Promoting his documentary Black Magic last spring, filmmaker Dan Klores talked about including a reference to the 1960s shooting of black students by state troopers on the campus of South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, SC. The shooting itself had almost nothing to do with his film, but Klores thought the story needed to be told, and he found a place for it in his film.
“Mr. Klores said… he was looking for any reason to delve into the incident,” the New York Times wrote in April. “During his research for the film he discovered that one of the Orangeburg fatalities was a star high school basketball player who was on campus because his mother worked at the college as a maid. ‘That gave me the excuse,’ Mr. Klores said. ‘It’s a bit of a stretch, but I said, That’s fine, it’s my film.’”
If you’ve seen SLAM 123, you might have read my feature on pro basketball in England. The story focuses mostly on the Everton Tigers, the newest team in the British Basketball League, but there’s a segue that has nothing to do with the Tigers. There’s more to tell than I had space for in the magazine, which is why I’m writing this now.
So, I’d like to thank Mr. Klores for the inspiration. The following is a bit of a stretch, but that’s fine. It’s my story.
I first hear about Anthony Walker in 2005, not long after the 18-year-old honor student is murdered at a park near his home outside Liverpool. I follow a pro soccer team not far from where Anthony lived and died, and I stumble across the story while looking for soccer coverage on the local paper’s website. Beyond the almost unbelievably brutal and mindless nature of the crime, I’m struck by a random fact of Anthony’s life: He was a huge basketball fan, which is rare enough for any kid in England, let alone one in soccer-mad Liverpool (as a sign of solidarity, his friends wear basketball jerseys to his funeral). If and when I get back to England for a soccer game, I tell myself, I might have to look into this.
I’m given a better reason in the fall of ’07, when my soccer team, Everton FC, announces its sponsorship of a new basketball team in the top English hoops league (this is roughly equivalent to, say, the Pistons sponsoring a new Major League Soccer franchise in Detroit). Motivated by self-interest, I think this could make a cool feature for SLAM. I get the OK from the boss, make my plans, and in February, make the cross-Atlantic journey.
It’s a memorable trip. I meet passionate basketball people like Henry Mooney and Anthony Purcell, trying to build their sport in a place where most people know (or care) nothing about it. I get to see my soccer team play (and win) in person. But most unforgettably, I spend an afternoon with Gee Walker, Anthony’s mom, who has pretty much dedicated her own life to making sure her son’s life isn’t forgotten—and that no other mother ever goes through what she did.
I meet Gee for lunch on a typically cold, rainy afternoon in Northwest England, at a mostly empty Italian restaurant near her office at Liverpool Community College. She’s soft-spoken. She smiles a lot. We make nervous small talk. Our interview has been set up by a PR firm that handles Gee’s charity and outreach work, and we haven’t spoken directly before today. I find myself explaining who I am and the story I’m hoping to write — about her son’s murder, yes, but mostly about his life, and about basketball.
I’ve never sat across the table from the mother of a murder victim, and it’s as difficult as I’d imagined. In a way, it might be easier for her than it is for me. She talks about her son all the time; it’s how she copes, and how she keeps Anthony’s memory alive. I’m concerned that I might be forcing the basketball angle, but she makes it clear that I needn’t worry.
“Anthony played ball everywhere,” Gee says. “Everywhere he went, his ball went with him.” She talks about how the picture frames in her house don’t have any glass, because Anthony was always dribbling a ball around; over time, he cracked the glass in every picture frame she owned.
Then, she peeks around the tablecloth toward her feet. She looks embarrassed. “I’m wearing his trainers,” she says. I look down to see a pair of white and blue And1s. They were Anthony’s basketball shoes. They’re a few sizes too big for his mother’s feet, but she wears them anyway. “It’s stupid,” she laughs.
Gee Walker’s family came to England from Jamaica. She was born in Coventry and later moved to the Liverpool area, where she raised her six children. She jokes about not understanding her own kids when they talk—”Scousers,” as Liverpudlians are called, have a rapid-fire accent that can be difficult to follow, even for other English people. She has some family in the States, but her life, mostly, revolves around her children and her church. They live in Huyton, just outside Liverpool. Gee says they were the only black family in the area, “for as long as I can remember.”
