In a fast-paced, social media driven world that’s ever changing, and ever promoting the need for us to change with it, it’s refreshing to see when someone can navigate through its crowded corridors unscathed by the bumping and jostling and pressure to conform.
This is especially encouraging in the sports world, where, thanks to instant highlights, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, every young athlete can become his or her own publicity manager.
So when you have an athlete who — by way of his skill and the plethora of blue blood college programs vying for his services services — seems to have every reason to join in the chest-thumping, self-promoting circus, but chooses not to, that, in my humble estimation, is cause for intense recognition if not celebration.
I remember the first time I saw James Walker on the basketball court.
Now one of the newest members of the 2016 USA Men’s U18 National basketball team, when I first met him he was fresh out of eighth grade, lacing ‘em up in annual summer league play at Clayton State.
I walked into Clayton State’s gym, and anyone who’s ever been at the summer league there knows how it is teeming with activity and conversation as several games are often happening at once. Coaches, players, prospective players, prospective coaches, all talking about what they’ve got, who they’ve got, who’s coming to them, who’s leaving.
It’s kind of the hush-hush rumor mill — the place where you get all the scuttlebutt that you can’t put in the newspaper because you don’t want to piss off your sources.
And amid the chatter, a name kept coming up. Actually, two letters — “M” and “J.”
One trio of coaches was raving about him and a couple other high school freshmen-to-be, so I asked them to point me to the direction of this young man.
As I approached the side of the court where he and his team were, I chuckled as I thought of the two-lettered nickname given to an eighth grader, obviously meant to be depicted as a parody of NBA G.O.A.T., Michael Jordan.
“Man, people sure are starting to tag these kids early with these unrealistic expectations,” I thought, as I got closer to the young man’s squad.
I still remember the first photo I took of him for a story I was writing for the Clayton News Daily newspaper. He was sitting on a bleacher, looking off to the right. No particular expression on his face. Kind of stoic. But surrounding him were a bunch of rowdy peers jawing at each other and bragging about how much better they were than the other.
MJ struck me initially as a quiet kid. Maybe almost shy. It was his game on the court that had the big mouth — even then.
Sure, you could tell he was a raw talent. He had work to do. But his raw looked like many other high school athletes’ peak. Dude could flat out ball.
His on-court mannerisms and his IQ for the game jumped out at me as that belonging to someone years ahead of schedule. Weeks removed from Rex Mill Middle School, the kid looked like he could start right away for almost any school in the Atlanta metro, let alone Clayton County.
But here’s what truly impressed me about James M.J. Walker.
On that day at Clayton State, he took the ball at what would’ve been the top of the key if they were playing full court. He jab stepped, dribbled, then crossed over a guy and took the ball emphatically to the cup.
That side of the gym encountered a miniature explosion of oohs and ahhs. Kids were running all over the place in gleeful exclamation of the move he made. Grown folks were just shaking their heads in impressed disbelief.
Based on the code of this showboat era, he should’ve done something demonstrative to put a period on that play. Stare the dude down. Throw the ball back to him and make him “sign it” like we used to do back on the inner-city playgrounds in the early 90s. What MJ did, however, was awesome.
He did nothing.
He turned around and ran back to the other side of the court and set up to play defense. That move he made, though? It was graceful, fluid, strong and decisive. You can’t coach that.
I’ll tell you what else you can’t coach: Humility.
In an era where elite athletes seem to feel entitled to cockiness — even at the amateur level — MJ was and is an anomaly. When I spoke to that middle schooler, and he was quiet and pretty subdued, I figured that was just youthful awkwardness.
When I interviewed him after his freshman season with Jonesboro that ended in a state championship, well, he’d gotten a lot taller. Voice a little deeper. But still those same mannerisms. That same unassuming nature.
When he led the Cardinals to back-to-back titles a year ago, same story. Bigger, more mature, even some facial hair. At this point he’s jumping out of the gym, able to dunk on anyone who would dare meet him in the lane while in flight. But the demeanor never changed.
Even this past spring, which ended in heartbreak when Walker and his Cardinals whiffed at a three-peat bid thanks to an upstart Liberty County bunch, — and some janky basketball goals at Macon Coliseum — the now 6-foot-5, nationally acclaimed junior spoke softly, with red, water-filled eyes. But don’t mistake that soft-spokenness for lack of passion or tenacity.
I still remember what he said in that postgame locker room interview.
“I’m going to come back and be an even better MJ Walker than I’ve been before.”
Someone may read that and say, “Finally, some hubris!” But no. It wasn’t like that. In fact, his disposition took me back to that young, unassuming eighth grader in Clayton State’s gym.
And I know we as sportswriters technically aren’t supposed to root. But who can’t root for a kid like him? Which brings me to how excitedly proud I am to see him be honored with the distinction of being on the USA U18 Basketball team roster.
Talk about elite status. It doesn’t get much better than that. And yet, the kid deserves it. His parents deserve it, as he is a reflection of their rearing. Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman and the Cardinals’ hoops program deserves it.
Heck, all of Clayton County and the oft-overlooked Southern Crescent area deserve it. And make no mistake about it, Mr. James M.J. Walker. You’re carrying all of us who are SouthSide proud on your shoulders when you travel to Chile to compete in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship.
Sometimes life isn’t fair. Sometimes it’s the loudest, most flamboyant one in the room who seems to get the prize. But hope can be had when athletes like M.J. Walker find a way to buck the trend.
Maybe he’ll start a new one — finding the limelight without selling your youthful soul to celebrity.
Good job, young man.
Gabriel Stovall is the founding editor of the Southern Crescent Buzz. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1. Follow us @crescent_buzz.