Spin Cycle: Has “Cardiac Kemba” ran his last race?

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It’s a sight that every fan of Connecticut basketball can see clearly: the clock is winding down, about to hit four seconds left in regulation. The ball-handler drives right, pulling back to the left as the clock strikes three. He moves left, surely taking the ball to the hoop before suddenly stepping back in the ultimate move of misdirection. The defender, in a heap, is sent to the floor just before the clock can reach two. All alone, the ball-handler puts up the final shot; if he misses, the game goes to overtime, but if he makes it, his team moves on to the semifinals of the 2011 Big East Tournament. One second to go in front of a packed Madison Square Garden, the buzzer sounds, and… 

“Cardiac Kemba does it again! UConn wins at the buzzer!” 

With one shot, junior Kemba Walker went from a small kid from the Bronx to a national icon. The game-winner over third-ranked Pittsburgh would send the Huskies to the semifinals of the Big East Tournament. This tournament would end with the Huskies claiming victory over fourteenth-ranked Louisville in the championship round. Walker, naturally, was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. 

Less than a month later, Connecticut would find itself playing Butler to determine a champion of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. After being down at halftime, UConn would outscore Butler by 15 points in the second half, led by Walker’s game-leading point total, to secure the win and the program’s first NCAA championship since 2004. With the final victory, UConn capped off what was an improbable 11-game winning streak that began back in their first game of the Big East Tournament, one of the most impressive runs in college hoops. Walker had already solidified himself as an icon in Storrs, and it appeared that nothing could get in the way of the basketball superstar. 

Alas, it seems that Walker has finally been run from the spotlight after news broke last Thursday that the New York Knicks would be shutting down Kemba for the remainder of the season. It’s quite the turnaround for the NBA star, who played many successful seasons as the primary scorer for the Charlotte Hornets and became a key piece for the Boston Celtics after he was drafted ninth overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. In fact, Walker’s time between Charlotte and Boston garnered him four consecutive all-star appearances between 2017-2020. The turnaround begs the question: after so many years as one of the premier playmakers in the NBA, what could’ve derailed Walker’s career so much that he’s now out of a rotation spot? 

If we’re trying to identify the exact moment that Walker began his downfall from star to subpar, then May 2016 seems like the correct place to start. That month, Kemba underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. The next year, in May 2017, he would again undergo a minor arthroscopic procedure on the same knee. At the time, the surgeries seemed like no big deal, as Walker had managed to score a then career-high 23.2 points per game while playing 79 out of Charlotte’s 82 games that regular season. In fact, Walker rebounded from the surgery to play 80 games the following season and didn’t miss a game in the 2018-2019 season. 

Things would begin to escalate during the 2019-2020 NBA season, Walker’s first as a member of the Celtics, when he missed game time in February after experiencing soreness in that same left knee. According to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, Walker had originally “chalked up the issue to the normal wear-and-tear that comes with an 82-game regular season, as well as his participation with Team USA [that previous] summer.” At the time, MRIs on Walker’s knee came back clean and it was not believed that he had developed tendinitis. Even so, at the conclusion of the 2019-2020 regular season, Walker missed 16 total games, 10 more than he’d missed in his previous four seasons combined. 

Before the start of the 2020-2021 season, it was announced that Kemba would miss the first few weeks of the season as he received a stem cell injection and began a new strengthening regime for his left knee. The therapy, called “regenokine,” is an anti-inflammatory treatment for joint pain. While NBA players that have undergone the same therapy in the past, including by all-timers Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady who have claimed that regenokine has “breathed life” back into their careers, Walker, who played in only 43 games during the regular season, was forced to miss games four and five of Boston’s first round playoff matchup against the Brooklyn Nets because of a bone bruise in his *sigh* left knee. 

With Walker missing extended time over his two seasons with the Celtics and growing concerns over his lingering knee issues, he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder and was waived before the regular season, when he ultimately chose to sign with his home state team, the New York Knicks. His return to New York had all of the signs of a fairytale ending: Walker, coming off of an injury, would return to all-star form in front of his hometown fans for a team that had exceeded expectations and was hoping to become a serious playoff contender over the next several seasons. At the forefront of that playoff push, of course, would be Cardiac Kemba, the college basketball hero that proved that he’s more than capable of performing on a big stage. When all was said and done, that is exactly how things would turn out, right? Wrong. 

Only a few weeks into the season, Walker had lost his rotation spot to fellow guard Alec Burks while the Knicks have played sub-.500 basketball for much of this season. Though Walker hadn’t been playing at his typical all-star standards to begin the year, he also wasn’t performing at a below-average level. It seems that his reduced role was more due to the fact that he wasn’t as great a fit in New York as many were expecting and, as a team that has seriously underperformed compared to preseason expectations and without any real chances of sneaking back into the playoff picture, New York may be looking to give more opportunity to its younger core. In addition to becoming a less-prominent player on the court, Kemba has continued to deal with pain in his left knee that has once again caused him to miss game time. 

When the decision was made that Kemba would be shut down for the remainder of the Knicks’ season, it was also announced that Walker would take the time to address his body and manage his ailing knee in preparation for the 2022-2023 season. It was also announced that both New York and Walker would seek trade opportunities this offseason. Though it remains to be seen what the future holds for Kemba, it is hard for me to remain optimistic that he will return to elite form despite a new opportunity somewhere else. It seems that no matter what treatment he undergoes or how much time he’s given to rest, Kemba’s knee injury remains a problem that will continue to haunt him for as long as he’s still on the court. It’s quite unfortunate, as Walker, who seemed like a man that could never be touched, may have run himself out of professional basketball. 

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