In the 13th year of his pro career, Henry Walker’s longevity is a testament to his fierce determination.
Speaking a few weeks before Thanksgiving, a quintessential American holiday, the Shiga Lakestars forward expressed gratitude for the chance to keep plying his craft despite numerous injury setbacks over the years.
Walker has endured six knee surgeries. He’s torn the anterior cruciate ligament in both knees. He suffered major knee injuries in high school and college and during a pre-draft workout with the Golden State Warriors in ’08. And he no longer has knee cartilage known as meniscus.
“It is what it is, but I come from a line of hard-working people,” Walker told The Japan Times after Shiga’s 79-58 loss to the host Yokohama B-Corsairs on Sunday.
“My mother worked her ass off. She didn’t make excuses, she just got the job done. That’s just what was instilled with me,” he added before describing her as a dedicated restaurant worker, including at a Marshall University cafeteria in Huntington, West Virginia, where he was born and later met Marshall football stars Chad Pennington and Randy Moss, among others.
“Even when I was getting injured, my mom told me, like, ‘You can’t quit just because there’s a setback. Life is about pain and suffering. One is inevitable and the other’s an option.’ So there’s going to be pain, but it doesn’t mean I have to suffer through it. So that’s what I kept thinking. I’m just going to keep working and something good’s going to happen because I’m building that positive momentum, trying to keep positive energy, even though, like, ‘Man, I’m tearing my knees up.’ ”
Using his mother’s advice as inspiration, Walker found a way to carve out a successful pro career. It began in 2008. He was drafted in the second round (47th overall pick by the Washington Wizards, who traded him to the Boston Celtics). His career included stints with the New York Knicks and Miami Heat, too. In 2009, he competed for the Celtics in the NBA playoffs, then did the same things for the Knicks in 2011. In 181 NBA games, Walker made 35 starts and averaged 6.0 points. He’s also played in the NBA Development League (now called the NBA G League) and in Venezuela, Croatia, Turkey, Uruguay and the Philippines.
“I lost a lot of athleticism but it was kind of a blessing because I had to learn other parts of my game,” stated Walker, who was called Bill until he began using his middle name in 2014. “I had to work on other parts of my game.”
Which is why Walker truly appreciates what he’s experienced since turning pro. Just “making it to the NBA after all the knee injuries and things like that” ranks No. 1 on his list of top thrills as a player.
“Being a kid and dreaming about it since I was 8 years old to actually accomplishing it and actually playing five years, I didn’t think I would have a shot after getting injured so many times,” Walker said. “I did have a pretty good run and I have no regrets about it.”
During his time in the NBA, Walker credited Mike D’Antoni, the current Houston Rockets coach, and Phil Weber, who was an assistant on D’Antoni’s Knicks staff when Walker played there (2010-12), for helping him recalibrate his game. Weber relied on a motto (“Keep the main thing the main thing”) to help guide the players, Walker recalled. “And that’s what we did every day. You can’t focus on what you lost. Let’s focus on what you can gain. So I had to improve my shooting and my ball handling, passing, decision-making in order to play in that system.
“It really helped to extend my career.”
Before becoming a pro, Walker also mentioned that his AAU coach, Dwaine Barnes, had an integral role in his development as a player. “He became my father figure and helped me out a lot,” he said.
Walker signed with the Lakestars in February and played an instrumental role in the team’s turnaround to close out last season. They were 8-32 before he played his first game on March 2. Then they went 6-6 in March and 4-4 in April to finish with an 18-42 record.
The Kansas State product scored 25 or more points six times in 2018-19, including a season-best 31 on March 17 against the Toyama Grouses. He averaged 21.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.8 steals in 17 games.
This season, Walker is averaging 15.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists (No. 7 in the league through Tuesday) and 1.0 steals. He had a season-high 27 points against the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins on Oct. 19 plus 15 rebounds and 11 assists. In the previous game, he nearly had another triple-double (13 points, 11 boards and nine assists) versus the Shimane Susanoo Magic on Oct. 16.
Walker takes pride in being recognized for his all-around skills and is considered one of the league’s top leaders. Listed as a forward, he often directs the Shiga offense like a point guard. He was at the top of his game on Saturday in the Lakestars’ 85-72 victory with 23 points, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range, and five assists.
The next day, Yokohama’s defensive adjustments helped limit Walker’s offensive contributions, and he finished with nine points while taking eight shots, a number he said wasn’t enough to get him into a rhythm.
“I have to be more consistent for my team to be successful,” the 32-year-old said on Sunday. “Because once I’m in a mode to where I’m controlling the tempo, our team plays better and we’re harder to beat. Great things happen. Guys are getting open.”
Citing back-to-back weekend games and a large slate of Wednesday games, Walker insisted that it’s a bona-fide challenge each week for B. League teams to play at a high level.
“It tests you physically and it tests you mentally, because pretty much every possession kind of counts because there’s a lot of parity,” said Walker, the 2006 MVP at the prestigious Reebok ABCD Camp in Teaneck, New Jersey, during his high school senior year.
“Any team can get beat if you don’t play the possession game right. That’s the goal just trying to find the consistency, and that’s what the better teams do: they are more consistent.”
Shiga’s struggles are directly connected to its inconsistent play, Walker said. He noted that several of the team’s defeats are the result of “us having lapses as a group and we allow teams to go on a run, and we are not in the right spot defensively as a unit.”
Walker elaborated on that point by saying, “We give up easy shots, give up offensive rebounds and things like that, but it’s an ongoing process and we want to be a better team and a playoff team, and those are the things that we have to correct. We have to get consistent in our physicality and just giving teams one shot. And I think once we do that, we’ll be on our way.”
And even though he hasn’t been immersed in Japanese culture for years, Walker displays a respect for the society’s values, including hard work.
“You have to put in the work and you have to show that you are willing to follow in order to lead as well,” he said. “At times, I do take that role, and at times I defer and listen to other people. That’s part of being a leader.”
Which is something Walker fully embraces. He relishes the chance to test his skills against other B. League players.
“As far as just talent level, there’s a lot of great players out here, a lot of great players,” Walker said. “A lot of young guys that are developing that are going to be pretty good. And all in all, from last year to this year, it’s a tough league to play in.”
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