NEW YORK CITY — With a long day full of career milestones waiting, the zaniest member of the 2018 NBA Draft class exited a luxury hotel in midtown, pausing midway through a dissertation on the ethics of aquatic park dolphin shows to accommodate a cluster of autograph seekers. “It’s fake positivity,” Lonnie Walker IV declared. “How would a human feel if they’re just locked up in a small place where they have to stay for the rest of their lives? The dolphins are doing the same thing over and over. It’s like prison for something they didn’t even do.”
Walker, a scoring guard in a class stocked with big men, clearly relishes cutting against the grain whenever possible. While undertaking final preparations for the draft on Tuesday, he revealed a never-ending list of quirks. The 19-year-old millionaire-to-be claimed to adhere to a self-imposed 10 p.m. curfew. He listed off his personal power ranking of Frank Sinatra songs, with “Stranger in the Night” earning top honors. He lit up as he describes an old pit bull named Alfredo and an Italian Mastiff named Scooby-Doo, waxing about the beautiful laziness of big dogs. And he fondly described spending an hour each day practicing his handwriting as a child, under his father’s watchful eye.
Aside from poring over game film for match-ups and studying the finer points of Ray Allen’s shooting technique, the likely lottery pick said he rarely watches basketball. He’s not afraid to admit that he never made a point to watch past drafts, or that he learned breathing exercises to control his emotions on the court during twice-weekly meetings with a sports psychologist. His signature haircut—shaved tight on the sides with long, curling dreads on top—evolved from a red mohawk he sported back at Reading High School in Pennsylvania. “I had an advanced chemistry test,” he recalled. “I was really nervous, and I was up all night. I started to twist my hair. It’s like its own person now.”
Walker exalted in having led Reading to its first state hoops title in 2017, and he showed off his Pagoda tattoo, which nods to a seven-story Japanese-style building that’s been a landmark in his hometown since the early 20th century. Back home, he said over a pasta lunch at Da Umberto, everyone calls him “Buddha.”
“I was one of the fattest babies in the world, in my opinion,” said Walker, who stands 6’5” and weighs 196 pounds. “People would say I looked like a Buddha doll: the little statues with the big belly. I still have the Buddha traits. I’m very laid-back, happy, generous, joyful.”
On this day, which will see him officially announced as an adidas basketball endorser and fitted for his draft night suit, Walker’s entourage consists of exactly two people: a public-relations handler and a childhood friend named Justin Kellman, with whom he communicates for days at a time solely by exchanging videos over Twitter direct message. “We don’t need to speak,” said Kellman, laughing as he scrolled through clip after clip on his phone.
Walker moved smoothly between handling his serious obligations and flashing child-like glee. One minute, he struck Blue Steel poses for a rooftop photo shoot with Trae Young; the next he laughed and wrestled with Kellman on a couch for a series of candid photos. One minute, he wondered whether he would cry when it was time to shake hands with commissioner Adam Silver; the next he plotted to avoid the waterworks by “stretching his eyes” through a series of exaggerated facial contortions. One minute, he marveled over CJ McCollum’s sophisticated pick-and-roll attacks against switches; the next he described how one NBA team asked him which utensil he most resembles during a pre-raft interview. “I’m a spork,” he said, triumphantly. “It’s universal.”
Just as Walker shifted in and out of his roles with photographers, adidas executives, fans and journalists, he raced towards grey areas whenever possible. Although he left the University of Miami after just one season, he has already earned a doctorate from the Kyrie Irving school of alternative facts. Walker wondered during a recent ESPN interview whether Earth was an “illusion,” and he expressed doubts about the moon landing.
“Just because you see things in the sky, doesn’t mean it was there,” Walker said. “The background, the surroundings. Y’all tried to make it look too much like a moon. The details were almost too great. You’re doing too great of a job. There’s no way it looks this nice or is this well done.”
That was only the beginning, as he descended into a labyrinth of conspiracy theories. Did slaves really build the Egyptian Pyramids? Did all humans used to be giants? Did Adolf Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun, stage their suicides in 1945?
“One of my favorite ones is the whole Hitler thing,” Walker said. “Them supposedly dying. Him and his wife. That whole allegation. I just feel like as a great, powerful leader, there was no way you were by yourself in a house and you died, whenever it shall be. It just doesn’t add up. … He definitely escaped.”
Despite some backlash to his previous outlandish statements, Walker, like Irving the flat-Earther, has adopted the position that he’s merely “open-minded” and “asking questions.” Walker said, convincingly, that he is unconcerned about criticism that might result from his beliefs, and he doesn’t think that his hottest takes—which defy logic and agreed-upon facts—will scare away professional suitors.
