Kemba Walker wasn’t any older than four when he started walking himself into the laundromat on University Avenue in the Bronx, the one that always spilled out reggae music in the summertime.

He’d go up to the first person he spied, tap their hip and then, as soon as their attention turned his way, he’d bust out dancing. Walker’s mother Andrea laughingly remembers how people used to give him money.

Much has been written about how Walker, Connecticut’s star point guard, forged his game on the courts of New York City. But what hasn’t been discussed is how the city—and in particular the music of the Bronx—is embedded in the way he plays.

Walker’s father, Kenya, says the skills his son has used to get to Saturday’s NCAA tournament Final Four—the feet that can take him anywhere on the court in a flash, the body that nimbly contorts through a tangle of limbs, the devastating timing, even his megawatt smile, have a common origin. “That’s where it all comes from,” Kenya Walker says. “The dancing.”

When Walker’s Huskies meet Kentucky Saturday in Houston for a chance to play in the national title game, the 6-foot-1 junior will try to extend what has already been a defining season. He’s won the Bob Cousy Award, given each year to the nation’s best floor general, he’s been named an AP All-American and he’s a favorite to be named Naismith National Player of the Year. He’s averaging an impressive 23.9 points, 4.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game.

But these achievements don’t betray what’s most exceptional about Kemba Walker: the way he moves on a basketball court.

When Marilyn Patterson watches Walker play, she remembers a braided eight-year old who showed up in her modern, jazz and hip-hop dance class already knowing how to do The Bogle, a Jamaican reggae dancehall move where the body mimics the rock of an ocean wave. “He was a dedicated dancer,” says Patterson, who taught Walker until he went to high school, and who took his dance troupe, Future Flavors, to dozens of competitions. “Every time he had to go to practice, he’d come to me and say, ‘Miss Marilyn, I have basketball.’ And then he’d make up for it and come another day to dance.”

The hints of this training in his basketball moves are subtle, but to those who know dance, they’re unmistakable.

At the end of a close game against Villanova, an opposing player, Corey Stokes, reached in on Walker just as he was driving to the basket, sending him into a stumble. But Walker was somehow dexterous enough to right himself and float in the game-winner. In another tense game, with the clock ticking down, Walker had the balance and footwork to jab-step Pittsburgh’s Gary McGhee, sending the big man to the floor, and then coolly step back and nail the game-winning jumper.

It shows up in the way Walker contorts his body on reverses, shimmies through traffic and tap-steps around picks. It’s partly the net result of thousands of hours of practice, but it’s also a byproduct of his lithe feet and the flexibility that allows him to do the splits—something Walker always hated practicing in Patterson’s dance class. “I’ve been in basketball over 50 years and that poor Gary McGhee… That was one of the best moves I’ve ever seen,” said one East Coast NBA scout, who, per league rules, isn’t allowed to discuss non-seniors. “He has tremendous balance, his body is always totally under control and it starts with his feet.”

Walker’s footwork was always exquisite, Patterson said, both while standing and while doing downrock moves, when he was on the floor and using his hands to support his weight. At 10, Walker had a repertoire of hip-hop’s acrobatic power moves and was adept at popping; a trick where a dancer rapidly contracts and relaxes his muscles to make his body jerk (Patterson said she’s seen Walker do this on the court to shake an opposing player who’s standing too close to him).

If Walker was a great dancer, the NBA scout says, “I can see it, I can picture it, I can connect those dots. He’s like a dancer when he’s out there.”

Off the court, Walker was quiet and retreating. He had a teacher at Harlem’s Rice High School who didn’t even know he played basketball until he saw Walker’s picture in a newspaper sports section. And yet, when it’s time to perform, Walker never hesitated. Twice his dance troupe performed at Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Among the legions of basketball trophies and plaques in the living room of the Walkers’ two-bedroom apartment are a neat row of dance trophies.

Thursday morning, Patterson dug out an old VHS tape of the now 20-year old when he was 10. Just before the performance on the tape, his dancemates anxiously bit their lips. But Walker was mugging for the camera. “He’s always known how to perform on the big stage,” his old Rice High School coach, Maurice Hicks, says. “He was always acting the fool,” his mother says.

The Walkers are from the Caribbean. Kenya, who two years ago legally changed his name from Paul, is from Antigua. Andrea is from St. Croix. Both wear long braids. Kenya has the lilting accent of the islands. And it was the father who swears he told his wife that this third child of theirs “is going to be the next Michael Jordan.”

“From the day he was born, I told her, trust me,” he says, nodding at his wife.

Kenya was a point guard himself in Antigua. The elder Walker doesn’t take much credit for his son’s basketball ability. But the dancing, he proudly says, “that’s from me.” It was Kenya who had Walker doing backflips, handstands and the dances of the islands and who encouraged his double-jointedness. Now, he says, “when I see the way he makes some lay-ups, they’re things even I haven’t seen.”

Walker doesn’t dance in pre-game introductions and he hasn’t celebrated one of his game-winners with so much as a slide. Dwight Hardy of St. John’s, a fellow Bronx-bred guard, said he didn’t know Walker was a dancer. But he says he should have figured it out while watching Walker play in the season-opening Maui Invitational.

“There was one play where he went to the hole, got hit on one side of the basket and then just reversed to the other side, extended his arm, went up-and-under and got the ‘and one,’” Hardy said. “The move—it was just crazy.”

By ADITI KINKHABWALA

 

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