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Assist Goes to Grandma

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Photo Credit: Little Bill
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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 

Basketball

Zion Williamson May Not Make NBA Debut Until 2020

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When the New Orleans Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery, Zion Williamson became the face of their franchise before he was even selected with the first overall pick.

Williamson was the clear No. 1 pick after his incredible freshman season at Duke and we all have just been waiting in anticipation for him to hit the floor in the NBA.

Unfortunately that wait is going to extended through the new year, as the Pelicans are playing it safe with Williamson rehabbing from his knee injury.

It makes sense for New Orleans to be cautious with Williamson, as his health is the top priority for the franchise.

In his absence, the Pelicans have gotten off to a dreadful 6-17 start to their season, which makes a playoff run highly unlikely at this point.

Since the playoffs are a long shot, there is nothing to rush Williamson back for other than a Rookie of the Year race, which is of no consequence to the franchise.

Still, coming into this season, Zion was the presumptive favorite to be named the Rookie of the Year.

Now the race for Rookie of the Year is wide-open, with players like Ja Morant, RJ Barrett and Kendrick Nunn all getting buzz.

Hopefully Zion can return to the court soon, as he was already proving to be must-watch television when the Pelicans were in the preseason.

When Zion does make it back from this injury, one thing is certain. Everyone is going to be sitting at the edge of their seat, just waiting for the first explosive dunk of his NBA career.

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Basketball

Miami Heat Remain Undefeated at Home Behind Jimmy Butler’s Triple-Double Over the Wizards

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Last season, the Miami Heat missed the playoffs by just two games, finishing with a 39-43 record.

The biggest reason for their absence in the postseason was a bad record at home, as the Heat were under .500 with a 19-22 record. Miami hoped to change that this season and set out to win more games in their building.

So far so good for the Heat, as Friday night’s victory over the Washington Wizards improved their home record to a perfect 9-0 this season.

Not only have the Heat improved on their home record from a year ago, but they are off to the best start at home in franchise history. A big reason for all that success is No. 22, as Jimmy Butler has been a breath of fresh air in Miami.

Butler gives the Heat their first real superstar since the Big Three era and he has quickly turned them into a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.

Friday night’s performance for Butler included a game-high 28 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists for his second triple-double of the season.

Butler had his first triple double in a Heat uniform on Tuesday, when he led his team to an overtime victory over the Toronto Raptors. Butler outscored the Raptors 8-2 in that overtime period, giving Toronto their first home loss of the season.

While Butler has been great whenever he is on the floor, the biggest asset he brings to Miami is his ability to close games.

The Miami Heat moved to 16-6 with their win over the Wizards and are currently slated for the third seed in the Eastern Conference.

Whether they can continue to win at that clip is yet to be determined but two things have become clear. The Heat have found an identity behind Butler’s play and no one should want to travel to Miami right now.

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Basketball

Bucks Dismantle the Clippers in Potential Finals Preview to Extend Winning Streak

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While the Los Angeles Lakers will certainly have something to say about it, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding a potential matchup between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA Finals.

Milwaukee has been pacing the Eastern Conference all season behind the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, after finishing last year with an NBA-best 60-22 record.

Meanwhile the Clippers have a very deep roster full of stout defenders and a duo of two-way superstars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

With all that being said, there was a lot of anticipation going into Friday night’s game between these two powerhouses, but the result did not quite live up to the hype.

The final score ended up being 119-91, as the Bucks just steamrolled the Clippers with ease on their home floor.

Giannis led the Bucks with a game-high 27 points and 11 rebounds, needing to play just 26 minutes of work before sitting down with the win in hand.

This game was special for Giannis for a whole different reason, as it was his 25th birthday. There is probably no better president than a blowout victory against a difficult opponent.

Especially when you are extending your team’s winning streak to an NBA-best 14 games.

This is actually not the first time that these two teams have squared off this year, as they met very early in the season.

In that game both teams entered with a 5-2 record, but the Bucks went home with the victory, beating the Clippers in a close game in the Staples Center.

With Friday’s win, that concludes the season series between these two teams. If the Bucks and Clippers are to meet again, it would have to be in the NBA Finals.

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