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Assist Goes to Grandma



Photo Credit: Little Bill

A friend asked me the other day what my grandmother would have viewed as the single-greatest accomplishment of my life thus far.

Without hesitation, I responded, “I’m alive,”

My grandmother (OK, technically she is my step-grandmother) didn’t live to see the day that I was named the new head women’s basketball coach at California State University, Los Angeles. 

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Verlena Walker died in 2016.  I think she was 79 when she died; no one in the family is certain about her age.  If not for her strength, her love, and her courage. I’m not sure I would have discovered this wonderful game of basketball — a game that has taken me so many places during a wonderful journey that’s far from complete as I prepare for this, my first full-season as a head basketball coach at Cal State Los Angeles.

My grandmother is the greatest coach I’ve ever met. My grandmother raised me. By the time I was six, my mother, like my father beforehand, had succumbed to the perils of drug addiction. One day, this latch-key kid forgot his key and became a ward of the state.  My grandfather, Verdis Richard Walker, who never lost the discipline the Army instilled in him, would have none of that, and he and Verlena took me in. 

Within a year of moving in with them – and being in a real home for the first time in my life – I learned how to trust, how to love, and how to compete.  Verdis was more likely to talk about the red-line neighborhoods in Los Angeles than any baseline inbound play. On the other hand, Verlena and her mother Ellen, who lived with us, used to let me sit at their feet, while they watched the Lakers and provided in-game analysis.  Sorry, Stu, these women were Chick Hearn’s color analyst.  

It was Verlena who encouraged me to learn how to dribble with both hands – and how to think with both sides of my brain.  I’d be cleaning the blinds with some kind of white powder. If I asked her what was in it, she’d hand me an encyclopedia and tell me to read up on sodium bicarbonate. 

The woman was versatile, she was a social worker to me – and countless others.  Verlena had a practice plan for every day of the week. On Friday, we’d mop. On Saturday morning, we’d sweep the alley.  On Sunday, we’d go to church and invite everyone to drop by the house for fried chicken, yams, collard greens, or whatever was in season. 

She kept me moving, that’s for sure. If I even thought about sitting around the house, she’d send me outside to shoot hoops in the backyard.  While I played, Ellen used to sit at the window and make sure I was doing everything right. She’d report to Verlena. Some days, those women would send me off to a neighbor’s house. Dee Meekins and Nehemia Campbell were a few years older than I was. They’d push me around the court. I held my own often enough to warrant invitations back.  Looking back, it was the most carefree time of my life. 

In 1989, my grandfather died of a sudden heart-attack, leaving my grandmother to help me navigate our South-Central L.A. neighborhood, which is now famous for the aptly named “Death Alley,” a row of blood-stained asphalt that stretches between Vermont Avenue and Manchester Boulevard to Vermont Avenue and Imperial Highway. 

None of this was easy. In fact, I still have nightmares about one experience that, sadly, I know many other young black men have endured. 

Just before my seventh birthday in 1989, I had my first interaction with a police officer. The man in blue pointed his gun at me and asked, “What size body bag do you want to wear?”

A kid doesn’t forget things like that. And 31 years later, I’m still haunted by a troubling interaction that shook me both emotionally and spiritually. 

My grandmother found a way to channel my energy and focus by handing me a basketball – and a stack of books. Call this the greatest assist of a lifetime.  

Up until her death, my grandmother remained one of my biggest supporters, and I owe much of my success to the fact that she provided me with a loving home, and made sure that I was involved with sports and that I embraced the opportunities that school would afford me. 

There are times when it seems like my whole life has been a fast break. But thanks to my grandmother, my wife (Tiffany) my son (Tyler), and so many other good people, this 5-foot-10-inch point guard has been able to soar above the rim. 

While I’ve had some life challenges, I’d never wish upon anyone, I am thankful for each, because, as my grandmother would be quick to point out– I’m still alive – and in a position to help other people reach their dreams. 

I have empathy for any man or woman on welfare, because, I too, had to survive on public assistance, when, at age 21, I became a husband and a father – and sought to be the type of father my own couldn’t be.  He suffers from mental illness.  

I can always find a minute to help a colleague, because John Wooden found time to help me. 

