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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 


Lavar Declares Lonzo, LaMelo won’t leave BBB




For the Big Baller Brand, it’s all about family.

However, after the Ball family’s company had been hit with fraud, scandals, and faulty products, New Orleans Pelicans Lonzo Ball and top 2020 NBA Draft prospect LaMelo Ball are considering starting fresh with new endorsement deals.

But according to their father Lavar Ball, his two sons aren’t going anywhere.

In his TMZ interview, the CEO of Big Baller Brand stated, “Lonzo can think all day. He ain’t signing with nobody but Big Baller Brand.”

Recently, Lonzo openly stated he is interested in signing endorsement deals with other brands. Lonzo has also encouraged his brother LaMelo to take meetings with other shoe brands before signing a shoe deal.

Lonzo has appeared to be at odds with Lavar all offseason. After Big Baller Brand Co-Founder Alan Foster allegedly stole $1.5 million from the company, Lonzo became wary of the company’s value. In response, Lavar claimed Lonzo is “damaged goods” on their hit reality TV show Ball in the Family.

Lonzo has also gone on record to bash the quality of BBB’s products, claiming he “had to switch [his shoes] every quarter because they would just rip.”

Lavar also said LaMelo would stay with the brand as well, even though he has not worn any BBB shoes while playing in the NBL in Australia. Nike has reportedly scouted LaMelo for a potential endorsement deal with the Oregon-based company.

With the Big Baller Brand facing so much turmoil, Lavar’s fatherly commands may not be enough to keep his sons with the family brand.

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NBA Season Preview and Power Rankings



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We are only one week away from getting our first taste of action for the 2019-20 NBA regular season.

Next Tuesday night, the Toronto Raptors will raise their first championship banner to the rafters and give out their championship rings.

The defending champs will then kick off the season for the NBA against the up-and-coming New Orleans Pelicans, in a precursor to the game we have all been waiting to watch.

After the Raptors game, all eyes will be glued to the battle of Los Angeles, when the Clippers square off against the Lakers for the first time this season.

That game has great significance now that it will pit two of the league’s most dynamic duos against one another, as LeBron James and Anthony Davis face Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

LeBron was the only player of the four superstars that was in L.A. last season, as the NBA landscape has changed significantly since a year ago.

With all of the player movement that took place in free agency, the NBA is more wide open than it has been in a long time.

There aren’t many teams that are coming into this season expecting to miss the playoffs and plenty of them actually feel like they have a legitimate chance to make a deep playoff run towards a championship.

As we all anxiously await the first tip, take a look at the first power rankings of the 2019-20 season.

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The Washington Mystics Win First WNBA Championship in Thrilling Fashion




What a difference a year makes for the Washington Mystics.

After being swept in last year’s WNBA Finals by the Seattle Storm, the Mystics came back this season with a vengeance.

Lead by league MVP Elena Della Donne, the Mystics secured the best regular-season record in the WNBA and battled in a grueling Finals series against the Connecticut Sun, winning the series 3-2.

With Della Donne battling several injuries (including three herniated discs in her back), it was Emma Meesseman that delivered with 22 points in the winner-take-all Game 5.

Messeman became the first European-born WNBA Finals MVP, while Della Donne added 21 points. Connecticut Sun’s Jonquel Jones fought hard to the very end, leading the runner-ups with 25 points.

This championship was a long time coming for Mystic’s Head Coach Mike Thibault. The winningest coach in WNBA history finally secured his first title after 17 seasons.

Washington Wizards players John Wall, Bradley Beal, Ian Mahinmi and CJ Miles were in attendance to cheer on the Mystics.

With the tenacity these women have shown throughout the season, it’s no surprised Della Done is looking forward to some much-deserved rest.

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