In the eyes and hearts of most every college basketball fan, Kemba Walker will be remembered above all for his tournament play. He became a household name with his epic Maui Invitational performance; a folk hero in leading UConn to five wins in five days in the Big East Tournament; and a champion when the Huskies won six more games to take home the 2011 NCAA title. Maybe the defining tournament of his life came back in 2007 however, not in front of the eyes of the nation, but instead in front of a handful of spectators and scouts in an Arizona gym.
At the time, Walker was coming off a solid junior year in high school at Rice High School in the Bronx, but was hardly yet a star. Quite the opposite actually, as the 2006–2007 season was the first that Kemba had even started for the New York City powerhouse, after he spent his first two years at the school backing up McDonald’s All-American Edgar Sosa.
With the chance to get starter’s minutes for the first time, Kemba stepped up his game, averaging fourteen points and leading the Raiders to the CHSAA Class AA title. Included in that successful junior year was a January victory over the No. 4 team in the country, Simeon High School in Chicago, in a game which Kemba got the better of the top senior guard in the country, Derrick Rose. For those wondering, yes, that’d be the same Derrick Rose that would later go on to win the NBA MVP award five years later.
So it’s safe to say that entering the Arizona tournament, Kemba Walker was an accomplished basketball player. He held college scholarship offers from hometown St. John’s and Cincinnati, which was the favorite for his services at the time.
Still, he just wasn’t quite Kemba Walker yet either.
That all changed when Walker arrived in Arizona with his New York Gauchos AAU teammates at the 2007 Arizona Cactus Classic. Walker was hardly the highest profile player in Arizona, and specifically in 2007, the tournament was chock-full of the top high school talent in the country. Future college and professional stars filled the gym by the dozens, sneakers squeaking, sweat dripping to the floor. Included in the field were DeMar DeRozan and Jrue Holiday, both of whom would go on to be first round NBA Draft picks within two years. Also in attendance was the consensus No. 1 point guard in the country, Brandon Jennings. The lefty from Los Angeles was the apple of every recruiter’s eye and one of the top targets of the University of Connecticut.
Yet despite all that big-name cache, it’d be a little guard from the Bronx who’d steal the show. Like he’d do a few years later in Maui, Kemba Walker would enter the tournament a relative unknown, the proverbial “I’ve heard the name, but can’t put a face with it” high school basketball player. And just like Maui, he’d leave as the buzz of the tournament, the name on the tip of everyone’s tongues.
Undersized but hardly overmatched, the Gauchos ripped through the early part of the tournament, overwhelming bigger teams with their quickness and New York City grit. After arriving in Arizona with only eight players, and at times playing as many as four guards, the Gauchos won their opening game against the New Mexico Force before winning an amazing five games in a fourteen-hour stretch the following day (and you thought five wins in five days at the Big East Tournament run was impressive!). Their basketball marathon began just after 10:00 a.m. with a 66–48 win over a team named Sporting Chance and concluded with a victory over Pump-N-Run Elite in a 10:44 p.m. tip, with three additional wins in between. Just another day in the life of an AAU basketball player, huh?
The Gauchos had a quick turnaround the next morning with a 9:57 a.m. tip-off against Wisconsin Playground. Not that the lack of sleep mattered as they would go on to win thanks to Walker’s twenty-three points and ten rebounds.
In their semifinal, the Gauchos should’ve been intimidated when their guard-heavy lineup went against a California Supreme team with a frontline that’s as big as they come in AAU ball. In particular, California Supreme featured Tyler Lamb (who’d go on to play at UCLA), Solomon Hill (the same at Arizona), and one of the nation’s top rising sophomores Jeremy Tyler. Tyler would later gain infamy for not only skipping his freshman year of college to play professionally overseas, but also his senior year of high school as well, before being selected by the Golden State Warriors in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft. To this day Tyler is the only person to attempt such a feat (and based on his disastrous results, it will likely remain that way).
But again, for whatever the Gauchos lacked in sized, they made up for with overwhelming quickness and suffocating defensive pressure. The sheer bulk of California Supreme was no match for the speed of the kids from New York as the Gauchos cruised to an 88–76 win. Darryl “Truck” Bryant (who later went on to West Virginia) scored twenty-three points, with Kemba held to “only” twenty.
With the win over California Supreme, it set up a championship game showdown with the only other undefeated team in the tournament, the Belmont Stars. The Stars featured DeRozan and Jennings, both of whom would go on to be Top 10 NBA Draft picks within two years.
Now before we go any further, it’s important to give some quick context to this story.
Entering the summer of 2007, Jennings was the point guard of everyone’s obsession, including UConn’s. The lefty was silky smooth with deceptive speed, and as mentioned, listed the Huskies along with USC and Arizona as his schools of choice. Many believed UConn to actually have been the front-runner in the Jennings sweepstakes since he was the cousin of former Huskies guard Marcus Williams, and was coached at times by Marcus’s father Kelly Williams.