I am happy to give a friend a lift, because it is Doug Erickson who dropped me off at Coach’s Encino condo every day during the summer of 2008.

Just don’t ask me to help you with your laundry. I learned an important lesson in the summer of 2002, when Anthony Jones asked me to help him out by sorting his darks and his lights. While we were moving the mound of clothes from a dozen blocks, to the nearest washer and dryer, two Los Angeles County Sheriff cars pulled up and did a little separating of their own. 

The officers apparently mistook Anthony and me for local gang members (who carried Tide, a mistake anyone could make, right?), and told us to put our hands up. Anthony and I dropped the laundry and the detergent, and the officers proceeded to pat us down. Once the officers were convinced that we were just two guys moving laundry, not drugs, they gave us a ticket. I don’t even remember the charges. In fact, I didn’t even remember that I’d gotten a ticket until years later when I was disqualified from entering the Police Academy because I had an outstanding warrant.

You see, I never appeared in court to deal with that ticket, because by the time my trial date came, I was on another court — the hardwood at West Texas A&M, where I played basketball and served as the freshman class senator.  While in college, I never took in laundry to make ends meet, preferring to use my time to create audio textbooks for the blind. The gig paid well, and I learned quite a bit about several subjects, including banking and finance.

That knowledge came in handy during the summer of 2003, when I somehow managed to get an interview for a job as a bank executive.

A few minutes into that interview, the suit-and-tie crew on the other side of the table quickly figured out that I wasn’t qualified for the job. I had a degree in Sports and Exercise Health Science, a one-month-old son, and no practical work experience, aside from the reading-for-the-blind gig that kept food in my refrigerator during college.

Shortly after that interview, I got in line at the welfare office so I could feed my young family. I was sleeping on the floor on a pallet in my mom’s house and trying to figure out how this was going to play out.

There were days when I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it. Through it all, the one hope I held onto tightly is that I’d figure out a way to get a job with the Los Angeles Police Department.  I’d always been interested in police work, because I wanted to find a way to improve relations between Police and the residents of South Central. I figured that if people saw a black officer on the force, they’d begin to believe that decades of abuse would end.

As mentioned from before, I never made it to the police force because of the ticket I got while toting laundry for a friend. (For the record, I eventually took care of that ticket.) But my dream of becoming a law enforcement officer saved my life.

In that summer of 2003 — geez, I could write a book about those eight trying weeks — a friend and I went into a convenience store in South Central. It was one of those stores where a ding-dong chime sounds every time someone walks into the place. In other words, a warning- sign, perhaps.  While we were paying for our goods, I heard ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong. Suffice it to say, we had company. 

When I spun around, I saw about 15 young men from a local gang, an affiliation they proudly proclaimed. I tried to break the tension and create an escape route by asking, “How y’all doing tonight’?” Well, my friend took another tactic, asking them to step outside. 

Oh, bad idea.

I heard 15 or 20 shots fired, but miraculously I managed to belly crawl to my car.  My friend made it, too. We sped away. Within a block, I heard sirens and saw red lights. The police were on their way.

A black and white squad car pulled up alongside the driver’s side of my sedan. Because the windows of my car were not tinted, the officer had a clear view of me. Fortunately, we recognized one another. He had worked the desk at the 77th Division, where I often visited to ask about how to become a police officer.

He saw my face — and my fear. I put my hands up to show the officer that I didn’t know what had gone down. I pointed in the direction where I’d last seen the guys with the guns.

The squad car sped away. I took a deep breath and told my friend, “We could have gotten arrested tonight.” 

If not for the relationship I’d built with that officer, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have wound up in the back seat of that police vehicle that night.  But I got home safely. I kissed my son’s forehead. I held my wife tightly. 

A few days later, I found a job — as a special education assistant at a high school, where Steve Kerr wrote columns for the student newspaper. I volunteered to be an assistant coach for the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams. Honestly, that’s where I learned how to coach, teaching kids how to play their role in building the City’s most successful girls’ basketball program. Now, I’m ready for the next challenge at Cal State LA.  

“I’m alive, grandma, I’m alive.”

If there’s one lesson you can learn from me, it’s this: BUILD RELATIONSHIPS. They can save your life.  At the very least, they’ll make your journey richer and more enjoyable.

You know what my grandmother would say? 

