He grabbed hold of the commuter pole, steadying himself for another ride on the airport terminal shuttle. This was in Houston, on his way to Orem, Utah, but it could have been anywhere. His expression -- despondent, exhausted -- was that of a man who had lost much more than a basketball game.
To the business types and families crammed in this vessel with a former NBA All-Star, the only priorities were a palatable meal and a clean connection. The tall, athletic-looking man in his mid-30s could have passed for a neighbor or a youth basketball coach or just another traveler coping with the misery of the road. The only giveaway -- the lone symbol of Antoine Walker's long and accomplished NBA career -- was worn on his head. He blocked out the noise -- "Terminal B. This is ... terminal B ..." -- with silver Skullcandy headphones. They marked him as having something to do with basketball as much as his 6-foot-8 frame and sweat suit did.
|Antoine Walker is playing in the D-League with hopes that an NBA team will think he has something left. (Getty Images)|
This is Walker's life for now, and in some ways it's worse and in others far better than it was before. It depends on your perspective and when you pick up the story.
In 1996, Walker was the sixth pick in the transformative draft headlined by Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. He went on to play in three All-Star games. After winning an NCAA championship at Kentucky, he became an NBA champion with the Miami Heat. In 2000-01, he led the NBA in 3-point field goals. Along the way, he was traded seven times and was paid a handsome sum north of $100 million during a 12-year career that ended in 2008.
Now Walker believes -- no, hopes -- that his career isn't over. He can't afford it to be over, which is why Walker is slumming in the D-League with the Idaho Stampede. On sore knees with too much weight to carry around, Walker is pushing himself up and down the court in such unappealing venues as Boise, Fort Wayne, Tulsa and Sioux Falls, hoping some scout or assistant GM will see him and think, "He can still play."
There are no more Ritz Carltons or Four Seasons; at night, Walker lays his head down in the comparatively bourgeois accommodations offered by Marriotts, Sheratons and Holiday Inns. Gone are the days of cruising for the next decadent party. On his way from one substandard arena to the next, he carries his own bags like the rest of us.
And with them, the heavy burden of mind-numbing financial collapse.
The house of cards came crashing down on Walker last July, when he was arrested by sheriff's deputies at Harrah's Lake Tahoe casino in Stateline, Nev., on an outstanding warrant of having $1 million in unpaid Las Vegas casino markers. An ensuing investigation by the Boston Globe revealed that Walker was being pursued by creditors for unpaid debts totaling more than $4 million. When Walker filed for bankruptcy last spring, he claimed $4.2 million in assets and $12.7 million in liabilities -- the grim accounting of what happens when a generous, optimistic soul collides with poor judgment and a real-estate catastrophe. It was the ultimate cautionary tale of how quickly the NBA high life can crumble.
"If I have one regret, I probably wish I would've waited until my career was over with to invest," Walker said. "But at the same time, you never know. Who ever knew that there was going to be a recession and things were going to be the way they are now? Who ever thought that we were going to be in a depressed market? So it's a few things that play a part in that, but you live and learn. You can't cry over spoiled milk."
Sitting with him in the stands during a game at the recent D-League Showcase in South Padre Island, Texas, I asked Walker if he was there for the paycheck.
"I wish," he said. "I haven't gotten a paycheck yet, so I don't know. I guess my paperwork got lost, so they'll get it to me. But I'm not making any money."
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Anyway, D-League contracts have three tiers and max out at around $24,000 per season, which essentially was dinner and card games for Walker back in his max-contract days.
"I don't know what I make down here," he said. "The money here can't pay my bills, so this is nothing for me."
Nothing but one last shot at trying to get back to the high-dollar NBA life. It's as long a shot as Walker has ever taken.
Before Walker ended up moping around the Houston airport, he left the South Padre Island Convention Center in a huff after a second straight dismal performance in front of dozens of NBA scouts and executives. Walker shot 2 for 13 from the field in each of his two games at the showcase, a scouting combine of sorts for NBA teams looking for young players who could help them in the future or maybe right now on a 10-day contract.
Nobody goes there looking for a 34-year-old former All-Star who missed 22 of 26 shots and looked more sluggish and pitiable with every step.
"I don't have any hidden goals," Walker said. "If I can get back to the next level, that's what I want to do. If it doesn't work, I'll feel better about myself that I gave full effort to try to come back."
In the five games since the showcase, Walker has shown flashes of his former self. He scored 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting against the Dakota Wizards; as bad as the Washington Wizards are, there's still no comparison. He scored 26 points on 9-for-19 shooting with eight rebounds against the Austin Toros. Mixed in was another decent game against Dakota and, most recently, a 4-for-15 night against the Utah Flash.
"Basketball is basketball," Walker said. "The competition is good because you've got so many guys here that are trying to get to the next level. So they're going to compete hard, night in and night out."
