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By Stephen Burnett
Usually Kenny “Sky” Walker, former University of Kentucky Wildcat and player for two NBA teams, can be heard on 590 AM, WVLK, analyzing games. Yet, he recently offered live opinions about the past season and more, as the newest member of the Jessamine County Chamber of Commerce at a chamber luncheon in the wine store of Sam’s Club in Nicholasville.
Walker holds records during his UK career in the 1980s, among them the second-highest scorer for the team at 2,080 points, chamber member Larry Prinssen said in his introduction. “But most importantly he’s my neighbor, and he takes excellent care of his yard,” Prinssen quipped.
That brought laughter, before Walker spoke and promoted his own efforts on behalf of child literacy and networked with local business leaders.
Answering questions, swapping business cards, and planning future endeavors comes naturally to him, he said. “I’ve been basically doing stuff like this since I was 18 years old,” Walker said. “I guess the experience, just getting used to doing it — the experience is paying off.”
That work is especially enjoyable this year, thanks to the Wildcats’ eighth national title, Walker said. And though Walker has strong views on how college and professional basketball could change — particularly regarding rules that allow players to jump into the NBA draft after only one college year — Walker said he is proud of his Wildcat status. Moreover, he said he marvels at coach John Calipari’s work and the dedication of this year’s championship players.
“When they won the championship, a part of me won the championship,” Walker said. “I spent a lot of years trying to do what these kids did in one year.”
Walker was born in Roberta, Ga., a small town about an hour and a half south of Atlanta, with only about 1,000 people (it’s closer to 950 now, he said). “Two traffic lights in the whole town,” he added. “Everybody knows everybody, and it’s a tight-knit community.”
Basketball was a favorite sport of Walker’s brothers: George, Jerome and Louis — all older than he, and at first, taller. They all played basketball in high school. “So I got into it at a very young age, and doing the things that big brothers do, it was fun at times in the backyard,” he said. “It was a lot of hard knocks in the backyard, trying to learn the game.”
Walker grew taller than any of his brothers — to a height of six feet, eight inches.
“I just wanted to follow my brothers’ footsteps; I don’t know if I really liked [basketball] at first,” he said. “As I got older, the more I played, the more I liked it. … So I give them a lot of credit for getting me started, for getting me into it.”
Walker also credited his coach at Crawford County High School, Clyde Zachary, for training him. With his height, Walker played center, and helped the team win two state championships in 1981 and 1982, their first since the mid-1960s. Zachary was a former semi-pro baseball player who had experience with both sports and handling media and other coaches. He provided Walker a shoulder to lean on, emotionally and — at six feet, seven inches — also literally. “I have to give him a lot of credit for what I was able to accomplish in basketball.”
Wildcats, Knicks and Bullets
Right after his junior year in high school, Walker spent some time at the B/C All-Stars Basketball Camp in Milledgeville, Ga. That would prove fateful, because of certain visitors there — UK basketball coach Joe B. Hall and his staff. They watched Walker play and begin keeping up with him through the rest of that summer and throughout his senior year.
Walker got his scholarship and moved to UK’s campus in 1982. There he signed up for a major in communications and played for the Wildcats for four years: three years with Hall and the last with coach Eddie Sutton. During that time Walker earned several awards, including All-SEC for all four years straight.
“I actually played for Rick Pitino (at the Knicks) before he took the Kentucky job — helped convince him to take the Kentucky job,” Walker noted. His second-highest scoring record may remain unbroken, he added, because of many skilled players leaving the college team early in favor of the NBA draft.
After graduating, Walker was the fifth pick of the 1986 NBA draft and played forward for five years with the New York Knicks. From there he went to Barcelona, Spain, and played a season with the Asociación de Clubs de Baloncesto league. There he ruptured his Achilles tendon and after his recovery played for a year in Rome, Italy.
In 1994, he returned to the United States and the NBA and joined the Washington Bullets. “They’re called the Washington Wizards now; they had a name change to be politically correct,” he noted wryly. “I was there when it wasn’t as politically correct!” For the Bullets he played for two years, then in 1997 went to Tokyo, Japan, to play for one more season. Finally he retired in 1998.
“So you can literally say that I went all around the world playing basketball,” he said.
Walker added his body needed to recover from the nearly two decades he’d spent playing the game. “I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in.”
That’s when he drew upon his college education and his communications major, and began doing radio call-in shows. He moved back to Kentucky, and a friend told him about the need to promote literacy among Kentucky’s children. Especially thanks to the computer era, it’s hard to get children to pick up and read a physical book, Walker said. So Walker spied a prime chance to combine his studies, basketball experience, interest in reading and his role-model status.
He now helps release annual UK basketball yearbooks, which document the team’s work that year and helps place copies of the books in public high-school libraries.
“Everybody loves UK basketball, especially with boys in school,” he said. “So it’s one way that we can get them to physical pick up a book to read.”
Walker travels between cities all across the state — from Paducah to Pikeville, he interjected — to raise awareness and partner with others.
“You need to get out and talk about them a little bit more,” he said. “It makes people more aware of what I’m doing.”
He was headed, for example, to speak at a basketball camp in Williamstown.
But before he took that trip, there in that Jessamine County wine shop fans had plenty of sports-related questions.
One woman asked how Walker felt about the end of the Indiana/UK matchup.
“That’s good,” Walker said. “You guys are fun! I should talk to you all more often.”
He then noted that, for the last 25 years, the rivalry between both teams has seemed one-sided in UK’s favor, leaving the Wildcats’ leadership with no real motive to continue those matchups.
Later another audience member asked further about Walker’s strong views on NBA draft timings: “What’s keeping the NBA and college basketball athletics from changing the rules to maybe — force students to be in their schools a little longer than one year?”
That rule was established when many high-school players were going straight to the NBA and not even attending college for one semester, Walker responded. “It became a problem for the NBA, because so many guys are obviously not ready to jump from high school.” So the NBA required players to wait at least one year after graduating from high school to enter the draft, thinking that would give them a way to evaluate the players and check their backgrounds, Walker said. “The NBA got exactly what they wanted, but nobody knew at that time that it would affect college the way that it did.”
A high-school player may play basketball well, Walker remarked. “But is he ready to deal with a 10-million dollar contract and that lifestyle?” he asked. “You give anybody that amount of money and they only got to practice two or three hours a day — probably a bad combination.”
Instead, potential players need good financial advisors, people who will be directly honest and protect the young player from those who want to take advantage of them, Walker said.
And of course, UK fans can only wistfully ponder the kinds of team lineups, wins and national championships they might enjoy if top players were required to stay longer in college. “If we’re Kentucky fans, imagine if we could have [Anthony] Davis and [Michael] Kidd-Gilchrist and [Marquis] Teague, these guys for two years instead of one,” Walker said.
Later Walker said he was still studying the “one and done” issue and hoped to keep offering his views about it. “Let’s hope that they change the rules,” he said, praising Calipari again for his work. “I marvel at the job that he does with one year with the guys, and I wish that we could keep these guys around longer. … If you’re going to be drafted and the rules are like they are, I understand why the kids are going. So let’s not get mad at John Calipari.
“I have the utmost respect for this young team,” Walker added. “If they keep their noses clean, they could be here like I am, 25 or 30 years later, being an ambassador for the University of Kentucky. … When you play basketball in the state of Kentucky and you’re really good at it, you can be a legend for a long, long, long time. And that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”
Recently Sam’s Club in Nicholasville, former UK Wildcat and NBA player Kenny Walker spoke to a Jessamine County Chamber of Commerce luncheon about his life, basketball career, and work promoting child literacy in Kentucky public schools. (Photo by Stephen Burnett)