Our waiter, who’s white, interrupts. “Are you Mrs. Walker?” She nods. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
He leaves, and I ask if she gets recognized a lot. She smiles, almost embarrassed, and nods her head yes. I tell her she must be used to it by now. “No,” she says. “Before, we were a quiet family.”
Her fame, within Liverpool and even thoughout the country, comes from how she’s spent the past three years: Traveling the country telling her story, which is really Anthony’s story, hoping the emotional punch of her son’s life and death will prevent similar crimes. They talk about a happy, church-going, hoop-loving kid who got good grades and wanted to be a lawyer when he got out of school; sometimes, she says, they’d practice courtroom scenes in the car, Gee playing the judge, Anthony arguing both sides of a case. He was good at it.
Gee and her daughter, Anthony’s older sister Dominique, run a foundation in Anthony’s name. “I have no free time,” Gee says. I get the impression she prefers it that way.
Midway through lunch, she asks me again who I work for — she’s not sure if she knows the name of the magazine. I tell her. “Ah,” she says. A smile of recognition. “Anthony used to read your magazine.” This brings us back to basketball. The more we talk about Anthony’s love of the game, the more memories pour out. She tells me how Anthony put on an And1-inspired dribbling routine at their church. “The kids loved it,” she says.
She tells me Anthony was a huge Kobe Bryant fan, and that she always saw a slight resemblance, in his high cheek bones and his smile. He loved And1′s Streetball show, and stayed up late to watch whatever live hoops he could find. Eventually, he badgered Gee into getting a subscription to SKY, the UK-satellite network that broadcasts NBA games.
It’s still raining as we leave lunch. I’m about to say goodbye, assuming she’s got to go back to work. She stops me before I have a chance. “Have you been to the museum?” The International Slavery Museum opened in Liverpool last August, its waterfront location on the River Mersey a reminder of how the city’s wealth was built on the shipping trade that, for many years, included human cargo bound for North America. I knew the museum had dedicated an education room in Anthony’s name, but I hadn’t had a chance to see it. It’s a short walk from the restaurant. Gee asks if I’d like to go with her.
We walk through the increasingly ugly weather, wind-whipped drizzle pelting us as we cut through the city. As we cross a street, a black man sees her, smiles and nods respectfully. Again, it’s no one she knows, just a man who recognized her and felt compelled to acknowledge her.
The museum takes up a massive floor in an old brick building on the Liverpool waterfront. Once inside, we walk by a set of double-doors with a green sign posted above: “Anthony Walker Education Centre.” The classroom sits empty for now.
We wander through the museum. It’s early afternoon, and groups of uniformed school kids are here on a field trip. Some of them sit on the floor, taking notes about the exhibitions. Gee and I step over and around them. The kids have no idea who she is.
On one end of the museum, large, flat-screen video displays take up space on opposing walls. Gee stops here. One shows a documentary-style loop of photos and film clips, examples of prejudice and racially motivated hate throughout history. The other screen profiles significant figures—Mandela, MLK, and others less well known—in the global fight for civil rights. The curators, aware of the museum’s location and eager for ways to make the display more relevant to impressionable young visitors, have included clips of Anthony in both displays. Gee nudges me to watch, and eventually, a photo of her son appears on the screen. A voice from a newscaster tells viewers about Anthony Walker, “who died last night after being struck with an axe so violently, it lodged itself in his head.”
Gee Walker stares quietly at the screen. “My son is up there with all these great men, but for the wrong reasons,” she says finally. “He should be up there for his accomplishments. It’s not right.”
We linger a few more minutes, then head slowly downstairs to the lobby. I want to spend a little more time in the museum, so I say my goodbyes. Without prompting, she grabs her purse and pulls a worn photo out of her wallet. It’s the last picture she has of Anthony. He’s posing with a basketball, wearing an Iverson throwback jersey, a wristband pulled over his elbow.
I wish I’d been able to write about him while he was alive.