“The Williams family saw Brandon as a little brother,” former UConn assistant coach Tom Moore said. Moore was the primary recruiter of Jennings, and left UConn just weeks prior to the Cactus Classic. “At the time, we thought we were in great shape, and would end up getting him.”
Which put Kemba Walker in an interesting position. Ultimately everything that Walker wanted to be—the No. 1 point guard in the country and the No. 1 recruiting target of the UConn Huskies—Brandon Jennings already was. Jennings was an Internet sensation even before the Arizona tournament, with a hype that preceded him well before he squared with the little-known Walker in Tucson.
“When we got to Arizona, the first thing we did was go to the gym early and watched Brandon Jennings and Belmont,” former Gauchos head coach and current Arizona assistant coach Emmanuel “Book” Richardson said. “There was just an aura to him in that tournament. He was a sheer force. Unstoppable. And you better believe it fueled us.”
It certainly fueled Kemba Walker.
From the outset of the game, Walker wouldn’t be denied; if anything he took it as a challenge to go ahead and knock the crown of the “top point guard in the country” right off Jennings’s head. On the Gauchos’ first possession, Richardson set up an isolation play for Kemba, and Walker blew by his defender, got to the rim, made a layup, and got fouled.
From there, it was on.
The point guard with the tiny reputation spent the rest of the afternoon outplaying the point guard with the massive one. Walker finished the game with twenty-four points, five rebounds, and four assists, in a 102–96 title game victory. Jennings chipped in twenty-four points himself, but it was to the detriment of his teammates, when he shot just ten for twenty-four from the field and one for nine from three in the loss. With the victory Walker went from national unknown to hot commodity, doing what he’d eventually do quite often in his UConn career: taking home the tournament MVP…
Of course there was one more caveat with the Arizona Cactus Classic that played in Kemba Walker’s favor that weekend. The tournament was played during a recruiting dead period, meaning that college coaches weren’t allowed in the gym, and hadn’t actually seen him play.
While that was certainly a negative for some, it was nothing if not advantageous for Walker. As he spent the weekend going point-for-point and win-for-win with Jennings before eventually knocking him off in the title game, Kemba’s legend only continued to grow as college coaches literally refreshed their computers for box score updates on the previously unknown guard. By the end of the weekend, Walker’s recruiting buzz was sky-high with both Richardson and Rice High School head coach Moe Hicks receiving phone calls from virtually every college coach in the country. Included in that group were Kentucky, North Carolina, and Walker’s self-proclaimed “Dream School,” the University of Connecticut.
That’s right. Long before the Huskies had any idea who Walker was, the point guard knew exactly who they were. A young Kemba watched fellow New York City point guard Taliek Brown lead UConn to the 2004 National Championship and decided right then and there UConn was the school for him.
But until the trip out to Arizona, it looked more and more certain that the dream of playing for UConn would die in favor of a new likely destination, Cincinnati, which had been heavily recruiting Walker since Coach Mick Cronin’s hire a year earlier. St. John’s was also a possibility. Even after the big tournament out in Arizona, UConn wasn’t totally swayed on Kemba and nearly lost him to a new suitor, the North Carolina Tar Heels. Luckily for the Huskies, fate intervened and right as Walker went online to book a plane ticket to visit North Carolina, Hicks got a call from Tar Heels assistant Steve Robinson. Apparently North Carolina had just picked up a commitment from California guard Larry Drew. Just like that the Tar Heels were out of the Kemba Walker sweepstakes.
Finally UConn stepped forward. With Jennings still unsure about his college choice, the Huskies finally moved on Walker, when UConn assistant Andre LaFleur called Richardson and Hicks about Kemba right as the North Carolina fiasco was going down. A few weeks after returning from Arizona, Walker visited the Storrs campus with his mother, Richardson, and Hicks, and a few days later officially announced his intention to go to UConn. “From day one, Kemba always wanted to be a Husky,” Richardson said. “It was the easiest recruiting pitch Jim Calhoun ever had to make.”
As for Jennings, well his non-committal attitude ended up as one of the biggest breaks in recent UConn basketball history. As things would play out, Jennings committed to Arizona a few weeks after the Cactus Classic but never actually played a single game of college basketball. After high school Jennings bypassed a trip through the NCAAs, instead signing with a team in Rome and playing what would’ve been his freshman year in Italy. Eventually he entered the 2009 NBA Draft and was selected ninth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks.
But what was Arizona’s loss turned into UConn’s gain thanks to a big weekend at the Cactus Classic.
“That was the tournament that put Kemba on the map,” said Richardson. “He went from a four-star to a five-star, from a Top 50 player to a Top 20 player, from a ‘good’ guard to one of the best in the country.”
It was also where UConn got the first piece to their eventual championship puzzle.
Of course no one knew it at the time.