Kemba Walker came into the league as he came into probably every other league he ever played in: approaching take off. Emerging from the crowded airspace of an athletically capitalistic city a no shit-taking small-ish killer, playing the game with his heart on his chest because it was simply too big for his sleeve. A point guard with no time for gears because gears are nothing but a lame imperative for weak guards who are old and slow and done.
And Nicolas Batum: a product of a perfect structure. An athletic employ of a permanent member state of the UN Security Council before being legally able to drive a car or buy a beverage. A suave, prodigious Frenchman with skills to the gills and single-payer healthcare. A too-cool-for-school, swish-a-three-and-bake-a-croissant, casual beacon of bourgeois-ball dominance.
And now here they are, comprising a professional backcourt in the American southeast, complete opposites from every perspective of the sport, and potentially a perfect pairing.
In what could well end up to be the most successful (thus far) season in the Charlotte Hornets' post-Shinn era, the team has two players who seem on the verge of doing a thing that is so important with success, transcending their respective stereotypes.
Ask someone who knows nothing about basketball how they think a kid from Harlem and a boy from Lisieux would play the game. After asking you where exactly Lisieux is, you would probably get the answer you’d expect: Tough and Rugged versus Skilled and Styled — shorthand, for Urban American City versus Small Town Social Democracy.
If Charlotte fans squint and squish their faces hard enough, they will remember two players: Boris Diaw and Lance Stephenson. One, difficult to remember due to the passing of both time and belly fat, the other, because of a particular widespread, fan-related kind of trauma-induced amnesia.
But what's forgotten about Lance and Boris is that they’re perhaps the two most comparable players to Batum and Walker. They too were the New York guard, and Frenchman forward, advertised in similar fashion towards the beginning of their tenure in the Queen City. The bummer of it was that they were unable to transcend their origin story, and instead stagnated, regressed, and ultimately succumbed to what was supposed to be their NBA calling card. Heart to hardheadedness, laissez-faire to lackadaisical.And this is not unusual. If you’d like to uncover a bastion of self-improvement obsessives, you should not, repeat, NOT look towards a handsomely paid league of super-athletes. Which, even in comparison to other major sports leagues, is exactly what the National Basketball Association is. A league of super-people who play a difficult and challenging game that is significantly less difficult and challenging when you’re a speedy giant bouncing and shooting—what is, to you—a rubber grapefruit across a wooden floor that you could probably cover in less than ten steps if you got up to full speed and really tried. That is not to say there aren’t plenty of hardworking professional basketball players, it's just that these are most certainly not the environmental conditions most conducive to any idea of things like progress, improvement, honest self-reflection, etc.
And that is why the self-improvement of Kemba Walker and Nic Batum is so fulfilling. They had more than enough to be simply above average players in the league, but it seems — at least in this first half of the 2015-2016 season — that they would prefer to be more than just above average. Kemba has never, as a professional, played the game with so much craftsmanship — and Batum has never, outside of international play, competed this inspired. They’ve upped their collective games in ways that so many players never do.
This is what is exciting this season as a Hornets fan — watching two players max out their origin stories. Two now-legitimately-potential All-Stars playing for a franchise with only one to their name in the last 11 years. Regardless of the how the vote shakes out, that in itself is a victory.