Walt Lemon Jr. has always had NBA talent. At 29, he’s still grinding away, trying to find the right NBA opportunity.
Walt Lemon Jr. looks exhausted. It’s late May and he’s just finished a grueling two-hour workout on what was meant to be a day off. But in Walt’s world, there is no day off. He’s wearing a black hoodie, black shorts with white socks tucked into his sandals. He’s munching into the last few bites of a chicken and bacon footlong inside a low-slung Subway in downtown Ottawa as the tinny speakers blast ‘Big Energy’ by Latto. The streets are quiet. It’s knock-off time for the government workers in Canada’s capital. Even though he’s tired his eyes light up like fire when he starts talking about basketball.
It’s a new start for Lemon Jr. with the BlackJacks in the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL). He’s only been in the city a couple of weeks but in five games he’s averaging 16.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists. He sees his role in Ottawa as trying to help others succeed, setting his teammates up to score. He wants to win. Meanwhile, in the back of his mind, the NBA dream still burns.
“It started out pretty rocky but good things take time man,” he said.
The 29-year-old starts to riff on how he got here. The highs, the lows and the ripple effects of lost opportunities, the bumps in the road and cards that he got dealt. How he lost his dad at 15 to kidney cancer, his sophomore year in high school — he still remembers that feeling of being lost. About how he got “let go” by the Celtics on a two-way contract for “butting heads” with a coach.
He wasn’t quite sure why, in 2019, the Chicago Bulls didn’t extend his stay with them after doing all the right things in his eyes in six games — in one game dropping 24 and single-handedly beating Washington by one. And he still thinks about how he finished his four years with Bradley University with 1,721 career points — seventh in school history — yet didn’t attract scouts or get invited to train with NBA teams and went undrafted in 2014.
The 6-foot-2 left-handed guard has spent the last five years trying to learn from his mistakes. On the court he brings an aggressive, in-your-face game: physical and equal-parts smack talk. It’s abrasive. He’s been told to tone it down by some, yet others have embraced it. He’s been perceived as a head case but also praised for being a leader. It’s easy to see why Lemon Jr. gets frustrated even talking about it.
For the majority of his career, he’s been an integral part of those teams who understood him. He’s helped teams win. But the small doses of negative perception — which Lemons says he’s played a role in — have hung around and forced doors of opportunity to collapse on him. For someone who thought he did the work and was close to a role-playing spot on an NBA roster, it’s been difficult to reconcile with the fact that he’s not there.
“I’m not at peace with where I’m at. Don’t get me wrong I love it here in Ottawa, they embraced me. But I do feel like I should be an NBA player,” Lemon Jr. said. “There’s no reason why I shouldn’t have been on some team (by now). I feel like it’s more than basketball.”
Lemon Jr. grew up in Southside in Chicago near Pullman, where the interstates I-94 and I-57 split. His father, Walt Lemon Sr. worked as a construction worker who built houses. His mother, Katrina, managed a local daycare center. Walt and Katrina both grew up in Chicago, met in high school, and raised a family of five — three boys, two girls.
When Lemon Jr. was five years old he remembers watching basketball with his Dad. He can’t recall who the Bulls were playing or what the score was, but he vividly cites how much joy his Dad got from the game — how he watched it, dissected it, talked about it. Studying his father’s Chicago Bulls happiness made him fall in love with the game. The day he got a Fisher-Price hoop, he drained buckets all day and basketball was all he could ever think about.
Chicago, Lemon Jr. says, is a basketball-or-nothing city. He lived through the Jordan era, the Derrick Rose life cycle. When he was old enough he’d be outside with the neighborhood kids who would shoot at plastic crates in an alley. Some kids had portable rings. In seventh grade, he moved to Eastside. Over the road, there was a park with a ring and a concrete floor where he’d spend all his time.
“My dad always said I was good enough to make it to the NBA,” said Lemon Jr. “ To even hear him brag about how proud he was — him and my mum as well — that made me want to keep going. This is what I wanted to do.”
As a teenager, Lemon Jr. says it became hard growing up in South Side. “You’re never relaxed. You’re always on alert,” he said. What he means is that the drugs, the drivebys, the gang violence, was a lawlessness that made it hard to wake up every day and try to do the right thing. It became a life full of paranoia, constantly watching over your shoulder.
