Former Kentucky basketball great Kenny “Sky” Walker used to use his towering 6-foot-8 frame to soar through the air in Rupp Arena, Madison Square Garden and throughout the world. When he was in the air, he seemed invincible.
Yet sometimes even the most invincible of figures can seem vulnerable.
In 1989, just a couple of days before the NBA Slam Dunk competition, Walker’s father passed away. Walker was enjoying an NBA career after an illustrious four years at Kentucky, and this was supposed to be a crowning achievement on what was already a spectacular basketball career.
With the passing of his father, Walker thought about grounding his high-flying act.
“I wasn’t going to compete because of the circumstance,” Walker said. ”But my mom gave me a lot of encouragement to go out there and do it because that’s what my dad would have wanted me to do.”
With the support of his mom, his teammates and the entire New York Knicks organization, “Sky” rose up and defeated NBA Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler to win the 1989 Slam Dunk Contest. Beating one of the game’s greatest dunkers was a memory he’d never forget, but rising through adversity was a moment that still sticks with Walker to this day.
“If you’ve gone through something tough, tragic, or hard, if you can get through it you can learn to deal with life, because if it knocks you down, you have to just get back up,” Walker said.
After playing his NBA career with the Knicks and Washington Bullets, he ventured to countries such as Spain, Italy and Japan to play professionally. Plagued by injuries, he was forced to retire from the game of basketball in 1997.
His career was over, but his mark on Kentucky basketball is forever lasting. His jersey still hangs from the rafters of Rupp. His collegiate accomplishments are nearly unprecedented.
Among his many feats:
- Kentucky’s second all-time leading scorer with 2,080 points
- UK’s all-time leader in free throws made (550) and attempted (733)
- Associated All-America honors in 1985 and 1986
- Led the Wildcats to the Final Four in 1984
- All-Southeastern Conference all four years of college from 1983-86
- Highest field-goal percentage in an NCAA Tournament game (minimum eight attempts): 1.000 (11 for 11) in 1986
While he was playing at Kentucky he had more than a handful of memorable moments. One might think that leading the Wildcats to the Final Four in 1984 would be the ultimate highlight of his playings days, but he’s quick to remind everyone about the 1985-86 team.
That team, Eddie Sutton’s first at Kentucky, featured a three-guard lineup of Ed Davender, James Blackmon and Roger Harden.
“My senior year we went 32-4, and on our way to the Final Four, we played LSU, a team that we had already beaten three times,” Walker said. ”This was after the game we beat Alabama, the game before, for the fourth time. For some strange reason the NCAA stacked all these SEC teams together. We lost the game, then LSU lost in the semifinals to Pervis Ellison and Louisville, who we had beaten earlier that year.”
Walker said that coming back for his senior year and nearly going back to the Final Four for the second consecutive year is what made this memory so special. It was a run that, according to him, just worked against the law of averages.
Walker’s high-flying dunks landed him a place in Kentucky immortality where he’ll forever be remembered for soaring above the rim. Today he still takes to the air, only in a different kind of way.
“I took my basketball career as far as I can take it,” Walker said. “I’ve always had a passion for people and I’ve always had a passion for radio and TV and had a friend suggested I get into radio.”
With a degree in communications, Walker followed his passion and connected with Sports Director of Cumulus Broadcasting of Lexington Tim Woodburn. He now co-hosts the pre- and postgame shows for UK basketball on WVLK.
Even though he’s still a devoted Kentucky fan, he tries to give a fair and honest opinion about the game and especially the players because he knows what it’s like to step into their shoes and put on the illustrious blue and white uniform.
“I know how difficult it is to be a role model and to be young, to go out and compete and live up to the high expectations and endure the program,” Walker said. ”I can see things from their perspective because I’ve been on the inside of the program.”
His passion for being a role model is prominent today in places other than the court. Walker is an advocate for literacy in children. He works with Kentucky Sports History, where collectively, they put together books about the documentation of every Kentucky basketball season (updated annually). Those books are put into middle school and high school libraries across the state.
“Literacy is a problem, not only here in Kentucky, but throughout the South,” Walker said. ”It’s very difficult to get kids to physically pick up a book and read because you’ve got everything that’s done online and on computers and everything else. It just gives kids an opportunity to read.”
Walker’s community service also include churches, the Lion’s Club, the Rotary Club of Lexington, high school banquets, and small to mid-size businesses.
He believes that reaching out to the community is important for yourself and other people. He said that John Calipari does a great job about reaching out around the entire community of Lexington and Kentucky.
“That’s the one thing I appreciate more than anything about Coach Calipari,” Walker said. ”He touches the community in a lot of different ways. Whether it’s old people or young people, he’s motivated to go out and talk about our history and tradition. He’s proud to be here. And I can identify with that.”
Walker says that he thoroughly enjoys what Calipari has brought to Kentucky basketball and the work that Calipari is doing.
Walker said that Calipari’s relatable approach is what makes him such a great recruiter and why he’s able to build relationships with people. And that’s why Walker believes that Calipari is the perfect fit for the Kentucky basketball program.
“Coach Cal has always been that down-on-your-level kind of guy, the type of guy that puts his pants on one leg at a time,” Walker said.