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Charlotte Hornets

Exclusive: Kemba Walker talks leaving Hornets for Celtics: ‘Everything about winning’


Kemba Walker’s transition to the Celtics so far has been a breeze in every sense except Boston traffic.

“I definitely get lost about three times a day,” the former Charlotte Hornets star said Saturday morning.

That confusion could stretch into TD Garden on Sunday night when the Celtics host the Hornets in a preseason game. The only locker room Walker knows in that building is for visitors. That’s where he talked to the Observer one-on-one Saturday morning about the decision in July to shake up his career and sign with the Celtics.

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The Hornets offered him more — about $160 million over five years — than the Celtics could under NBA rules ($141 million over four years), but that was still far less than the $221 million Charlotte could have paid him once Walker was named All-NBA in May.

In a candid conversation, Walker discussed the Hornets’ offer, what he’ll miss after eight seasons in Charlotte, and the opportunity to win big with a storied NBA franchise.

Are you shocked you’re now in Boston and not in Charlotte?

Am I shocked? I can’t really put a word on it. Honestly, when I wake up every single day ... I guess you could say shock. I’m still a little bit in awe (of the Celtics history and mystique). Getting in my car and having to use the GPS still (to get around Boston) is different. Charlotte is all I’ve known.

When Hornets general manger Mitch Kupchak said in April they would do everything they could to re-sign you, do you feel like they did?

I guess. They offered, but it just wasn’t an offer I could accept. I guess that’s the (most) money that they had. I know they didn’t want to go over the (luxury) tax. Which I completely understand. It’s a business at the end of the day, and I respect the decision that they made. No hard feelings at all. I still love that organization and everything around it.

It was tough for me (to leave), and I know it was tough for them; for MJ (owner Michael Jordan) and Mitch to let me go. But at the end of the day you have to do tough things in life. It just happens.

Can you speak to the contrast between the talent you’ll play with in Boston and the situation in Charlotte?

In Charlotte, it’s definitely been tough over the years, trying to get to the playoffs and just missing it basically every year. But here, these guys are about winning — everything is about winning. About getting to the playoffs every single year. You can feel that culture, that vibe, that environment each and every day.

You walk into (the Celtics’) practice facility and they have all the (championship) banners up. The arena has all the banners up. It is such a legendary organization. That’s all they know is win! It’s a very high expectation.

And that can be tough, too, to come into a situation like that, but that’s what I want. I want to have that expectation and to compete at the highest level. I think I have a real shot at doing that here with the Celtics.

Marvin Williams mentioned Monday just how much you loved being a Charlottean. What does Charlotte mean to you?

My family is still there. even though I’m now in Boston. MJ gave me an opportunity (when the Hornets drafted him ninth overall in 2011). On draft night, I had no idea where I was going. He gave me an opportunity to live out my dreams. To play through my mistakes, to become a better basketball player and a better person.

The city accepted me, as well, through the toughest times; when we won seven games (going 7-59 in the 2011-12 season). The next year we won 22 games, and then we got Coach Cliff (Steve Clifford) and got to the playoffs.

I always felt it was my duty to give back to that community. I love being around kids, inspiring young people. For me, there was so much doubt as a basketball player growing up — how I couldn’t do this and that. I always overcame everything. I just try my best to embrace opportunities, and they were there in Charlotte. It was great.

How hard was it to go so long in Charlotte without winning a playoff series?

Pretty tough, but at the end of the day for me, the love I always got. We always got. Charlotte is so ready for the Hornets to take off. I know they want to see those guys win. They have such a fan base, just ready to explode.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has a great reputation for play design. Have you seen much evidence of that so far?

He’s such a great X-and-O guy. I already love the sets. And the talent around me is even more impressive. Pretty special. I was just saying to Brad, I kind of need to get used to not doing too much (after carrying so much scoring burden in Charlotte). They’re great, these guys, so down-to-earth and letting me be myself.

Sometimes when I’m in a new situation, I’m not a big rah-rah or talkative guy. I guess I can defer a little (too much). But these guys are like, ‘No! Be yourself!’ Especially Gordon (Hayward) — he’s like, ‘Kemba! Shoot!’ Which I really, really appreciate. I need that.

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