ATLANTA — When Kenny Walker talks about Roberta, Georgia, he is not talking about a couple of Kentucky cheerleaders.
Roberta, Ga., is your basic small country town, where everybody knows everybody, he said. "There isn't much to do there. If you're a kid there, you're either out playing basketball or you're watching it on TV."
Walker grew up in Roberta, maybe 90 miles from here. He spent part of his childhood playing ball and he spent another part of it on his father's farm, picking peaches, which accounts for some of his jumping ability. He did a whole lot of jumping to snatch the fruit from the trees.
Today, the All-American forward from the University of Kentucky is still working hard. He never stops. Just runs and runs, posting the lane, gliding the baseline, always looking for the ball.
"Kenny Walker is perpetual motion," said Louisiana State Coach Dale Brown, whose team must apply the brakes to Walker today if the Bengals intend to win the Southeast Regional and advance to the NCAA Final Four.
With three more wins, Kentucky (32-3) could win its sixth national championship. Three more games also would give Walker time to become the Lexington basketball factory's all-time leading scorer. He needs 78 points to catch Dan Issel.
Walker, a senior, leads Kentucky this season in points, rebounds and blocked shots and is third in steals. He makes more than 58% of his shots and has scored in double figures in 66 consecutive games, mostly due to tireless work.
"I've always been a blue-collar worker," Walker said Friday. "I'll never just throw my press clippings down on the floor to go out and win a game."
This is much the way he played at Crawford County High School in Roberta, where during his three varsity seasons the Eagles won 82 of 90 games and two Georgia state championships. In one game during his senior year, Walker had 46 points, 23 rebounds and 10 dunks.
How? He worked for it, that's how. Same as he does now.
"He sweats more in one game than that town (Roberta) does in a whole year," Dale Brown cracked.
Possibly the best proof of the effort Walker puts forth is that he is that rarest of rarities in college athletics these days, the superstar jock who will get his diploma, right on schedule. The NBA draft in June should assure Walker's immediate future, but by then the telecommunications major already will have his degree.
"He epitomizes everything you look for in a student-athlete," Kentucky Coach Eddie Sutton said.
Success in basketball did not come easily for Walker, whose brothers Lewis, George and Jerome were good players, too. "When I was young, I always was the last one picked or rode the end of the bench," he said. "The only reason they let me play at all was because my brothers played."
Now he is so good that he has made every All-American first five, and an ESPN poll recently named him national player of the year. Sutton believes that Walker not only should have been chosen over St. John's Walter Berry as the 1985-86 player of the year but that he also should have been awarded last season's blue ribbon, too.
Kentucky struggled to an 18-13 record in Joe B. Hall's final season as coach, but the squad was so devastated by graduation that it was expected to have trouble breaking even. "He carried that ballclub," Sutton said. "In my opinion, he should have been player of the year. He meant more to Kentucky than (Patrick) Ewing meant to Georgetown."
This year's wildly successful Wildcat team--18-0 at home, 21-1 against conference opponents--would be nowhere without him. Walker is the maypole around which everything revolves. He wants the ball with the game on the line. He fights relentlessly for tip-ins and tells teammates where to go on defense. According to team statisticians, Walker even leads the defense in taking charges.
Naturally, opponents are trying all sorts of picks, licks and tricks to stop him. Alabama's aggravated assault Thursday night left Walker with sore ribs and a bloody lip. But he scored 22 points.
Throughout the game, Walker resisted retaliating although he did flick a discreet elbow into 6-9 Derrick McKey's side just to let him know he was thinking about it.
"There have been times that I've been tempted," Walker said. "Earlier in the year I told myself, 'If these guys are going to bang me, I'm going to bang back.' But now I just roll with the punches.
"I finally realized that there were other ways I could get even."
Like winning the game.
"The kid's a class act," Sutton said.