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Clark Atlanta coach Darrell Walker is getting NBA friends to coach up his players

Rasheed Wallace and Alex English are among those helping the Panthers excel

ATLANTA — Clark Atlanta University basketball coach Darrell Walker sits in silence behind the scorer’s table, nodding his head to the music. A speaker blasts black barbecue favorites such as “Before I Let You Go” by Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly and The Emotions’ “Best of My Love” nearby. Practice doesn’t start until 6 p.m., but most of the team has been going through shooting drills since before 5.

The Panthers have lost three of their last five games including Thursday night’s loss to crosstown rival Morehouse 72-67, to finish the regular season 22-4. But you wouldn’t have known it by looking at Walker. Or anyone else. To describe the demeanor in the gym as poised would be an understatement.

The oft-used phrase “an organization takes on the personality of its leader” has taken on a whole new meaning when applied to Walker. Having coached and played at the highest level, the Chicago native has used his professional basketball acumen to usher in a new era of Clark Atlanta basketball that has manifested itself both on and off the court.

“He has a winning mentality,” said Anthony Williams, a senior point guard from Brooklyn, New York. “I was the first point guard that he recruited here, and he believed in me. Coach Walker has trust in all [of] his players — that’s how we were winning — and we play hard ’cause he played hard.”

His résumé as a player speaks for itself. A standout at the University of Arkansas, Walker spent 10 seasons in the NBA and played for some of the greatest coaches in Phil Jackson and Chuck Daly. At his peak, the former point guard was nearly averaging a triple-double — a feat that Williams has been trying to replicate.

“He’s teaching me, from the start of my senior year until I’m done, how to become a point guard, a better player, like [with] seeing the floor,” said Williams.

Drafted 12th overall by the New York Knicks, Walker played for five different teams in 10 years. After retiring, Walker began his coaching career as an assistant with the Toronto Raptors in 1995-96, his first of five teams as a coach.

Sometimes being a journeyman has its benefits. Having accumulated a wealth of friends during his playing and coaching days, Walker has parlayed these relationships into wins. In January, a video surfaced of NBA champion Rasheed Wallace working on post moves with some of Clark Atlanta’s bigs.

“[Wallace] just worked with my big guys, talked to my guys,” said Walker. “Rasheed was at practice, helping out in practice, came to the game, sat on the bench, was in the timeouts, was talking to our guys. It’s a big thrill for my guys to be able to do that, to be able to touch a guy of his caliber.”

Besides Wallace, Walker brought in eight-time All-Star Alex English. At 6-foot-7, 190 pounds, English was a bit undersized at the forward position yet still managed to be a scoring machine, ascending to No. 18 on the NBA all-time scoring list. For players such as Akil Douglas, who’s 6-10, 190 pounds, talking to English gave him confidence to excel despite being undersized.

“Basketball is like 80 percent mental, so getting to talk to guys that played it for 20-plus years and played it at the highest level, it means a lot to young players like us,” Douglas said. “I got to talk to Alex English, who’s top [18] in the NBA in scoring. That’s not an opportunity that many kids, especially Division II kids, get. Being able to pick their brain and figure out how I can improve my game, it’s been the biggest help, and I know a lot of my teammates did the same.”

Walker has gone above and beyond both inside and outside the gym.

“He’s improved me by helping me buy into the program, you know, just being a part of something that you need everyone to succeed,” said Douglas. “It’s helped me so much as a man in classes and other types of situations where I need team-based [skills] to figure out solutions.”

In his first crack at collegiate coaching, Walker has put a special emphasis on the student aspect of student-athlete. Other than talking with teachers and checking classrooms, the coach holds an art auction during the fall to raise money for his players to attend summer school so they can graduate on time. This year’s Darrell Walker Art and Basketball Auction drew former Atlanta Hawks guard Steve Smith and Hall of Fame forward Bernard King.

An avid art collector, Walker was able to combine his two passions while raising more than $90,000.

In just two seasons, Walker has revitalized Clark Atlanta basketball, winning more than 70 percent of his games as well as a Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) title.

The team’s last regular-season game was against cross-campus rival Morehouse, which sits at the top of the conference, and defeated the Panthers 97-96 in a triple-overtime thriller on Feb. 8. The significance of this game was not lost on Walker, but he wasn’t changing his approach.

“At the end of the day, I’m trying to build something special over here at Clark and I can’t worry about what nobody else is doing,” Walker said. “I have to worry about our team, how we’re doing, what we’re doing and are we progressing, and that’s all I care about. I’m sure the Morehouse-Clark rivalry is good for both schools but, in my eyes, it’s just another game.”

Clark Atlanta will be playing in the SIAC tournament next week in Birmingham, Alabama.

C. Isaiah Smalls, II is a Rhoden Fellow and a graduate of Morehouse College from Lansing, Michigan. He studied Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies. He was Editor-in-Chief of The Maroon Tiger.