For Walker, financial fouls mount

Former Celtics star pursued by creditors as free-spending lifestyle drains his wealth

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / October 25, 2009

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In the early morning hours of July 16, two Douglas County sheriff’s deputies were combing through the crowds around the gaming tables at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe casino in Stateline, Nev., trying to find a certain high-roller, a sort-of celebrity, a wanted man. They carried a snapshot with them, just to be sure they arrested the right guy.

It wasn’t a face they knew well, but we do.

It was Antoine Walker.

Near the cabaret bar, the deputies spotted the former Celtics all-star forward, chatting with a group of friends. Harrah’s security officials moved in, discreetly escorting him into an office where the deputies bound the 6-foot-9-inch, 245-pound Walker’s hands behind his back with two pairs of handcuffs and placed him under arrest on an outstanding warrant.

The charge: writing 10 bad checks for casino markers totaling $1 million in Las Vegas.

When Walker’s high school coach Mike Curta learned of the arrest, he called his former player in disbelief and asked whether there was anything he could do.

“Everything’s under control,’’ Walker replied, as Curta recalls it.

It wasn’t true then, and it hadn’t been for some time. “Under control’’ has never really described Antoine Walker, on the court or off it.

And now he is truly feeling the press. A Globe review found that, during the last seven months, Walker has been pursued by multiple financial institutions for unpaid debts totaling more than $4 million. Court documents filed in Illinois and Florida reveal Walker was named a defendant in three recent debt-related civil cases, in addition to the ongoing check-kiting case. His former agent is also after him, citing a heap of unpaid fees.

Several National Basketball Association sources, among them friends and former teammates of Walker’s, said the 33-year-old player may well have squandered much of his $110 million-plus in career earnings. Without a team or contract as the new NBA season begins Tuesday, they’ve heard that Walker is casting about for cash to pay off his debts and is looking to catch on with a team, perhaps even overseas.

“I know Antoine has enjoyed himself,’’ said a former teammate. “He had a good time, as all professionals who are in that situation should. But there’s tough lessons you learn about the responsibilities that come with being a professional athlete that makes a lot of money. Sometimes this is one of the consequences to that.’’

Walker declined to comment through his agent. His lawyer did not return calls. Walker faces a court hearing this Thursday in Las Vegas on three felony counts of drawing and passing checks without sufficient funds with intent to defraud. As of Friday, a representative for the Clark County district attorney’s office in Las Vegas said, Walker had made no move to pay up or otherwise settle the case. Each of the charges carries a possible one- to four-year prison term.

“In the DA’s office’s last communication with Walker’s attorney, it was reported to us that Mr. Walker was trying to get a job,’’ said Stacey Welling, spokeswoman for Clark County. “If he gets a job, he can potentially enter into a payment plan to pay off the debt. Without a job and means to pay off the debt, criminal proceedings will go forward as planned.’’

The Thursday hearing will function largely as a status check, giving Clark County officials an update on Walker’s job search. It is a long way from his free-spending, carefree days as “Employee No. 8’’ with the Celtics.

Antoine Walker entered the NBA’s maximum-contract financial elite in 1999, the year Boston signed him to a six-year, $71 million deal. He was to be the talent and star-presence the Celtics would rebuild around, a big man with a smaller man’s ball-handling skills. And at 22, he would instantly be very rich, with a champion’s wallet even if not yet a champion’s game.

As Rick Pitino, then the Celtics president and coach, put it, Walker “will never have to worry about money again in his life.’’

Pitino’s prediction, like so many things about his tenure with the Green, proved way off the mark.

If Walker’s story raises the question - How could anyone burn through so much money so fast? - it also suggests an answer. He is one of those people who simply can’t say no.

During his heyday with the Celtics, Walker played and lived with brash confidence. On the court, there were the reckless 3-pointers, the improbable game-winning (and sometimes game-losing) shots, the trademark wiggle as he celebrated his biggest baskets. Off the court, there were the cars, the jewelry, the houses, the suits, the gambling. He liked to move in an outsized entourage; his mother estimates that, during his playing days, he was supporting 70 friends and family members in one way or another. And speaking of his mother, he built her a mansion in the Chicago suburbs, complete with an indoor pool, 10 bathrooms, and a full-size basketball court.

“Here’s the thing: Antoine always did it big,’’ said another former Celtics teammate. “When you make the large sums of money he made because of a max contract and, from my understanding, a pretty large deal from Adidas, I didn’t think he was living out of his range . . .

“But that’s what you see. You really don’t know what’s going on behind doors. Once you start living that lifestyle, it’s hard to stop.’’

After his July arrest, Walker did all he could to keep up appearances.

He posted $135,000 cash bail. The next day, he went ahead with the celebrity event he was in town for, the American Century Golf Championship, where he kept company with actors, all-stars, gold medalists, and Hall of Famers.

Behind the celebrity smiles, the picture was much grimmer. Walker managed to pay down just $178,000 of his bad-check debt before being charged, said Clark County prosecutor Bernie Zadrowski. The total being sought by the DA’s office, including court costs, is now $905,050.

And he faces a host of other claims. This summer J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, Wachovia Bank, and American Express Centurion Bank won decisions against Walker. He was ordered to pay J.P. Morgan Chase $1,571,771.47 and Wachovia $1,540,929.14 - both for failing to pay off sizeable promissory notes. From court documents, the loans appear originally related to Walker’s nonbasketball business endeavors.