“I wasn’t built to script,” Walker said. “People get uncomfortable. They’re so used to people telling them certain things that when someone tells them something different, they get edgy. I’m an open book. You either like me or you don’t. I don’t really have any flaws for you to not like me. I’m a very good kid. I’m a weird kid. Being uncomfortable is my comfortable.”
Happy Walters, Walker’s agent, said that the teenager reminds him of Amar’e Stoudemire, a former client with eclectic interests that ranged from collecting art to bathing in wine. In a best-case scenario, Walters envisioned Walker in the Dwyane Wade mold, utilizing his athletic tools to emerge as a high-level scorer. When asked if Walker’s grand illusions about Earth might become a hindrance, Walters demurred.
“Don’t you ever wonder if this is all real? We all do,” Walters said. “Is it a simulation? Is someone playing a video game? Are we in a different dimension? What’s déjà vu? That was just his way of saying the same type of thing.
“Every NBA team said his interviews were amazing. They liked that he’s a different cat. No one is worried about [his comments]. It’s noise. We have to talk about something. It’s kind of boring that he goes home and goes to sleep at 10. It’s a 24-hour news cycle. What are people going to write about and tweet about?”
Indeed, there was noise at every stop of Walker’s Tuesday marathon. In the morning, he strained to hear a photographer’s instructions over booming rap music as he took photos in four different outfits. In the afternoon, he was whisked by burly security guards through a bustling 5th Avenue crowd to the adidas flagship store, where he played Pop-a-shot with dozens of bubbly young fans.
During a rare break, Walker reflected on how his parents tag-teamed to raise him amid difficult circumstances. Lonnie III, who juggled multiple jobs, was the disciplinarian, a “math geek” who encouraged his son’s intellectual curiosity. Tamica Wall, meanwhile, was a home nurse who cultivated her son’s goofy personality.
“Everyone can talk about their struggles,” said Walker. “There were a few years where we didn’t have gas, so in the winter I had to warm up a bowl of cold water and put that in my bath tub. My mom, we used to have to share a $1.25 cheeseburger and a Doritos bag for dinner. Things of that nature. I don’t want my nieces and nephews to go through that. This is a humbling moment.”
Ironically, that same level of self-awareness can be found in Walker’s peculiar, and perhaps offensive, theories. In Irving, Walker said he sees both a skilled basketball player and a successful business model. Nike, after all, incorporated the flat-Earth controversy into its ad campaigns, thereby monetizing—green-washing—the clamor.
“I think it played out great,” Walker said of Irving’s theorizing, which received pushback from commissioner Silver and some educators who were concerned about the impact of his views on children. “People engaged more on him. Even people that didn’t know Kyrie before obviously know about him now. It’s good to define who you are. He went to Duke. He’s smart, he has his own personality and opinions. When he said that, it was dope. Now you look at everything they’re doing and trending with it, it’s very intelligent.”
Here, Walker danced without shame on a slippery slope of responsibility, one that has consumed politics, entertainment and professional sports. He is young, but he’s not naïve, ignorant, or reckless. He sees value in publicly expressing unconventional statements—even outrageous ones—without much regard for unintended consequences. Listening to his thought process, it’s easy to envision a generation of Irving disciples chasing the potential rewards that await both their ball-handling and fact-shredding.
“People argue with me all the time,” Walker said. “They say, ‘You’re just speaking nonsense.’ Or, ‘Stop acting weird. You belong in a crazy hospital.’ It’s freedom of speech. When it comes to exploring new things, I’m all ears. I don’t care who you are. The craziest things you can tell me, I want to hear.”
The heavy implications of what will happen when this approach spawns more imitators eventually dissolved into the day’s grand finale: the traditional draft night suit fitting. After initially considering a red-and-black ensemble, Walker was challenged by stylist Boushra AlChabaoun to be more daring. He viewed 15 different color combinations before landing on an audacious get-up: a double-breasted cream suit, a pink shirt, a navy tie, and a pink pocket square. Walker and Kellman both squealed once the final outfit came together, as AlChabaoun laid out the finer points of button etiquette and offered suggestions on how to avoid spills.
In his attire, as in virtually everything else, Walker angled to be more like the dolphins swimming freely on Animal Planet rather than those stuck in SeaWorld synchronicity. “The hardest thing about being a basketball player is being known only as a basketball player,” he said, before hibernating with an early-evening nap. “I’d rather be called ‘different.’”