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Walker returns a changed man

PHOENIX -- As Antoine Walker discusses an appropriate time to bring back his trademark wiggle and eats a cheeseburger on half a bun, it becomes clear just how much he has changed in 16 months away from the Celtics.

Time with the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks has altered his approach to the game and to life off the court. The wiggle that sometimes seemed more a taunt than a celebration will be used more judiciously, preferably when the Celtics are on a winning streak. He values team chemistry and winning more now. He takes better care of his body, hence the half a bun as he shoots for a modified low-carb diet.

But maybe the biggest indication of change came Friday night in the Celtics' 109-102 victory over the Jazz in Salt Lake City. In his first game since being traded back to Boston last Thursday, Walker was a leader (team-high 24 points, 10 rebounds) with disciplined shot selection (10 for 18). For the most part, he eschewed the 3-point line in favor of the low post.

Walker promises to do whatever the Celtics need, to "fit in." He wants to prove that executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge made the right move. He also understands that his return brings with it plenty of questions.

In a wide-ranging interview, he talked about his time away, his plans for the future, and lessons learned.

Q. When you left for Dallas on Oct. 20, 2003, you and Ainge did not have any relationship. Will you work to establish one this time around?

A. Oh, without question. He runs the team. You want him in your corner and you obviously want him to take your input as we build this thing. We're all still young. I'm only 28. Paul [Pierce] is 27. So, we've got a chance to make a run for a bunch of years. I want Danny to feel like this can be a long-term thing. I do want to build a relationship with him.

Obviously, a lot of things were said, but we're both men and we've got to get over that. Our common goal is we want to make the Celtics better. I give him a lot of credit and I appreciate it and I thank him for bringing me back because that takes a lot of heart, a lot of courage.

I don't even remember half the stuff I said at the time, to be honest with you. At this point, even way before the trade happened, I would never want to come back if I felt like it was something really personal. I understand, when you take over a team, you have to put your stamp on the organization, no matter who you are. You have to come in and change things, hire your coach. He has his people in place. I think he's changed this team enough to where he feels comfortable. Now, I have to fit back in with these guys and I hope it works out.

Q. So, will we see you and Ainge on the golf course together?

A. I don't know. He's kind of good. I might go out with him, though. I'm about an 18 [handicap]. I'm trying to shoot in the 80s. I've been in two cities with nice weather, so, you know, I sneak out. I'm getting there. I stay in my league right now, but I'm getting there.

Q. Since you have newfound appreciation for playing in Boston, when negotiating this summer as a free agent, will you take a so-called "hometown discount"?

A. My thing is this: I'm going to go off what I feel is my market value. But I'm also not trying to put the team in a situation where we can't have other good players around us, either. I'm well aware of that. Hopefully, we can get a deal done. My whole focus is to stay in Boston. So, I'm going to work in every capacity I can to stay in Boston. Moneywise, nobody knows what the money is going to be right now. I would love to get something done now and get it over with. But I've got to understand they want to see how this mix of guys is going to work.

Q. But, hypothetically, if Boston puts one offer on the table and New Orleans makes a better offer, what would you do?

A. [Laughs.] I ain't following the money. I ain't necessarily going with the highest bidder. I'm going with the best situation for me on and off the court, mainly on the court. There's a value to a good situation and winning. I'm not just going to chase the money just to chase it. I'm going to make wise decisions for myself where I'm going to be happy.

Q. With winning so important to you, being traded from Atlanta (10-44) must feel good?

A. Don't get me wrong. Getting traded is not a great thing. Getting moved around this league, people think you're vulnerable. People don't think you're as good as you were if you're traded. But sometimes, all good players get traded. Shaquille O'Neal wanted out. Tracy McGrady wanted out. There's something about finding your niche on a team because everybody wants to win right now. Everybody wants to get in that situation where it's a little bit easier for them. Everybody wants to play alongside somebody.

So, I'm happy to be back playing with Paul. We had a lot of success together. We can get that back. Now, we've just got to bring these other guys along because our supporting cast is probably a lot better than what we had when we played before. Offensively, we're a lot more talented. Obviously, we've got to work to get as stingy defensively as we were at it before. But we have better talent around us now.

Q. What do you think your return means to Paul?

A. Just from afar, I saw he still maintained good basketball numbers. Paul wants to play. Paul doesn't want to deal with all the other stuff that may come along with it. There's nothing wrong with that. I think he's a great leader. He's an emotional leader. Paul leads by playing. You know he's going to give you 110 percent effort when he steps on the court.

I understand him. The good thing for me and for Paul is that Paul values my opinion. We worked out this summer together. He stayed with me a whole month. We encourage each other. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses and we just kind of point it out. We can make the game a lot easier for each other. He still was an All-Star without me. He doesn't necessarily need me to be successful. I just need to help him out sometimes. I may see something that's going on that he needs to do, especially early.

When I watch the games, Paul's the same. I think you've just got to get him back to playing the way he's capable of playing. I'm not saying he hasn't been playing great. He's been playing great to me. Any time you make the All-Star team, you're playing great. But I think in this league, you're judged on wins and losses.

Q. Are you also talking about Paul enjoying the game more?

A. We've got to have some fun in the process of winning. We've got to enjoy it. We've got to get back to that, get the life back into it, get that pride back. It's an honor and privilege to be a Celtic.

After playing for a couple of other teams, you appreciate playing for the Celtics, the tradition, having a lot of the old players back involved with the team, and things like that. A lot of that stuff doesn't go on with other teams. We've got great fans when you're winning and they're tough on you when you lose sometimes. So, you've got to understand that.

I think that's where I can come in and help. I've been in Boston when there's been tough times and we won 15 games. I've seen it at its best when we made a run to the Eastern Conference finals. Let's just get it back to that level where everybody understands the tradition and understands what's expected. Winning games, we need that. But it's also the way you win games.

Q. How have you changed between now and when you left?

A. I'm just a lot more mature about the game. My approach to the game has changed. I'm more focused on everything that has to do with team. You have to build a bond on and off the court to be able to be successful and win. And that's my main goal. I'm going to do whatever it takes to help this team win and get over that next hump, then, obviously, get into the playoffs and make a run.

I want to get to that [championship] level. I think to separate yourself from other people and other players, you have to get to that level and prove yourself in the playoffs and win championships. I want to put myself in that position. With our talent base and our team, I think we can get there.

Q. Is there added pressure to make this situation work a second time around?

A. You kind of want to go out and prove to people that this is where you belong and where you want to be at. But, obviously, I've got to go in, and not to put any added pressure on myself, but I've got to come in and try to fit in with these guys. It's not like they've been down and out. They're still a playoff team. So, you want to come in and fit in, but also make an impact, too. I'm going to figure out a way to do that. I've just got to feel these guys out and figure out a way to let these guys believe in me as well.

Q. Finally, are we going to see the wiggle?

A. I don't know. It wasn't necessarily that I wasn't having fun in Atlanta, but I felt by us losing that it wasn't appropriate to dance when you've only won 10 games. I didn't want that negativity brought upon myself. If we can start winning, win five, six games in a row, yeah, I might. I'm always going to play the game with a lot of emotion, a lot of fire.

From the outside looking in, the games I've seen in Boston, I think they're missing that. You've got to play the game with a lot of emotion. You've got to have fun with it. But it's got to be in control.

[The wiggle] will be more in control, but in Atlanta, I didn't feel the need to. We weren't winning enough to do it. I didn't feel it was necessary.

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