SHANGHAI — The grandstands at the Oriental Sports Arena for Team USA’s first game were like a rainbow of NBA fandom.
There were gold Steph Curry jerseys, a bunch of Giannis Antetokounmpo jerseys in various colors and plenty of Los Angeles Lakers attire. But then there were the Charlotte Hornets colors, with Kemba Walker‘s No. 15 on the back, and in at least one case, a fan who had already acquired a brand-new Boston Celtics No. 8 jersey with Walker’s name. (Either that, or it could’ve been a well-preserved Antoine Walker version that was being repurposed.)
When Walker ran out of the tunnel about an hour before tip-off, a genuine roar exploded from the hundreds of Chinese fans packed trying to get photos and videos of the American team. Walker couldn’t help himself — he had to smile.
Say whatever you want about the lack of star power on this team — there’s truth there — but don’t think it’s going to get Walker down. He’s getting a level of attention he has not been used to on this level and, frankly, he’s loving it.
“To know you have fans in other places, especially me, it was very humbling,” Walker said after he had a 13-point, four-assist performance in Team USA’s World Cup opening win against the Czech Republic on Sunday. “It’s just a great feeling.”
Putting this in perspective, it’s not like Walker is obscure. He was a starter in the All-Star Game last winter, which is a verified mark of popularity since it’s determined by fan vote. He made the All-NBA team this past season. He has a shoe contract with Jordan Brand and has made international trips promoting it where he has interacted with international fans.
Not to mention his college exploits at Connecticut, specifically a magical run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments in his final year, that have helped him reach legendary status in some pockets of the East Coast.
But since he has been in the NBA, he has rarely been a headliner. He did his best in Charlotte, where he bonded with the community and planned to retire before he and the franchise didn’t see eye-to-eye on contract talks this summer. The Hornets, fair or not, are a bit of a league outpost.
However, as a member of Team USA, as well as one of the highest-profile pro sports teams on the planet, Walker’s world is changing. He’s a bona fide star on Team USA, and he has been the Americans’ de facto captain as well as their floor general over the past month.
The fans coming to these games know it and they get excited when they see Walker. When he crosses over an opponent or knocks him off balance with his array of hesitation moves, which he did several times in Team USA’s 88-67 win over the Czech Republic, they react like it was Kobe Bryant or LeBron James in the building.
“This is something I’ve been looking forward to being a part of for a long time. It’s special to be a part of this team,” Walker said. “I’ve been a part of USA Basketball for years, I was on a couple Select Teams where I didn’t get this far. I appreciate it.”
It’s more than just fan attention, though, it’s also attention from the opposition. Walker was the centerpiece of Sunday’s game plan. That’s not something he hasn’t seen before, it just wasn’t something that was expected wearing USA across his chest.
There’s more of that to come. The Americans next play Tuesday against Turkey, which has good size and bashed Japan with physical play in their opener. Walker can expect to get another full dose. And there will be more after that.
But Walker is welcoming it, part of the overall national team experience that is expanding his horizons.
“It’s always good to have respect from opposing teams, especially in FIBA basketball,” Walker said. “I’m just a kid from New York, from the Bronx. It’s a great feeling to have fans all around the world for me.”