Demetrius Walker is a college basketball player, but that's not why you'd know his name. For most of his life, Walker has been known as the great can't-miss prospect who missed, a kid who was crowned the next big thing at age 12, who got sucked up into the me-culture that pervades grassroots basketball, and who disappeared as quickly as he arrived.
All of this was chronicled in great, engaging and, yes, depressing detail by George Dohrmann in his 2010 book, "Play Their Hearts Out." It portrayed Walker's rise and fall through the self-interested tutelage of AAU upstart coach Joe Keller, who treated Walker like a father, only with questionable motivations and totally out-of-whack priorities. For example: Keller once allowed Walker to nix his coach's trip to see the birth of his child because Walker preferred he (Keller) be present for a 12-and-under AAU tournament. Walker has talked about his regret for that decision in the past, but it's not even his fault. He was 12 years old.
Last season, Walker experienced something of a rebirth. He didn't take over the game of basketball; he isn't the "next LeBron," as he was once dubbed by Sports Illustrated. Instead, he emerged as a marginal role player at New Mexico, where he scored 7.4 points in about 18 minutes per game.
Walker is back in 2012-13, and stands to get more minutes, and has been working hard in the offseason, and is talking about helping his team win, and it's all very encouraging stuff. From Dohrmann's site (bold emphasis mine):
Q. We talked about this before, but it really seems like you bought into the team concept last year for the first time. What does that mean?
A. It was about me putting myself aside and being in this program with two feet. Being happy for my teammates, being juiced about a pass or excited about plays that I was not involved in. In the past, I was happy but I was also concerned about doing my own thing. Last year, I was invested in the entire team and that was a great feeling, being here in this atmosphere and really playing for the school and for the fans and for my teammates and not for myself. Growing up it was all about me, me, me. Me before the team in everything. It took me a while to adjust to being another type of player, someone who doesn’t think of himself as any better than anybody else, just somebody focused on trying to fight to win and fight to keep playing.
[...] Q. And you are getting very little attention.
A. And that is FINE! I was a sixth man last year and people saw I could play that role but now I’ve got to find my role with the first team. If I do that, maybe people will notice. Maybe they won’t. I’m fine with whatever as long as we win.
If you've read even short passages from Dohrmann's book, you realize the above is no exaggeration. Many athletes are brought up with the idea of teamwork ingrained; it's the whole purpose of their athletic existence. It's a given. Walker was the exact opposite of that. From basically the time he realized he was really good at basketball, his AAU coach hammered home -- through just about every conceivable method -- that he was really the only thing that mattered. Teammates were jettisoned; individual rankings were obsessed over. Then, when he didn't grow, and he slipped outside the top 100 in recruiting rankings, his entire sense of his self was lost. You think that might mess you up a bit? Because I do.
Being excited for teammates and making the extra pass and working hard and investing that work in something more than yourself are what sports is all about. It took Walker a while to realize that, through minimal fault of his own. But he got there eventually, and it's thrilling to see.