By Gabriel Stovall
JONESBORO, Ga. — After M.J. Walker got the gold for the USA Men’s U18 Basketball team, he came back from Chile to his South Metro Atlanta home and received gold star treatment from his family.
“When I came down the street to our driveway, they had (American) flags in the grass, flags all over the house, cakes and stuff,” Walker said. “It really meant a lot to me. I couldn’t wait to come home. I had been gone for two to three weeks, and my parents, man, you could tell they were very proud. They were so happy to see me home.”
Walker’s membership on an elite squad of ballers was the latest accolade added to the resume of one of the nation’s top 2017 products. The Jonesboro star was one of just two Georgians to make the roster, but his presence on the international basketball scene was rarified air for Clayton County hoops products.
I had the chance to chat with Walker Saturday and as he expounded more on his unforgettable experience.
GS: How unbelievably crazy was it for you to have this opportunity to play abroad for your country? I know it had to be hard to just focus on basketball.
MJW: “It was definitely an accomplishment that I probably wouldn’t have seen myself doing before it happened. I’m just thankful for the opportunity to play for USA Basketball. It was such a great group of guys and coaches, and for us to go out there and win the gold medal, man, it was definitely an experience never forget.”
GS: You had an opportunity to be with some of the nation’s best young players and coaches. Guys like (Texas Longhorns) coach Shaka Smart. Aside from winning the gold, what happened to make you better as a player?
MJW: “Mostly it was just seeing from a college standpoint how college coaches coach, what they’re looking for from us as players and what they expect from us. I mean, every practice was run on a high college level. The energy you gotta bring every practice, the expectations and definitely competing against great guys each day and some of the best coaches. It all plays into the mindset you have to have playing this game. I feel like I learned a lot from the discipline the coaches tried to put into the team, and the focus they want us to have.”
GS: Tell me the most memorable moment you had during this time.
MJW: “The most memorable moment was winning the gold, honestly. That was the icing on the case. It was almost like winning a state championship out there. We were playing in hostile environments. Everything and everyone’s against you, and you’re going against the odds. That’s why it was such a great feeling to win gold for the USA and bring honor while repping my country.”
GS: You said it was almost like winning a state championship. So which pinnacle moment was more meaningful to you, state championships or USA gold?
MJW: “I think it would have to be state championship. Both of them. It meant just a little bit more, because with my state championships, you know, I’m repping my school, my friends and coaches that have become like family. All of that goes into it. But as far as representing the U.S. and winning gold, it was more of an honor, and a huge honor, you know, just being able to rep the country while playing away from home.”
GS: How do you feel about how you played when you got the chance to perform? Did you pay much attention to your time or stats?
MJW: “No, I really didn’t really pay attention to any of that, because they preached all week that winning was the goal. That was the ultimate goal while we were down there in Chile. I didn’t play as much as I wanted to, but really nobody did. But I definitely gave everything I had and did whatever I could to help the team whenever I got the chance to.”
GS: Why did this mean so much to you, even from a local standpoint?
MJW: “It made me feel very proud because I felt like I was repping Clayton County in a major way. I don’t know anyone else that’s made it to that level from here from a basketball standpoint. I really felt like I was putting the city on my back.”
GS: I know coach (Dan) Maehlman had a lot to say to you both before and after your time in Chile. What did he say to you that stuck out most?
MJW: “Before I left. he was saying how he always believed in me. He said he knew I was going to make the team, and he told me to just keep playing with that chip on your shoulder and rep Jonesboro well. Basically it was the same thing when I got back. He said to keep going, stay focused and he was telling me he believed in me. He congratulated me and told me he loved me.”
GS: You already had a boat load of college scholarship offers and recruiting attention before this. Now that it’s behind you, and you’re getting ready for your senior year at Jonesboro, have you had a chance to narrow your list down any and come closer to a decision?
MJW: “Well, I think I’ve narrowed it down to under 20 right now. I’m still really looking at things, but I know I’m going to have to narrow this down pretty soon. I’m working with my parents to try to figure out what’s going to be the best fit overall. So we’re still taking looks, and investigating things, and just seeing where it all leads me.”
GS: So after all this, what’s next for M.J. Walker?
MJW: “Right now, I’m just trying to get healthy at this point. I’ve been banged up quite a bit, so I’m looking forward to resting. I’m going into this senior season with a goal to finish out winning another state championship especially what happened last year against Liberty County. I think I’m going to come out with a different focus, that revolves around just putting the team on my back and getting everybody on one accord. I definitely want to go out on a bang.”