“Everybody in the neighborhood was in a gang. I had to dive on my younger sister, on the ground, because of a drive-by shooting in my neighborhood — they weren’t shooting at us, but there were stray bullets. It’s not a good way to live.” Lemon Jr. said. “You gotta have a strong support system. If you don’t, you’re gonna fold.”
Former pro basketball player Othell Mitchell, who grew up with Lemon Jr, took him under his wing. The 47-year-old played hoops for eight years, carved out a career for himself and built a life around basketball that wasn’t the NBA. He got to play in Australia, France, Mexico and had an older brotherly influence on Lemon Jr. It gave him a blueprint out of South Side.
Mitchell being older and having seen what it takes to turn pro, saw something different in Lemon Jr. He had something special. It wasn’t the speed or his freakish athleticism that stood out. He was fearless. He remembers Lemon Jr. went to watch Derrick Rose play for the first time at the United Center, saw him dunk, and it changed everything for him. Even watching Lemon Jr. play now, he sees that same energy, that junkyard dog vigor and says that’s a Chicago ethos.
“It’s instilled in you at a young age,” said Mitchell.
Not many knew Lemon Jr’s situation intimately but Mitchell did. He saw him make the All-State team. A year later his dad passed away which he says was a major blow to the family. He transferred high schools to be closer to home and missed a year of hoops. He saw Lemon Jr. find himself again and develop as a late bloomer in his senior year averaging 19 points, six assists, five rebounds. By then no-one knew who he was. He got into Bradley University to be closer to his mother Katrina, went undrafted and had to find a way to stay in the game in places where they didn’t know he existed.
“It’s not where you go, it’s what you do where you go. I know where he should be right now,” Mitchell said. “Walt will be in the NBA. I don’t know how, don’t know when. But sometimes it’s just a numbers game.”
In 2016, the Brooklyn Nets came calling. They invited Lemon Jr. to train at a mini-camp. Norm Richardson, who was an assistant coach at the Mad Ants, heard a rumor that the Nets didn’t want to see more of Lemon Jr. because he trained in mismatched sneakers. It’s this kind of bad luck — fairy or unfairly — that convinced Lemon Jr that there is a negative vibe around his name.
Richardson, who is now an assistant coach with the Charlotte Hornets, used to spend hours just talking to Lemon Jr., about him channeling his emotions in the right direction. They talked about it in film sessions. Post practice. At the games. There were text messages. Phone calls. Eventually, Richardson saw the change in Lemon Jr. He called it a “growth period”.
“He had to go through that to become who he is now. A lot of this stuff especially when you’re a free agent, it’s about perception. They want you to come in clean-cut. To be a hard worker. The energy has to be correct,” said Richardson. “But that comes back to him maturing, him understanding what it takes to be a pro all the way around. I think the stage he is at now, he wouldn’t make those same mistakes.”
One of the things Lemon Jr. had to work on was humility. Being confident and thinking he could beat the best could be seen negatively in a different environment, says Richardson. Responding and reacting to feedback was another lesson for Lemon Jr. — being able to have a cool head. And understanding that not all coaches will take the time to get to know you or tolerate certain quirks. For all the things Lemon Jr. learned, Richardson said he never quit, never walked off the court, and competed hard.
“It depends on how you perceive it. Fort Wayne, we loved him,” said Richardson. “Those are the things that have come to him maturing as a man. There’s going to be people that like you, don’t like you. You have to hope the people that you’re working with like you enough to keep you around.”
When everything changed for Walt Lemon Jr.
Lemon Jr. woke up just like any other day. He got ready, brushed his teeth, then gave his dad a hug and kiss, told him he loved him, then was about to head out the door for school.
He was living a new normal. The summer Lemon Jr. turned 15 his dad was diagnosed with kidney cancer. From a young age, he remembers his dad always having issues with his health but not understanding exactly what was troubling him. Every month he’d get a check-up at the hospital and at one of these check-ups they found cancer.
A couple of months had passed since his fatal diagnosis. They weren’t sure if he had more months left in him. He got sent home to spend time with his family. Eventually, Lemon Sr. started losing weight. He couldn’t eat. His eyes got yellow. He could barely talk. He spent his days sleeping in his bedroom at home while on dialysis.
When Lemon Jr.’s sister went into the bedroom to say goodbye before school that morning, Lemon Sr. wasn’t breathing. They called for their mother. Katrina ran down the stairs. She put her ear next to his mouth. She put her hand on his neck. She couldn’t feel anything. He was gone.
