April 1, 2011

Walker triumphs in the end

Kevin McCarthy

Making lemonade out of lemons is the creed of professional optimists. Attend one of their seminars and mountains are really molehills, obstacles are but opportunities. But you want to bet that none of them grew up in the pleasant climate of Oakland, played college hoops in Mediterranean-like Los Angeles and then faced a perceived basketball exile of sorts to the likes of Siberia -- Anchorage, Alaska to be precise. That's the journey of former Bishop O'Dowd star Brandon Walker and looking back he wouldn't want it any other way. Here's his story.

photo of Brandon Walker

Walker reached the precipice of prep participation, scoring 24 points as a Dragon senior in the state championship loss to Artesia High in 2007. Then, it was off to Loyola Marymount to play for Coach Rodney Tention. But after a 5-26 season, Tention was let go in April of Walker’s freshman year. "We had a feeling the coaches would be changed," Walker said.

The replacement was Bill Bayno, who himself departed due to health reasons seven months after assuming the job. But not before the new coach/new roster truism went into effect and Walker was asked to move on. Being college-less and back in the recruitment process he thought was long ago in his rear view mirror was not where Walker ever imagined himself returning.

"It was tough," Walker explained. "I had everything I wanted."

But true to his nature, he persevered: "I wasn't mad at anyone but I used it for motivation."

Summer arrived with no landing in sight. Then one day, Walker was playing at a Bay Area gym and crossed paths with Joe Fuca , coach of the Lakeshow club basketball team. The latter suggested Walker check out Alaska Anchorage, a D-2 school where Fuca had a contact.

Walker immediate reaction: "I wasn't interested."

But then there was the persistence of the Anchorage coaches. "They kept calling," according to Walker.

Ultimately a visit was arranged in August and the result was a three-year stay, playing for Coach Rusty Osborne.

Elements of doubt may have crept in but for Walker it was more not knowing what he was capable of achieving. "I wanted to play and find out" was how he put it.

But his biggest adjustment was meteorological. "I had never been in snow before," Walker explained. "In October, it started snowing and my jaw dropped. In December and January, the temperature was in the mid-20s."

He continued, "I used Anchorage as a place to focus on homework and basketball -- taking care of business. I accepted it for what it is and stopped comparing it to Oakland or Los Angeles." It may not have been Walker’s Shangri-la but it offered what was needed for him to succeed.

What actually helped is that "Anchorage has a small town feel but big time support," said Walker. "When we were winning, it was a sell out every game." A bit less than 280,000 people reside in the town, Alaska's largest city and holder of 40+% of the state’s population.

But there were other acclimations, on-court ones.

"I improved my mid-range and three point shot and my ballhandling," he said. So much so that Walker ended up seventh in overall three-pointers made, eighth on the team’s all-time scoring list with 1,174 points accomplished in three years.

In 2009-2010, he was named First Team All-Great Northwest Athletic Conference and also lauded as the most valuable player.for the Seawolves.

This season, he averaged 14.6 points and 4.5 rebounds a game, shooting 47% overall and 42% on 172 three-point attempts. Against Western Oregon, he totaled 40 points aided by 10 treys which tied a conference record. Walker also finished second on the team in blocked shots and steals -- not bad for someone who wore leg braces when he was a youngster.

Per Walker, "almost every game involves a flight and it’s three and a half hours from Anchorage to Seattle." A member of the Great Northwest Conference, Alaska Anchorage battles Alaska Fairbanks, Central Washington, Montana State-Billings, Northwest Nazarene, St. Martin, Seattle Pacific, Simon Fraser, Western Oregon and Western Washington.

It’s worth noting that in this 24-10, 13-5 season, the Seawolves took down D-1 members Ball State and Houston Baptist before ultimately losing to BYU Hawaii, 100-91, in the D-2 West Regional Championship game. BYU Hawaii just fell to Bellarmine by three points in the national championship game.

Plus, drive an hour and a half out of Anchorage and you'll encounter musk ox, all sorts of bears and moose. In fact, moose are often wandering around in Anchorage. But Walker found none in the gym nor the classroom, his personal domains.

He will graduate May 1 with a B.A. in sociology. His next goal is to play overseas but Walker is also thinking about getting into coaching. "I want to give back so that I can pass on all the guidance given to me by others," he explained.

In looking back, with a heads-up to high schoolers, he said "In high school, I used my physical strength to force my way into places on the court. Once in college, that’s over—you’re the small guy."

Regarding recruiting, he offered, "Go to the place that wants you the most and make sure you are happy with the coaches because the majority of your time will be coach-driven. If you like your teammates and coaches, you will have a great experience."

He added, "Take a look at your skills set, your height and size and really look for your best fit."

His chronological age is just the early twenties but an old soul -- a thoughtful and well-spoken one -- resides within his body and such bodes well for his future whether that be in a metropolis or an out-of-the-way location.

View a video of Walker’s 2010-2011 Alaska Anchorage basketball highlights.