When former Kentucky Wildcats star Kenny Walker got word last month that he had been chosen for the 2018 Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in an induction class that includes former NFL star Champ Bailey and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the Roberta, Ga., native expected his family members to be excited.
Just not for the reason Walker expected.
“My family, we were always big Atlanta Falcons fans,” Walker said Wednesday. “When I told my family that I was going in the Hall of Fame, I think they were more excited they would get to see Champ Bailey and Arthur Blank than they were (over) my accomplishment of going in.”
It’s been more than three decades since Walker, a 6-foot-8 forward whose bouncy athleticism made it seem he was playing on a pogo stick, left UK in 1986 as a two-time All-American and the school’s second all-time leading men’s basketball scorer (2,080 career points).
Yet Walker, 53, has direct ties with two of the most newsworthy figures in 2017-18 college basketball.
Before Pitino left the Knicks in 1989 to accept the challenge of rebuilding the probation-ravaged Kentucky basketball program, Walker was one of the people the coach consulted about the move. Pitino took the UK job, of course, leading the Wildcats from the ashes to an NCAA title and three Final Fours in eight seasons.
“I certainly was a part of him accepting the job and coming here,” Walker said.
So, unlike some Cats backers, Walker has taken no satisfaction in seeing Pitino’s career as Louisville head coach unravel amidst a series of scandals.
An FBI sting operation that allegedly revealed a Pitino assistant conspiring with representatives of shoe company Adidas to funnel a six-figure payment to the family of a recruit U of L was pursuing set in motion the process that led to Pitino’s firing Monday.
“I was extremely proud of what (Pitino) did (at UK),” Walker says. “In a lot of ways, I was proud of what he did after he left UK because he was such a great coach. To see it end the way that it did, I’m very sad.”
One of the most memorable games Walker played in as a Kentucky Wildcat was UK’s 1984 Final Four meeting with John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas. Even after all these years, it’s a game that still eats at Walker.
Georgetown, led by star center Patrick Ewing, went on to beat Houston for the NCAA title.
As fate would have it, Walker ended up playing with Ewing on the New York Knicks for five years. In that time, Ewing relished giving the ex-Cat the business over UK’s second-half collapse in that Final Four.
“It started with my first training camp,” Walker recalled. “He constantly reminded me, each and every day, how they kicked our butts. He would always say they humiliated us and they kicked our butts.”
Nevertheless, Ewing and Walker grew close. So the former Kentucky forward will be pulling for Georgetown this season as Ewing, 55, makes his debut as the head coach at his alma mater.
“I love Patrick Ewing,” Walker says. “I’m a little concerned because we’re in the one-and-done era. It’s been 30-plus years since Patrick played in college. Even though he does have name recognition, I’m a little concerned if he’s going to appeal to the younger kids because he’s basically been an assistant coach in the NBA (during the lifetime of current recruits).”
For Walker, the highlight of 2018 will be Feb. 23-24 in Macon. Some 25 miles from where he grew up, Walker will be enshrined in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
The former UK star was inducted into the state of Kentucky’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007, but says being recognized in his native state will carry special meaning.
“The Kentucky Hall of Fame meant a lot to me,” he says. “But to have this honor in my home state, where it all started for me, I have to say it is the highest accomplishment that I have had. I’m excited about everything.”