Now in his fourth year with the Charlotte Bobcats-turned-Hornets, Kemba Walker has erased any skepticism about whether he can succeed in the NBA. Despite becoming a legend at UConn after leading the Huskies to an NCAA Championship in 2011, Walker (6-foot-1, 184-pounds) was considered too small by skeptics who thought he wouldn’t survive in a league of giants. But Hornets owner Michael Jordan placed his faith in Walker, selecting him with the 9th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. His Airness was rewarded last season when Walker led the Hornets to their first playoff appearance since 2010.
Walker worked hard to transform his body into one that can take the physical punishment of an 82-game NBA regular season and still be sharp come playoff time. He completely changed his diet and overhauled his workouts to build more strength in his legs and core. Just before NBA FIT Live Healthy Week kicked off this week, Walker spoke to STACK about how he changed his approach to fitness.
STACK: What was the biggest change you had to make during your transition from college to the NBA?
Walker: My diet. When I first got into the league, I wasn’t eating so well. I felt it as I played. I wasn’t fully capable of playing the way I wanted to play because I was tired all the time. As I got a little older and more experienced, I had to change my diet, and it’s helped me a lot. I’m able to be ready for games and feel a lot better. Having a good diet is super important.
What were you eating prior to the diet change? Tons of candy? Mac & cheese? Gallons of ice cream?
My rookie year, after games, I would go to Wendy’s. It didn’t work out too well. One time I was playing against Chicago and I had a cheeseburger before the game. I felt so bad during that game, I couldn’t even move. That’s when I realized, ‘man, I can’t do that anymore.’ I can’t eat a cheeseburger before the game. I’m getting older and things like that, I can’t do that anymore. Especially in this league. This league takes so much energy, so much concentration to play at your highest level.
RELATED: Your Favorite Athletes’ Favorite Cheat Meals
So now what’s your favorite meal that’s relatively healthy?
One of my favorites is salmon. I love salmon. That’s one of my favorite meals to eat before a game. So I mostly eat salmon, sweet potatoes and broccoli.
Do you hit up a lot of restaurants around Charlotte? Or are you more of an eat-at-home guy with a personal chef?
Yeah, I have a chef. I’ve had one for about two years now. He is the one getting me right.
It’s got to be exponentially harder to eat well on the road, especially when you’re on an extended road trip. How do you make that work?
It’s not that much harder. You’ve got to concentrate on just getting it done. At home when you have a chef, it’s easy. But when you’re on the road you have to fend for yourself. Usually guys are tired and don’t want to get up and get food. You’ve just got to want to do it.
For me, I love to stay in my room. I’m a room service kind of guy. I just order room service all day.
Well played. So what’s your usual routine before a game, whether at home or on the road?
I wake up and try to eat a big breakfast. Then I come to the arena and have shootaround. Typically I won’t eat after that. I’ll go home and get a nap in. Right after my nap, that’s when I’ll eat. I try to eat a big lunch. That’s it. Usually guys eat three times before a game, but I only eat twice.
You’ve certainly gotten stronger as your career has advanced. What do you focus on when you train?
I try and stay balanced. I’m one of the smaller guys in the league, so I found it difficult to get over pick and rolls and stuff like that. Guys would overpower me. I knew I had to work on everything. I work on my legs and most definitely my core. I try my best to work on everything though.
Do you actually enjoy working out? Or is more of a ‘do it because I have to’ mindset? And is there any exercise you have fun with?
Yeah, not really. Something that I enjoy? That’s pretty tough during the season. I enjoy core exercises for the most part. It hurts, but it’s important, so that’s the only reason I enjoy it.
OK, so what’s the worst exercise you have to do?
With my strength coach, whenever we have a few days between games, we do a heavy lift day. For those days I’m like, ‘aww, man.’ We do heavy dumbbells and stuff like that. That’s the day I’m like, ‘I don’t want to do this, but I have to do it to stay strong.’ During the course of the season, you have to find the days to lift or your body will break down.
Let’s take it back to that insane triple-overtime game you played in college. Did you do anything to recover after that? Or did you just go home and crash?
Yeah. That was my freshman year, so I didn’t know anything about nutrition or recovery or anything like that. So I probably just ate and crashed.
That’s what I would have done too. How long did it take your body to recover?
It was pretty fast. Like a day or two. I was young, I was 18. It was pretty fast.
NBA FIT Live Healthy Week presented by Kaiser Permanente runs from Jan. 21-29 with a special focus on highlighting the importance of healthy living through three simple pillars: be active, eat healthy and play together.