Around the world and back: Henry Walker's return to the NBA
When the newest member of the Miami Heat checked in midway through the first quarter Monday night, basketball fans were momentarily blindsided. Someone by the name of Henry Walker stepped onto the court and proceeded to bury two threes and throw down a monstrous slam. He bore a striking resemblance to another Walker, a player who saw his promising career blown astray by knee injury after knee injury until he finally faded into basketball obscurity.
Eventually two and two were put together and onlookers realized this was the familiar face. Bill, or “Billy” Walker had emerged from the edge of the basketball globe to chase his dream of becoming a mainstay in the league. It started as Bill’s dream, but Henry offered a new perspective on his NBA journey.
“Give my daughter a better chance than I had to be successful,” Walker says about his reasons for an NBA comeback. “Give her a head start to the things I didn’t have. I want her to be more successful than I am. That’s my biggest goal.”
Milan Skye Walker was born in 2011, back when her father’s professional basketball career was nearing its peak as a role player with the Knicks. Years earlier, many thought Walker’s prime would be more along the lines of Vince Carter than Anthony Carter.
“In all of my years of watching high school basketball, I have never seen a player as electrifying as Bill Walker,” Rodger Bohn wrote for DraftExpress in 2005. “He has the ability to just totally change a game with his amazing leaping ability. Anything that is within 10 feet of the rim at the level he plays at will automatically be dunked.”
Walker, who began playing basketball at 6 years old, first realized how good he could become in his sophomore year of high school. “I was like, ‘I have a good chance of going to college and then possibly beyond that,’” Walker says, in spite of suffering a right ACL tear in an AAU game the summer prior.
“It was on a fast break. I was running down the right side of the court. I got an advance pass, took a dribble, jumped off one, did a highlight dunk. Came down and it was just all bad after that,” Walker says. “I didn’t even know what was going on, I was just in so much pain.”
Walker eventually returned to the court and attended North College Hill High School in Ohio, where he teamed up with current Bucks shooting guard O.J. Mayo for his sophomore year and beyond.
“It was always competitive between us. We competed with everything. Video games, anything you can name. It was steel sharpening steel basically,” says Walker. “It’s a lot easier to go and get that extra work in when you have somebody that’s just as willing. It’s competitive so it’s not like you’re actually in there working and it’s dreadful, it’s like a competition, you’re trying to be better than the next person. It was fun.”
Despite playing second fiddle to Mayo—who was being vaunted as one of the best high school players ever—Walker was able to carve out his own niche, being named a top-10 recruit in 2007 per Rivals.com and committing to Kansas State. The 6’6” small forward could still jump with ease despite the ACL tear and possessed plenty of strength as well. However, just six games into his college career, Walker went down with another ACL injury, this time in his left knee.
"I had so much stuff I wanted to accomplish then, and it all came crashing down in front of me," says Walker.
“I knew exactly what it was at that time. When that happened it was probably one of the most depressing moments I’ve ever been through," says Walker. "I felt that pain, that burning sensation, my leg swelling up. I had so much stuff I wanted to accomplish then, and it all came crashing down in front of me."
Walker sat out the remainder of his freshman year, but returned the following season to average 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in 31 games. “It took a while. I can’t tell you I just popped back up," says Walker. "I thought about [the injury] daily. Every time I worked out I thought about it. I really changed my whole game because of it."Faced with a choice of returning for his junior year or declaring for the NBA Draft, Walker chose the latter. “It was nerve-racking. Part of me wanted to stay and play another year, and then it’s the economic side of it,” Walker says. “I was in a tight spot so I just decided to try my luck.”
Walker and the scouts surveying him were concerned that future injuries could play a role in his evolving career. These fears were realized before Walker even got a chance to play an NBA game when he suffered a meniscus tear in a pre-draft workout with the Warriors.
“I couldn’t catch a break," Walker says. "I just figured, it is what it is. Just try to do what I can do to make the best out of the situation. It was too late to try and go back to school. I had to live with the choice I made but looking back I wouldn’t do anything any different.”