She’d probably say the same thing I told my mother the other day.  “You’ve got this,” I told my mom the other day, after her doctor rattled off some test results.  

There’s only one thing in life that any of us can control.  That’s how we respond to adversity.  

We’ve got a one-day contract with life.  

In living her life, Verlena taught me how to live mine. Believe it or not, I have a set of encyclopedias in my house.  I have some sodium bicarbonate – and a treasure trove of memories. 

Thanks, Verlena.

-Coach Torino Kwong Johnson 


Mike Conley Jr. Removed From the Utah Jazz Starting Lineup Amid Slump




When the Memphis Grizzlies traded for Mike Conley Jr. in July, it appeared that he was the finishing piece that would put their roster over the top.

Conley was coming off a season with the Grizzlies in which he averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game as one of the best point guards in the NBA.

Utah expected him to be the perfect fit alongside All-Star shooting guard Donovan Mitchell in the backcourt, but that hasn’t worked out as planned.

Now the Jazz have decided to make a move to spark their team after losing eight of their last 12 games by sliding Conley to the bench.

The move to add Royce O’Neale into the starting lineup is aimed to bolster the defense of that group, with O’Neale being the teams best perimeter defender.

By moving O’Neale to play with that unit, Joe Ingles can slid into the backcourt alongside Mitchell and take on a more prominent role on offense.

Ingles and Rudy Gobert are potent together in the pick and roll and taking the ball out of Conley’s hands with that starting group is aimed to help that pairing flourish as well.

On the other hand, Conley now moves to the bench, where he can form a really dynamic scoring punch with Jordan Clarkson.

Conley is averaging 13.4 points and a career-low 4.1 assists per game across 34 games played with the Jazz.

Next year will be the final season of a massive five-year, $152.6 million contract he signed with the Grizzlies. The Jazz are on the hook to pay Conley $34.5 million for the 2020-21 NBA season.

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Hornets’ Guard Malik Monk Suspended Indefinitely for Violating Anti-Drug Policy




Malik Monk was in the middle of his pivotal third season in the NBA and was just hitting his stride with a recent hot streak.

Unfortunately that string of good play now comes to the end due to his conduct off the court, as Monk has been suspended indefinitely by the NBA for violating their anti-drug policy.

There is no indication what Monk has failed the test for, but he will need to follow the NBA’s program to be reinstated into the league.

Monk was the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, after being the SEC Player of the Year in his lone season at Kentucky.

Since entering the league, Monk has struggled to find his footing and that same level of success, but he was just recently on a great run of scoring.

The suspension paired with his better play has led some to question whether it was performance-enhancing drugs that he was suspended for, although we don’t know that at this time.

When Deandre Ayton and John Collins were suspended this season, each received 25-game bans and were then able to return to the floor.

The substances they were suspended for were also announced to the public at the time of their suspensions.

The fact that we don’t know what he was suspended for, or how long of a suspension he will receive is certainly an interesting distinction when it comes to Monk.

It will be interesting to see what information comes out about Monk’s suspension in the coming days and if an actual timetable is put on his return.

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Stephen Curry to Return to the Lineup on Sunday Against the Washington Wizards




The Golden State Warriors season essentially ended on October 30th, when an awkward fall resulted in a broken hand for Stephen Curry.

Curry has since been sidelined for four months and in his absence, the Warriors have gone 11-43 and sit with the wowarst record in the NBA.

Luckily things are about to get a lot better for Warriors fans, as Curry is set to return to lineup for Golden State on Sunday.

Adding a six-time All-Star, three-time champion and two-time MVP back into the starting lineup is sure to help the Warriors win a few more games down the stretch.

In the four games Curry played this year he shot 24% from three-point range, which is something he will look to clean up over the final games of this season.

Golden State has their eyes toward the future, looking to land a top lottery pick to their roster and incumbent Big Three of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

The Warriors have 25 games left this season and are four games behind the closest team for the worst record in the NBA.

As long as Golden State finishes with one of the three worst records in the NBA, they will have the best possible odds of winning the lottery. So Curry’s arrival should not hurt their position in that regard.

Instead Curry will bring some excitement to an ailing fan base, while building some chemistry with Andrew Wiggins and the other young Warriors that may be on the roster next season.

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