“I broke down crying and ran upstairs to my room. It was surreal. I ain’t experience anything like that before,” Lemon Jr. said. “When you ask me what keeps me going, it’s me seeing how sick my dad was and he still found the will to hold it down for me and the family. That showed me real strength.”
He remembers a team from the hospital came to get his dad. They wrapped him up in a white sheet and took him away. The rest of the day and the weeks following became a heavy fog for Lemon Jr.
Being a kid at 15 and losing a role model, a best friend, a loving father, it shook Lemon Jr. He became lost. He stopped going to school. He was gambling. He got into fights. But a no-bullshit discussion with his mother became the circuit breaker that got him back on track. Lemon Jr. still remembers what she said:
“I know it hurts losing your father, but this is not the person your dad wanted you to be.”
The pain doesn’t disappear. When April 23 comes around — his dad’s birthday — he spends it by himself, clears his head and thinks of the good times.
He thinks of his first dunk in high school and how his dad got to see it: it was a steal and a fast break during a summer tournament. He recalls his first game-winner in front of his Dad, sophomore, high school. He looked at him in the stands and told him it was game over. He hit it. Ran to him in the crowd.
Then there’s the advice he got from his dad.
Don’t forget to be the man I want you to be.
Don’t follow anybody. Be your own leader.
Your word is everything.
He carries his obituary with him everywhere he goes to keep his dad always around him. And he wears his dad’s ring — a piece of jewelry he wore — around his neck that’s attached to a chain.
His entire right arm is covered in ink dedicated to Lemon Sr. There’s a picture of Lemon Jr. and his dad on it with a cross and the words like father like son under it. There’s the holy cross. Doves. A biblical poem as if he’s writing it to his dad. Inside a dog tag he has the year Lemon Sr. was born and the year he was laid to rest.
“It helped me get through the pain and depression because I was missing my father. I get a tattoo when I’m not feeling good. It helped me get through a lot of stuff at that time.”
The G League was a proving ground for Walt Lemon Jr.
Josh Kreibich could never beat Lemon Jr.
When he was the assistant coach at the Windy City Bulls, every time they played Lemon Jr.’s Mad Ants, he went into Walt Lemon Mode: quick with the ball and got into the paint whenever he wanted. Kreibich saw him as a dynamic player and somewhat of a missing piece that could make everything click.
But in 2018, Lemon Jr. was offered a two-way contract with the Celtics which looked promising. He tried to give it everything. He went hard in practice. Brought his A-game to every drill. But it became a problem. He was asked by coaches to dial down his aggression on the court — being demonstrative when he lost a drill or challenging the coach’s calls that went against him. Lemon Jr. tried to be less combative but just felt off, less like himself which prompted him and staff to clash and ultimately Lemon Jr. was let go.
“They put salt on my name. That was one place. Everywhere else I have great relationships,” Lemon Jr said. “I feel people are judging me off that one situation.”
By then Kreibich switched over to the front office as general manager of the Windy City Bulls. When things didn’t click in Boston, he traded for Lemon Jr. to help his 2-7 Bulls with an immediate influence. They went on a 9-0 run and made the playoffs for the first time ever on the back of Lemon Jr.’s 20.1 points per game, 4 rebounds and 8.4 assists — ranked second in the G-League — in 33 games.
“He was the engine that made the team go. But he couldn’t get a call-up,” he said, adding he changed the complexion of the team. “It’s really hard for guys like him who are one of the more dominant players in the league. I think Walt should have had more consideration for G League MVP that season — with Walt versus without Walt we were like two different teams.”
With the Bulls struggling and with Zach LaVine out, Lemon Jr. got an opportunity to finish out the last few games of the season with Chicago, his hometown. Before his Bulls debut — a moment where Lemon Jr. cried — Bulls head coach Jim Boylen said: “We’re looking for tough, competitive people and I think he’s [Lemon Jr.] one of them.”
Lemon Jr. scored 19 points and had six assists in his first game in a Bulls uniform, against the Raptors. Lemon Jr. and Kyle Lowry went at it. Both got a double technical foul. Boylen said in the post-game, “I thought Walt looked like an NBA player. He’s not scared. He wasn’t going to let anyone bully him out there and I liked that,” reported The Chicago Tribune.
