Jimmy Walker brings the basketball upcourt for Providence, and his body flows with it, guarding it, nursing it along—a flexible surge of muscle guided by wide vision and instant appreciation of possible avenues of attack. As he dribbles, the ball seems to have a new purpose with each explosive burst from the floor; it doesn't just bounce. Suddenly Walker changes direction. The ball flies down from his left hand, ricochets up to the right and the body shifts imperceptibly onto a new course of action. Admiring the rapid, deceptive move, a few practiced observers could swear the ball traveled under Walker's left leg as he made his cut. But the moment is gone; the ball has been passed to one of Walker's teammates who was free, and it has slipped through the basket. The scoreboard flashes, the action resumes.
Did the ball really go under the knee as Walker made that crossover dribble? Yes, it did. The maneuver, as distinctive as Bob Cousy's behind-the-back sleight of hand, is one weapon in the most complete offensive array possessed by any college basketball player. Walker is battling for the nation's scoring lead, with a 29.5 average, but his ball handling and passing are what mark him as a genuine All-America and a potential star among the pros. The under-the-knee crossover is a move he developed in long hours of practice ("the difficult part," he says, "was being sure I came out of it all right, ready to drive or shoot"), and it gives him a split-second advantage over a defender as well as aiding him in playmaking. "He's almost impossible to stop in a 1-on-1 situation," says Cousy, discussing his Boston College team's meetings with Providence. "Last year we held him to 90 points in two games. Walker beat us both times."
Walker would rather talk about and work at ball handling than scoring, but Providence is not a well-balanced team this year—not a very good one, actually—and he has been forced to shoot more and more. Neither he nor Coach Joe Mullaney is very pleased about this, and both spend a lot of time apologizing about it to the rest of the team. The rest of the team, knowing Walker, is in complete sympathy.
In prep school and his first two years at Providence, Walker led his teams to 65 straight wins. He has never complained to an official, never bugged an opponent and, although he is so nervous the night before a game that he must get up long after midnight to pace outside in the cold Narragansett air, he appears in the locker room the next day loose and laughing before his teammates. Just as he will shoot when ordered, he will refrain if that is the coach's judgment. Last February, a few weeks after he was exalted in Madison Square Garden for scoring 50, he made three points in Altoona, Pa. when St. Francis threw up a box-and-one defense. Mullaney decided to attack the box, so Walker took himself and his man out of the play and usually drew off another defensive man, too. The night Walker scored three points was the night Walker took exactly two shots. His team won. So the Friars well understand when Walker takes a lot of those shots, and they begrudge him none.
January 23, 1967
Last week, playing as the situation demanded, Walker got 22 points on a 50% shooting performance as Providence easily defeated Oglethorpe. Against Duquesne, which Providence had taken in stride in the Holiday Festival, Walker was hampered by a bruised thumb but still scored 19 and set up another Friar victory.
Walker is 6'3", 205 and powerfully built, and Mullaney often refers to him as "this train"—as in, "So this guy gets in Walk's way and all of a sudden this train twists and goes right by." He was born in Amherst, W. Va., but the family soon moved to Boston, and Jimmy grew up in Roxbury, playing stickball and "running around the streets in ragged dungarees." Swimming was his passion until, when he was 13 or so, they put up a basket in his neighborhood. At 16, as a sophomore, he led the city in scoring and his team, Boston Trade School, to the city championship.
But there was, really, little to hope for. "A lot of the kids I grew up with, good friends," he says, "are in jail now." Walker began to think, vaguely, of scholarships and college. "But my coach—this is something—he told me to forget such things and just learn a good trade." Luckily, two men came into his life and guided him. The Rev. Michael Haynes, a Baptist minister and now a state assemblyman, and Sam Jones of the Boston Celtics. Jones got a scholarship for Jimmy and provided the additional funds to send him to Laurinburg Academy, a Negro prep school near Fayetteville, N.C. that Sam had attended. It was 21 long, scary hours by bus from Roxbury.
"Laurinburg turned out to be much more than just a school for me," says Walker. He was there for two years and then was offered a scholarship to Providence, a Dominican school where the priests wander about in long, white, flowing cassocks. "I didn't know what to do with them, whether to talk to them or what," Walker, a Baptist, recalls. "I felt, you know, nonreligious just being around them." Then one day Father Raymond St. George hooked up with the shy freshman in a pickup 3-on-3 game and speeded his adjustment into the world of integrated race and religion.
Jim Walker, college senior, is outgoing and warm, as modest and as sure of himself as a campus idol is supposed to be. He will graduate in June with a degree in sociology, and following a pro career (which he may have to postpone because of a year's service in the Army and then possibly until after the '68 Olympics) he wants to work with young children. He helped out at a community center last summer. "The thrill was seeing how you could get a kid—any kid—interested in a sport and then see that just because of that interest the boy could carry over his enthusiasm into other things, like his schoolwork. That," Jimmy says, "was exciting." Asked if, in doing this work, he was remembering himself as a young boy and the guidance he received from men like the Rev. Mr. Haynes and Sam Jones, Walker said, "Yes, you could say that." He said it easily, without smiling, looking straight ahead and recalling the place and the time when his teacher told him, 16 years old, to forget all the dreams and just learn a trade.