A default was entered in the American Express case with $53,321.71 in overdue credit card charges at stake, including some that fit the picture of a free-spending star - an $1,843.45 dinner, with a $350 tip, for instance. Or, two nights at the Mandarin Oriental in Miami for $2,198.04. And Walker, remarkably, appears to have authorized five people to make charges on his card, not a strategy most personal finance professionals would recommend. Many of the charges appear to have been rung up by another individual, but Walker is on the hook.

Additionally, in March, an arbitrator ruled that Walker owed his former agent, Mark Bartelstein, more than $450,000 in unpaid fees. Bartelstein declined to comment about the matter.

“When I heard about [the arrest], my first reaction was, ‘I hope he’s all right,’ meaning he’s all right to pay the bills,’’ said another former Celtic teammate, who remembered Walker as a frequent high-stakes gambler.

Walker’s mother, Diane, said her son does not have a gambling problem. She added that “he doesn’t party any more than the next person’’ and “what you do with your life is your business.’’

“Antoine doesn’t owe anybody any explanation,’’ said Diane Walker. “He’s not out here hurting anybody. He’s trying to live his life peacefully. That’s all he’s doing . . . My son is young. Why can’t he just enjoy life, go where he wants to go?’’

Financial advisers often caution professional athletes to look at the big numbers on their contracts and subtract half for taxes. That rough math would have left Walker with approximately $55 million in career earnings to spend. NBA agents and players contacted for this article say an annual “burn rate’’ of $2 million to $4 million isn’t unusual for the living expenses of an elite player. With Walker’s taste for the finer things, former teammates suspect he fell on the higher end of the scale. In the 10 years since his first max-contract, that could account for about $40 million of Walker’s total wealth.

He was always high-end. And eager to show it.

Living at the Bishops Forest condominium complex in Waltham during the Celtics season, Walker turned the pavement surrounding his home into a virtual luxury car lot - two Bentleys, two Mercedes, a Range Rover, a Cadillac Escalade, a bright red Hummer. Often, the vehicles were tricked out with custom paint jobs, rims, and sound systems at considerable added expense. He also collected top-line watches - Rolexes and diamond-encrusted Cartiers.

Then, there were the custom-tailored suits - closets full of them, including the set he ordered for his first playoff run in 2002, enough so he wouldn’t wear a suit more than once during the postseason run. When the Celtics officially hired Jim O’Brien as head coach in 2001, Walker had his tailor make three suits and presented them to O’Brien.

When it came to his Celtics teammates, Walker took good care of them on the road. It wasn’t uncommon for Walker to hire limos to take out groups of teammates. And Walker always paid for the big dinner bills.

Walker’s extravagant ways didn’t stop in his post-Celtic years, when he played in Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, and Minnesota before his final NBA deal was bought out by the Memphis Grizzlies last year.

Bad investments and gambling losses may be to blame for draining away much of Walker’s remaining bankroll.

Gambling has long been a favorite form of entertainment for Walker. After a 2001 exhibition game at Mohegan Sun, Walker once reportedly played $15,000 hands with Michael Jordan during an all-night gambling session where estimates of money lost and won totaled several hundred thousand dollars. Prior to the 2003-04 season, when Celtics general manager Danny Ainge called Walker to tell him he had been traded, Walker was engrossed in a high-stakes blackjack game at Mohegan Sun.

Walker has also tried his hand at venture capital investing with Walker Ventures LLC and in real estate with AW Realty LLC. Walker Ventures appears on court documents as a codefendant in the American Express and J.P. Morgan Chase civil cases. Walker’s realty company is listed as the owner of several Chicago-area properties, including his mother’s home, once valued at $6 million but now worth a quarter of that, or less, according to more recent estimates.

When asked about her son’s recent, well-documented financial and legal problems, Diane Walker stood stoically outside her front door. She made a sweeping gesture toward the mansion, moving her hand past a giant brick “W’’ embedded in the driveway.

“Antoine is doing great,’’ said Diane. “I have my home. He has his home. If he’s doing so bad, then how could we still be here?’’

Curta, his high school coach, talks with Antoine Walker regularly by phone and is a frequent golf partner, proudly mentioning that the former Celtic recently broke 80 for the first time at Calumet Country Club in Homewood, Ill. When asked whether Walker ever said anything about financial worries, Curta said, “No.’’ When asked whether he ever saw any indications of financial problems for Walker, Curta added: “I don’t know everybody’s business. I wouldn’t say that.’’

When he had money to spare, Walker also enjoyed giving it away, particularly to children dealt bad hands in life. Raised by a single mother on Chicago’s South Side, he knew a lot about that. He established a charitable organization, The 8 Foundation, to channel his philanthropy. He arranged for Christmas gifts and courtside seats at Celtics games for underprivileged youngsters, paid for new uniforms and travel to tournaments for youth basketball teams, and conducted free basketball camps.

He also rewarded loyal family members and friends with expensive gifts. Shortly after being drafted, he gave his best friend a new car. A Mercedes sport utility vehicle parked in the driveway of his mother’s home was a gift from Antoine to his younger sister. And early in his NBA career, he paid off the debt his mother accumulated sending him to Catholic schools. He finally received his high school diploma when he took care of his overdue tuition.

“Antoine is a sweet person,’’ said Diane Walker. “Everything we have is pretty much a gift from Antoine.’’

But with the legal system closing in, and slim prospects of extending his NBA career, the stakes are now higher than ever for Antoine Walker. With few moves left, the question now is how, or if, he will ever get his wiggle back.

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