Lemon Jr. played the last six games for the Bulls of that year and averaged 14.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5 assists in 27.9 minutes.
Once the season was over Lemon Jr. turned up to the Bulls training facilities and initially started his workouts before requesting a week off to see his family in California and to rest his banged-up body. Boylen approved it. But once he returned he said the vibe around him had changed. Things felt different and he wasn’t asked to stay. He had more questions than answers.
“It was a weird mix of emotions for him. If it was a different situation, had some of those other guys not got guaranteed contracts, I think there’s a chance that Walt gets to stick around,” Kreibich said.
Lemon Jr. didn’t waste any time. He went back to Fort Wayne for his third stint there. Kreibich said every time Windy City Bulls played him they’d catch up and talk. He could see his maturity and growth play out on the court. Less of an ego. Trying to be the guy helping others.
“You just never know how it’s all going to play out but I think for Walt, his better days are probably going to come,” Kreibich said. “Him finally blossoming and finding other aspects of his game and what he does can help other players be better, it’s been fun to watch. He’s just a guy you keep rooting for.”
If you’ve ever watched Patrick Beverley go about his game he’s the ultimate tormentor. There’s a YouTube clip “Patrick Beverley annoying your favorite player for nine minutes”. You’ll see it for yourself. He gets in their heads. He makes players do things they wouldn’t normally do. Sometimes he scraps. Matthew Alarcon, a close friend and trainer, once called him “f*****g crazy”.
Dennis Rodman. Draymond Green. They’ve all made careers out of the same traits. That’s who they are. This is how Lemon Jr. best describes his mantra. He points out that Beverley also got fed on the Chicago brand of hooping — the same as Lemon Jr. And as we’ve seen in the NBA there will be players and coaches who thrive in that environment and there will be those that don’t.
Talking to Jevohn Shepherd, the general manager of the Ottawa BlackJacks, just a day after their first win of the CEBL season, he says Lemon Jr. made an imprint on him by being physical.
“That was the presence that we wanted him to bring to this club,” he said. “He’s had conversations in-house that sometimes he’s misunderstood. Early on in his career he really didn’t know how to communicate and it was often misread. He’s hardened. But when you get down and start to talk to him and understand his whys, and his motives, you see the human side.”
It’s only been a short time but Lemon Jr. has already imposed himself on the team. Shepherd says he’s been himself — aggressive and feisty. He’s taking some of the younger players under his wing. And, even though Lemon Jr. is quiet and mild-mannered off court, he’s leading from the front when it’s go-time.
“You can be an introvert as well as you can be a leader. Everybody has different leadership forms,” said Shepherd. “He’s a natural leader because he has a strong presence about him, a strong character. When he acts, people follow his lead. That’s a big gift and a curse depending on how you use it. “
Shepherd believes that it’s not a stretch for Lemon Jr, at 29, to end up on an NBA roster. His first step and speed is at an NBA level. So too is his tenacity. He moves the ball at speed, full court. Plays off the catch at speed while still making plays and finding open guys.
“He definitely has that in his future. It’s going to take the right situation, the right GM, right scout to see him,” he said. “He’s at the peak right now. Understanding his body, the game. Once you’re at that age where you can pull everything together you can really play some good basketball.”
In every city he’s played in he’s done it alone. His family — fiancee Tyler Woods and two-year-old twins Journee and Legacee — are home in Corona, California. They moved there for the slower pace of life. He Facetimes them daily between workouts and road trips. After losing his father, Lemon Jr. says his daughters have helped fill that void of missing him and even though the time away from them is hard, everything he does on and off the court now is for them.
If there’s anything that Lemon Jr. wants people to know about his on-court persona it’s these things: he’s being true to himself; he’s trying to win — even if it’s a training drill; He wants to help push his teammates to greater heights; Physical play and talking smack is how he was raised on a court in Chicago — don’t take it personally, and he’s not trying to hurt anyone.
He still sees himself as someone trying to do things the right way and focusing on what he can control. He’s still learning how to take stock of what he has achieved from where he’s come from. And he knows the version of Lemon Jr. that used to exist isn’t here anymore.
Of all the things Lemon Sr. said to his son, it’s this that stuck, ‘they can’t keep a real one down for too long’, which Lemon Jr. says became his spirit.
“If you keep banging on the door,” he said, “eventually somebody is going to open it or you’re just going to knock it down.”
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