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Kemba-mania at a fever pitch in NCAA tourney

Posted: March 31, 2011 - 9:22pm

The mega-ratings reality show starring Kemba Walker is far more compelling than what the television cameras have captured on the basketball court.

There is overwhelming attention paid to the Connecticut junior guard wherever he goes.

Two-dozen reporters gathered around Walker inside Gampel Pavillion, where he spoke Tuesday afternoon for more than an hour on a variety of topics mostly centered on the thrill of having led UConn to within two victories of its third national championship.

Outside, adoring students serve as paparazzi with honking horns from passing cars.

That, as well as shouts of “Kemba” from the windows of those cars, serve as a soundtrack to his campus life.

None of that has stopped Walker from being the student-athlete he wants to be, which is why the greatest portrait of the hottest player in college basketball is best framed in the front row of Professor W. Penn Handwerker’s Beach Hall classroom.

That’s where Walker sits in his anthropology class and engages in the discussion of human rights and violence ranging from war, genocide and terrorism to street crime and domestic violence.

“He doesn’t want to be labeled as just a basketball player,” said sophomore teammate Alex Oriakhi, who is Walker’s classmate. “He’s always participating (in class), and I didn’t even know he was that smart, to be honest (laughs). It’s kind of mind-boggling, and I’ll say to him, ‘You just hit a game-winner and now you’re in class having that discussion (with) the teacher. ... Who do you think you are? What are you trying to be?”’

Kemba Walker is quite extraordinary, whether it’s with a textbook or a ball in his hands discussing the madness of violence in today’s world or the March Madness of which he remains an integral part.

Celebrity has not changed the 20-year-old from the Bronx; in fact, notoriety has enhanced his humility on the Road to the Final Four in Houston, where Saturday, Walker and UConn will play Kentucky for the right to play for the NCAA championship.

“People are yelling his name and he tries to hide his face because he doesn’t like all the attention,” Oriakhi said. “But he asks for it, playing the way he’s playing ... and he deserves it.”

Walker isn’t just breaking opponents’ hearts with his incredible talent on the court.

He also takes tremendous pride in shattering stereotypes, like the myth that all college basketball players with NBA skills are only in school to study basketball.

“My life has definitely changed (and) I’ve got a lot of people’s respect now, as far as basketball ... and off the court, honestly,” said Walker, who is on track to graduate early this summer and plans on walking during the May 8 ceremonies, which is his 21st birthday. “I’ve achieved a lot and I think it’s all my hard work paying off. I definitely worked hard to get to this point and this is where I want to be.”

Despite a productive regular season, the 6-foot standout lost out on Big East Player of the Year honors to Ben Hansbrough of Notre Dame.

Once the postseason began, Walker erased any doubt regarding his status by seizing ownership of the spotlight at Madison Square Garden.

The Huskies put together a historic five-wins-in-five-days run that culminated with a championship coronation at Louisville’s expense.

Walker somehow has raised the level of his game even higher in the NCAA tournament, continuing a remarkable stretch that considering the stakes should go down as one of the most impressive of all time.

“Kemba Walker is not a good player. He is a great player who has willed his team he has willed individual players and his team to where they are right now,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And for some reason, I don’t think that will is going to diminish here this weekend.”

That desire to be the best is what his UConn teammates have embraced the most.

They don’t only look to him when the game is on the line, either.

His experience and leadership is paramount, considering two years ago, Walker and the Huskies reached the Final Four before losing to Michigan State at Ford Field in Detroit. “I couldn’t even breathe when I played; (the atmosphere) was too much,” he said. “I think we should go into the game thinking that it’s a regular game. We know what the stakes are, but we have to go in with the same mind-set that got us there.”

Walker has prepared for the future as best he can, but not without a focus on the present, not to mention an appreciation for the past and where he would fit with two more wins.

“I’ve always thought about life after basketball,” he said. “What if I get hurt? What if I can’t do what I want to do anymore? If I have a degree, I’m pretty sure there are many different jobs I can get.”

Not only does Walker plan on bringing his game to Houston’s Reliant Stadium, his books are packed, too.

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