Chicago native and former NBA player Darrell Walker is the head coach for Clark Atlanta University men’s basketball program. The Corliss High School graduate has headed up the program for nearly two years and returns home for a relaxing weekend for the 20th Annual Chicago Football Classic on the last weekend of September.
Having played several years under NBA teams which included the New York Knicks and Washington Bullets (Wizards), he’s gone on to coach both in the WNBA and CBA leagues.
Now, he enters a new chapter in his coaching career working with Clark Athletic Director J. Lin Dawson to transition the basketball program into a winning one. The Defender had a candid conversation with Walker on his influences from then-Corliss High School coach Don Young to his mentoring style.
What makes coaching an HBCU team different from what you’ve experienced with being a part of other teams outside of the circles of Black college or universities.
Walker: When you’re talking about a Division 2 program and HBCU school, Division 2 is the highest level you could go, you as a player and a coach so of course, there’s a big gap there. Often, the gap is the talent. Basketball has its x’s and o’s and you know you still got to have players to win the game.
What is your strategy when you recruit?
Walker: I take a look at the young man. Does he have character or does he have the grades? Is he a good player? Does he fit? [I look at] what I think senior basketball players should be and I go from there. I look at my program and then I talk to the parents.
When I speak with college coaches, they seem to rely heavily on communicating with the new generation of players through social media. What’s your philosophy?
Walker: I have not ventured out into the Twitter world although my SID and other people on campus really want me to do it. I just have not made that step forward because you have to understand, I tell my players what you put out on social media—it will be out there a hundred years from now. Social media can be a good thing and it could be a really bad thing.
Do you feel that you will see the same result regardless of whether you are social media savvy or you take the traditional approach?
Walker: No, I’m still getting guys e-mailing me and coaches calling me all the time. It’s funny how people can get your phone number.
I’ve had no problem recruiting, none whatsoever.
What did you take from playing with street ballers and how did you apply it when you went away to college?
Walker: There were a lot of great players including Sonny Parker, Lloyd Betts and probably one of the greatest players to come out of Chicago—Billy Harris. I had a chance to play a lot growing up in Chicago. At the time, everybody is coming out of Chicago from Tim Hardaway, Isiah Thompson and Doc Rivers and myself. We all had some talent and they talk about our toughness.
When you talk to some of the younger players, do they understand that era.
Walker: No, they don’t and that’s just the way it is these days. There’s an age gap there. One good thing about social media is that they can google you up. That works to my benefit.
What are some of the changes that you put in place since you came on board with the basketball program.
Walker: Well just try to change the culture from a losing culture to a winning culture to a team that everybody on campus in Atlanta could be proud of. Make sure that my guys went to class every day. My guys are respectful to elders and respectful to young women. My guys didn’t get into any trouble and my guys graduate.
What are some of the components of what you found you’ve learned along the way that you can instill into players who are moving on to the next level in the next chapter in their life.
Walker: Students should have a second avenue because it’s only 400 plus jobs in the NBA. You have to have another avenue and let’s just be honest, a lot of my guys are probably not going to play in the NBA. I have to talk to my guys all the time. I send my guys a group text about people getting in trouble, and people doing time. I’m just trying to groom good young men to go out into the world and become successful.
Is there a plan that you feel could be a better place for adults who are looking to implement athletics into helping young people?
Walker: This is something that some of these kids may only have– sports. Basketball, football, baseball—it may be the only thing that may save them or get them out of that environment. What got me out was my basketball skills, and so if you take that away you really put them back out on the streets. We’re going to wind up with the wrong people, doing the wrong things because that’s all there is to do.
What are the benefits of maintaining a program like the Chicago Football Classic. Although, it’s not basketball, it’s still an outlet for students and parents to identify with HBCUs.
Sometimes, I think if I went to an HBCU school, maybe I would’ve had that HBCU feel and culture but I wound up going to the University of Arkansas, which was a good move for me to get out of Chicago and get away from everything. The Chicago Football Classic is the first introduction for parents and kids to see HBCU schools do it and it’s fun. It’s different than other schools. You get the bands and you have a togetherness that’s really unbelievable that a lot of people don’t know about.
How is this compared to what we’ve seen at PWIs (Predominately White Institutions)?
Walker: It’s just like homecoming. I went to the University of Arkansas and I used to be there for homecoming. It is just absolutely no comparison. A homecoming at an HBCU school– because people come back. You see people who have graduated 50, 60 years ago from Clark Atlanta University or HBCUs. They’re coming back in, cheering and being a part of all of the festivities that happen during homecoming. It’s something to see and I experienced last year. I basically called my wife and said, ‘Wow, maybe I missed out on this HBCU thing when I was in college but it’s unbelievable!’ It’s something that I don’t think any other colleges really experience.