The nebulous “They” is one of the greatest forces in sports. It powers every upset and untold number of memorable performances. It fuels the fiery pregame speech and the postgame celebration.
You know how it goes.
They said I couldn’t play at this level.
They said we couldn’t win.
They said I’d never come back from (fill in the injury, affliction or addiction).
And then, someone does something big and surprising, as if only to prove Them – whoever They are – as wrong as any flat-earther.
“They” were having a field day when one long-time NBA player and coach decided he was going to reinvent himself in his mid-50s as a college guy.
They kept telling Darrell Walker he wasn’t cut out to be a college coach, that he had no experience navigating the maze of the NCAA rulebook, that he could not recruit and would not be able to adapt to the modest lifestyle of an entry-level college job.
Isn’t Walker, 56, showing Them now?
In his second season coaching Clark Atlanta, Walker is working on his second 20-win season. After having won 16 games total the previous two seasons, the Panthers appeared in the 2016-17 Division II national tournament (a first-round loss). Currently ranked in the top 20, with a 20-3 record, they are looking to crack the small-school big dance again.
Some of Walker’s reasons for wanting to jump off the treadmill of the NBA for something different were on display Thursday night in the noisy, crowded bandbox Clark Atlanta calls home, Epps Gym. This was a big game on a small scale against neighboring Morehouse, also having a great year. Fans lined up around the block an hour before tip. And for their patience were rewarded with a game that didn’t want to end - Morehouse winning by a point in triple overtime. The kind of game that both ages and envigorates a coach.
Walker’s definitely not in The League anymore. He has gone from playing at the highest level for a decade, and coaching there for another 18 years more (a head coach with two teams) to a small, cash-strapped HBCU program devoid of all fringe and frills.
If Walker is missing the lifestyle of the tall, rich and famous, he’s not letting on. “They said good luck at the Holiday Inn, and good luck with those bus rides, busting my chops,” Walker said. (There’s the “They” again.)
“It didn’t bother me because I had coached in the Continental Basketball Association before. I knew what bus rides were,” he said.
“It’s been fun. I’m having a ball. I’m enjoying myself. Am I at the Four Seasons Hotel? No. But I’m at the Hampton Inn and Suites, and they got a bunch of cable channels and I’m happy. As long as you got a lot of cable channels that I can watch college basketball, I’m good with it.”
He is not the only former NBA head coach to go all Joe College. There is a healthy roster of others – Avery Johnson (Alabama), Mike Dunleavy (Tulane), Larry Krystkowiak (Utah), Reggie Theus (Cal State-Northridge), Terry Porter (Portland) and Eric Musselman (Nevada) to mention a few.
Walker undoubtedly is the only one with this particular career travelogue: NBA player (1983-93, winning a championship with Chicago at the end); assistant NBA coach at four stops; CBA coach (Rockford Lightning 1999-2000); and head coach in the NBA (Toronto and Washington) and WNBA (Washington). Colorful, eh?
What it lacked was anything with “university” in the title. And increasingly, Walker found himself leaning in that direction. When he finally finished his college degree at the age of 51 – with his old coach from Arkansas, Eddie Sutton in attendance – it was with one eye on someday getting a college job.
When Walker was blown out with Mike Woodson and the rest of the New York Knicks staff in 2014, he decided that was his cue to go collegiate. After a couple of forgettable head coaching stints with forgettable teams (41-90 with Toronto in 1996-98, and 15-23 as an interim coach in Washington in 2000), he knew he was unlikely to get any more NBA head coaching gigs. And he craved a position in which he could really make a difference.
For the next year-and-half he and his agent fished the waters of the mid-majors, and no one was biting. Apparently, even if you can list Michael Jordan first on your list of references, that doesn’t impress certain pointy-headed athletic directors.
“All these interviews I had I heard, ‘You’ve got a unique resume, but you’ve never coached in college. College is different. There are rules.’ To myself I was saying, no, I haven’t coached in college, but I have coached at the highest level you can go in your profession. And you don’t think I can coach in college? You talk about the rules? Everybody’s gotta learn the rules. I wanted to say there are some people who have been in college for 20 years still breaking rules. What does that have to do with anything?”
Said Clark Atlanta Athletic Director J. Lin Dawson now, “I’m glad the other folk didn’t see the (possibilities), as though people can’t learn and transform themselves. He wanted to be here. He wanted to be in a college environment. People will learn and make their adjustments as needed.”
It was only because Walker has the makings of a renaissance coach that he even knew about the opening at Clark Atlanta. It wasn’t any of his basketball contacts who told him about that job. It was one of this prodigious collector’s contacts in the art world, Atlanta-based artist Kevin Cole.
The art guy had to prod the basketball guy into even emailing a resume to CAU’s AD. “I told him, man, just try it, even if you’re just doing it for the experience,” Cole said.
“I was at my desk one Saturday morning when I saw (the email). At first, I scanned through it and I really thought somebody was kidding,” Dawson said.
Determining that both the author and the interest were real, Dawson quickly added Walker to his finalists’ list. Having played for nine seasons with the New England Patriots, Dawson was not going to be dazzled by this candidate’s pro background. It took more than that to win the interview.
“I assumed he knew the X’s and O’s. That really wasn’t what we needed,” Dawson said. “What I was looking for was mentorship. People who could hold our student-athletes accountable, someone who was a good fit for the campus community and someone who had a story beyond basketball.
Dawson continued, “I found out he was an art collector (Walker has been interested since the early 1990s and currently owns 70 pieces, he estimates). A grandfather. He went back and got his degree. That for me rounded out the scope. It wasn’t whether he could come in and out-coach other people or so much he could be a dominant recruiter – I thought those things would happen as people began to recognize his work.”
Little surprise that a player who earned the nickname “Junkyard Dog” for his tenacious defense would as a coach preach the same kind of approach. Play D, share the ball and he’s happy.
Yes, he found, there is much beyond coaching involved in this job. Like the laps he does around campus in his customized golf cart, connecting with the student body. And the art auction he oversees to raise money for his players’ summer schooling – which has brought in nearly $200,000 thus far.
All in all, Walker has found that, “It’s coaching. It’s teaching. It’s mentoring young African-American guys. It’s really rewarding. The NBA is a business, it’s cutthroat, it’s cut and dried. It’s something I’ve been in all my life, but this is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long, long time. And I proved I can do it.”
He is showing Them that They were wrong.
And no mistake, that will be a driving force taking him wherever his ambitions lead from here. Players play with a chip on their shoulder, why can’t coaches coach that way, too?
They are noticing.
“A lot of people have said, ‘Hey man, you’ve proven you wanted to coach in college,’” Walker said. “Nobody can say you’re an NBA guy anymore. Ain’t no NBA guy going to take a job like this. I think I’ve proven myself.
“I’m a college coach.”