None, though, with as impressive a resume as Walker -- and certainly none who've experienced as precipitous a fall.
Walker said his teammates have embraced him and made him feel like he belongs. He doesn't. He should be retired, enjoying the fortune he was paid and taking pride in the good life his basketball talent was able to provide for his family in Chicago. But there were too many friends and hangers-on who preyed upon Walker's generosity.
"He ran through millions taking care of more than 50 people who are nowhere to be found now that he needs the help," Margaret Johnson, one of two women to whom Walker pays monthly child support totaling $7,000, told ESPN for a documentary on Walker's plight.
In South Padre, seated a few rows behind some former rivals who now are employed as scouts or broadcasters, Walker spoke in vague terms about his financial troubles.
"I really didn't lose that much money," Walker said, pinning the real blame not on gambling but bad real-estate investments. He put his gambling losses in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars."
"We're talking about millions of dollars in the real-estate market," he said. "So that's a totally different thing."
According to the Globe, Walker initially paid $178,000 of the $1 million in casino markers, leaving the Clark County district attorney's office to seek the outstanding amount of $905,050. Additionally, Walker was ordered to pay American Express and Wachovia more than $1.5 million each. Prosecutors have said negotiations were under way to arrange a payment plan that would allow Walker to avoid the maximum prison sentence of 12 years. Walker wouldn't say whether his employment with the D-League was part of that negotiation, or if the reason he hasn't seen his D-League paychecks is because they're going to creditors.
Similarly, Walker scoffed at the notion that he has squandered every last bit of the $110 million he earned in his career.
"That's for everybody to guess and wish and hope," Walker said. "I'm not getting into what people think I made or what's going on with me. I'm not into sharing my business like that. But I'm fine. I'm healthy, I'm living, my family's fine, and everybody's healthy, so I'm good."
Walker's case has been tarnished by the convenient assumptions that he's just another rich athlete who blew millions foolishly. And Walker himself admits that he lived a sometimes outlandish lifestyle, even by NBA standards. He could have done without the fleet of luxury cars, the multiple homes, the legendary collection of custom-made designer suits, and all those tabs he so willingly picked up. He could have curbed his gambling habit, which to this day he downplays as "minor." But Walker's story is more complicated than stereotypes. Not all of this was his fault. The blow that crippled him was the same one that dealt disaster to millions -- the collapse of the U.S. housing market, and in turn, the meltdown of the global economy.
"If this had happened five years ago, he could've paid his gambling debts in the blink of an eye," said a close associate of Walker's, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the pending legal case. "There's 10 million people who lost a lot of money -- on property, on land, on the stock market. At the end of the day, that is what he's guilty of."
Before the financial system collapsed around him, Walker was robbed at gunpoint in his Chicago home in 2007 -- bound with duct tape and put in a closet while burglars made off with jewelry, a Mercedes and as much as $20,000 in cash. The four defendants received prison sentences of between four and 21 years, with the last one pleading guilty this week.
By the time Las Vegas law enforcement officers capitalized on a change in the law that treated unpaid casino markers as bad checks and arrested Walker, his real-estate investments had already imploded. In addition to foreclosure proceedings against the mansion he bought for his mother in Chicago's Tinley Park suburb, Walker had to put his Coconut Grove, Fla., mansion on the market and presided over two Chicago-based real-estate companies that failed amid allegations of slum-like conditions in the buildings. True to form, Walker trusted a friend with the investments that went bad.
"I put my money into real estate and it didn't work out," Walker said. "I don't have any regrets. I took an opportunity that, when I first started, I thought it was great and it went bad. That's the nature of the beast. It happens sometimes."
As for the gambling case, Walker is due in court again in May and vowed that the money will be paid back. "We're going to work a deal out and get it taken care of soon," he said.
In the meantime, he goes from one backwater town to another, playing basketball without the frills. Aside from the legal and financial woes, Walker has two daughters, 16 and 12, that keep him setting up at the 3-point line, bravely trying to travel back to a time when the shots were going down and the bills -- no matter how outrageous -- were getting paid.
"There's probably one out of 100 guys who would do this," Walker's associate said. "There's a lot of humble pie to be eaten to do what he's doing. Hopefully, there's one team that will give him a chance."
As he stared blankly at the departure screen in the Houston airport, trying to figure out how to catch the next flight to Utah, maybe that's what Walker was thinking. Or maybe he was just trying to get through another day.
"One thing I think a lot of people don't understand is, I have two kids," Walker said. "You've got to continue to keep it going. You can't just stop because you're going through a rough time. You've got to continue to try to keep it going and continue to try to make positive moves and be a good role model for them. It's not like I can just lay back on my laurels. I still have to continue to grind and continue to do. I love to play basketball, so I would rather play. And if it doesn't work, I'll just move on and do something else."