort of like that guy on the left.
While he will ultimately be remembered for the amount of money he squandered over the course of his career, in 1999 Walker set a then-record for most lucrative contract ever handed out by the Celtics. His six year, $71 million extension was not only the largest in team history, but also made Walker among the highest paid players in the league.
More significant than the dollars themselves, though, was what they represented. The Celtics as a franchise felt they had a potential cornerstone in Walker, and were ready to make a long-term commitment to him. In many respects, the player-team relationship is like a marriage, and teams tend to be very selective when handing out max contracts.
The Celtics’ decision to keep Walker for such a high dollar amount, then, signified how highly they regarded him. Whether they truly got their money’s worth is an entirely separate debate, however.
Walker often had reason to celebrate, as he filled up the stat sheet in leading the Celtics to many wins.
The Celtics have a long list of Hall of Famers to have played for them since the 1979-80 season, with names like Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish among them. However, ahead of all of them in the team record books for career triple-doubles is Antoine Walker.
While it would be difficult for anybody to approach Larry Bird’s team record of 59, prior to Wednesday night Walker held sole possession of second with 13 triple-doubles in his six-plus years with Boston. He is now tied Rajon Rondo, who with the way he is playing figures to eclipse Walker by the end of the season.
The importance of this achievement lies in the fact that a triple-double signifies all-around excellence. A player can collect one or two by accident (Ricky Davis, anyone?), but when it becomes habitual we have to consider him as among the game’s elite. In Walker’s case, his ability to succeed in all facets of the game made the Celtics contenders when they would otherwise have been in the basement of the Eastern Conference.
The crowning achievement of Walker’s Celtics career must be the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history. With his team down by 21 points entering the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Nets, Walker delivered an impassioned speech on the bench to the downtrodden Celtics that he hoped would serve as a spark.
The Celtics erupted to the tune of 41 points in the fourth quarter, 19 of which were contributed by Paul Pierce. Walker was no slouch himself, putting in 23 points to go with 12 rebounds and four assists on the night. The Celtics’ 94-90 win put them up 2-1 in the series and sparked a wild celebration in Boston.
Though the Celtics would go on to lose the series, the building formerly known as the FleetCenter has arguably never been louder, even during the 2008 NBA Finals. The ravenous Boston fans badly wanted a winner, and Walker helped deliver one for the first time in many years.