The Little Guy With a Monster Ticker
Kemba Walker, the six-foot-nothing sparkplug, is the second feature in our month-long series of March Underdogs.
Born in the Bronx, he was a New York City guard without the qualities of one. Too soft. Too small. Didn’t talk trash. He used to get bullied off the neighborhood courts like Rucker Park, the cage on West Fourth, and the other iconic playgrounds. A lifetime of hard work and being overlooked elevated his game beyond that 6-foot frame, but March 2011 secured his legacy as Cardiac Kemba.
UConn was mediocre at best during Kemba’s first two seasons. He wasn’t anything special, either. His NBA hopes were still breathing but on life support. In his junior year – and his final season – he led UConn on the greatest 11-game run the month of March has ever witnessed.
To set the scene, Kemba and the Huskies lost four of their last five to end the regular season. They entered the Big East Tournament as the No. 9 seed. Ninth… in the conference.
Then, it happened.
UConn breezed through DePaul and Georgetown in the first two rounds of the Big East Tourney before Kemba’s iconic step-back sunk No. 1 Pittsburgh, 76-74, and the nickname Cardiac Kemba was born, and immortalized.
The Huskies beat Syracuse in overtime (76-71) before finishing off Louisville (69-66) for the conference title. Five games. Five days. Five wins. Kemba had 130 points – the most points in a single conference tournament by any player in the 21st century.
“Kemba was a velvet suit,” UConn Head Coach Jim Calhoun once said. “He cut ya, you just didn’t feel it. He didn’t trash talk, he just played.”
After garnering a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Huskies were surely done. They were labeled spent, exhausted, and gassed. But no, they weren’t done.
UConn cruised past Bucknell, Cincinnati, and San Diego State to reach the Elite Eight. Then, Arizona (65-63), Kentucky (56-55), and finally, Butler (53-41) all fell. Six more games, 141 more points, and the maddest of all March runs to complete the journey from 9-seed in the Big East to top dog in college basketball.
As underdog as they come, Kemba brought heart to March, so much that Bill Raftery crafted a catchphrase specifically for his biggest shots.
“The little guy with the monster ticker!”
Raftery wore out those words that March, often screaming to compete with the crowd after Kemba buried another team with a step-back and a ticket home.
After his March magic, Kemba was drafted by the Hornets – and owner Michael Jordan, who knows a thing or two about heart. He’s now a three-time All-Star, and he dropped 60 points against the 76ers earlier this season; the first guy six feet or smaller to pull that off since Allen Iverson.
Very simply, March Madness is just a jungle of underdogs fighting for the moment. Can’t wait to find this year’s little guy with a monster ticker.