Visit idahostampede.com for more information.
On a February weekend, Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard visited Boise on a top-secret assignment: to get the scoop on former National Basketball Association all-star and champion Antoine Walker.
Since his rise to fame and career earnings of more than $100 million, Walker has lost his wife, the NBA and his fortune. This season, he was working for an annual salary of $25,000 playing basketball with the NBA's Development League team the Idaho Stampede. However, he remained hopeful that despite his weight, 260-plus pounds, and his age, 35, he could make a comeback.
Boise Weekly shadowed Ballard and the Idaho Stampede crew for the weekend, watching the SI reporter struggle for facetime with the bashful giant Walker.
"Well, the biggest surprise was 'Toine, who missed the team flight and blew off interviews. Not what you'd expect from a guy trying to make the league," said Ballard after his visit.
Ballard lost a day with Walker because of his gaffe. While Ballard's article, published in mid-March, didn't hold high hopes for Walker's return to NBA glory, he said that having a name like Walker on a roster, a guy who in the '90s was talked about in the same breath as Michael Jordan, can make the eyes of fans pop.
"He brings both a name presence and cuts across generations," said Ballard. "People my age, 37, get nostalgic when seeing guys like Antoine play."
Over drinks at Bardenay with Ballard the week his was in Boise, a group of Stampede employees focused on the main topic of the weekend: Walker.
Walker's career could be described as a meteoric arc, a denouement many thought came too early in the athlete's career. Now he frequents Humpin' Hannah's bar and eats at Boise's Hooters.
Characteristic of Walker's attitude after tossing up a three-pointer was a backward "shimmy" he did on the court to celebrate his shots. Ballard's story--"If Antoine Walker Shimmies, But It's in Boise, Is He Really Shimmying?"--was published March 19 and painted a less-than-rosy picture of Walker's potential to rise again.
But the exposure granted to the Stampede by having Walker on the roster put it in the national spotlight at a time when it's courting bigger contracts with NBA teams.
"We've been fortunate enough as a team for the exposure on a national scale," said Stampede President Steve Brandes in the team's office below CenturyLink arena. "Sometimes we get more national exposure than local coverage."
That's something not lost on the businessmen owners of Block22, the company that controls both the CenturyLink arena and owns the Idaho Steelheads hockey team, a team that nets many more fans per game than the Stampede. Yet Stampede employees suggested it's about those weekend schedules: They're a tenant, and the Steelheads seem to come first.
"We work hand in hand with the Steelheads," said Brandes. "We may see fewer weekends. They're huge for any sports organization. Attendees can take the kids--they don't have to worry about school the next day."
Meanwhile, this season's wins, coupled with SI's article, has Stampede staff feeling confident. For now, the team is overshadowed by the blue and orange behemoth just over the river.
Mega-fan Paul Walden has had courtside seats since 1997.
"This is the best game played from Salt Lake to Portland, [Ore.]," he said, sipping a beer from his seat at a recent game. Ballard sat just over a railing, his knees almost touching Walker.
"Boise State? Those guys could never play at this level. Our guys--one day, they're here. Next day, you'll see them on TNT."
Walker's face is the most recognized of that group. The team is also at a point where the NBA and the D-League are changing--perhaps to a more traditional one-to-one relationship, which could put a bigger team in Oregon, Nevada or Utah in direct control of the Stampede, something organizers feel would be a boon to the state.
"I think the D-League should feel lucky to have a franchise in Boise," said Ballard, though he's not an expert on the league. "I was impressed with the franchise, the owner, the organization, the arena and the fans. Especially compared to the other D-League game I attended on the trip, in Frisco, it was night and day."
At the team's final game of the season earlier this month, after the drama of Lady Houdini escaping from a water torture cell at half-time, after the huge at-the-buzzer shot made by Paul Carter for the 97-96 win over the Bakersfield Jam, the Stampede returned to the locker room. The win put its season at 21-29. The team didn't make the playoffs.
Then, after more than a decade of play, Walker officially announced his retirement.
"The overall atmosphere was great, and we're glad everybody came out to support us," Brandes said afterward. "Our organization, of course, wishes him the best of luck in his future endeavors."