Walker ended up being selected by the Celtics with the 47th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. After spending his rookie season practicing against Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and developing in the D-League, Walker was once again bit by the injury bug. Prior to his sophomore season, Walker re-tore his meniscus and was traded to the Knicks months later.
“There was a lot of stuff I couldn’t do anymore. I used to have crazy athleticism, I still have it, but it’s just that fear of something going wrong, so I’ll get [an opportunity for] a dunk and I’ll just shoot a layup or a floater. It helped me become a better shooter because I couldn’t rely solely on my speed and quickness anymore, I had to learn how to actually play the game,” Walker says. “I was kind of excited. [Mike] D’Antoni and that system, him being a West Virginia guy, I was kind of excited. I wasn’t mad or anything like that. It’s a business, that’s the thing they tell you early.”
Walker's work on his jumper in the wake of his injuries paid off, as his career caught momentum in D’Antoni’s free-spirited offense. In his fifth game in New York, Walker earned his first career start and responded with 22 points in front of the hometown crowd. He went on to average 27.4 minutes a night for the Knicks, knocking down threes at a 43.1% clip. Walker would continue making his name as an effective shooter in the following season, hitting 38.6% of his attempts from downtown on 2.5 attempts per game. He wasn’t the next big thing many expected him to be, but Walker was okay with that.
“I don’t have an ego as far as that, like ‘I have to be the man’ or anything like that,” Walker says. “That wasn’t a part of me. I knew that very quickly, I had to find a role and be good at something so I could get on the court.”
Walker became somewhat of a fan-favorite in New York, but not solely because of his play. He had already garnered the reputation of being a knucklehead from his days at Kansas State, when he ate popcorn on the bench one night and relieved himself in a towel during a game another night. He also got into a small skirmish with Garnett as a Knick on Christmas Day 2011.
“I didn’t think it was fair. I was 19. How many 19 year olds are mature adults? How many 19 year olds are who they are going to be at 27?” Walker says. “I didn’t have enough life experience to mature.”
Walker ended up getting waived by the Knicks in late April, but didn’t play any sort of professional basketball until mid-February the following year, when he signed with the D-League’s Austin Toros.
“I really took the time off just to do some thinking with my daughter. Took some time to take a break,” explains Walker. “Just trying to do some soul-searching, get back and see if this is what I really wanted to do. Sometimes being away from it makes you evaluate what’s important, what’s not and that’s what happened.”
“Totally different,” Walker says of playing overseas. “When I played in the Philippines, it would be 9 a.m. where I’m at but 9 p.m. at home. It’s a job, it’s how you make a living so you kind of bite the bullet and do what you have to do.”
“Not to take anything away from people that actually are in war, but that’s what the game is. It’s not a friendly game. You want to go out there and you want to win. You want to humiliate your opponent. That’s the mindset I have coming in. I’m not looking for friends on the court. I’m trying to win the game. I want to win badly,” Walker says. “Where I come from, we don’t have a lot. Pride is one of those things that people carry with them and it’s important. I’m learning to channel it and use it to play better instead of being emotional.“
Walker re-joined the Skyforce yet again coming into this season, his sixth stop since being waived by the Knicks just 19 months prior. With four knee injuries and countless jerseys under his belt, Walker found himself leaning on just one person through it all.
“I talk to my Mom every day just about life in general, about stuff that’s going on in my career and the perceptions I have of myself,” Walker says. “She’s always been there for me, even times where I wanted to quit going through some of those rehabs. She always made sure that I kept my goal ahead and worked through whatever problems I had. That was it. I don’t have too many friends. With personal matters, I look inwards with my family.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it was Walker’s family who helped convince him to go by his middle name—Henry—moving forward. ”[My Mom] agreed that it would possibly be better to change it up, go ahead and turn a new leaf,” says Walker. “After I had my daughter I just started to put things in perspective. I just decided that would probably be the best thing to do for myself.”
After 17 games with the Skyforce this season, Walker got the call that he’d be donning an NBA uniform once again, but things remained in perspective for the matured Walker. “Initially I was shocked. [Coach Phil Weber] just drove home the things he has been working with me on about being a professional and taking my craft seriously,” Walker says. “I thanked him for everything he helped me with, and I called my mother.”