What comes to mind when you hear the name Samaki Walker? Maybe it’s his time on the Lakers during the Shaq/Kobe glory years. Or perhaps it is the fact that the former Lousiville star is part of what is considered arguably the greatest Draft class in history: the 1996 crew that gave us Kobe, AI, Nash and Jesus Shuttlesworth (and one of SLAM’s most-famous covers). For others, it’s the suit the No. 9 overall pick wore on Draft night: an all-white number with matching white fedora. I mentioned the suit to Samaki and he laughs heartily and says, “If I’d known that suit would have stood the test of time, I would have kept it!”
But what Samaki Walker should be known for—why his voice is critical at this precarious juncture in US history—is that he was the first NBA veteran to ever suit up for a team in Syria. In fact, Walker went back and played twice for the Ja Alaa team in Aleppo: first in 2007-08 and then again in 2012. That means he was there when the Middle Eastern nation was stable—albeit under highly repressive conditions—under the dictatorship of Bashar Assad and then just a few short years later as the country began to unravel due to civil war. We are seeing Republican politicians—and more than a few Democrats—say that they want to keep Syrian refugees, fleeing persecution and war, out of the United States. But Samaki Walker brings a different kind of perspective: one borne of bearing witness. “They are an amazing people,” he said to me. “There is so much ignorance and fear in this country about who Syrians are as if they all hate us or are all ISIS. I met all kinds of people. All religions. Even the ones who did not like what the United States was doing in the region, knew the difference between the government and the people. And do you know what? They love basketball. I saw it with my own eyes: basketball without borders is real.”
Samaki Walker also told me a story about an elderly man who did not speak a word of English but would meet him regularly with hot tea, just to make sure he knew that he was among friends. Walker, who today runs a basketball skills organization in Los Angeles, has all kinds of mementos from his time in Syria. Given the misinformation, the bigotry and the hatred that is spinning about the country one would think he would be under siege with interview requests. The opposite is the case. “I don’t know why no one wants to hear about the time I was there. It’s a mystery to me. I want to talk about it.”
My own theory is rooted in the latest polls that show a majority of the country—54 percent—want to move away from its founding principles and not accept the tired, poor, huddled masses looking for safe harbor. The last thing sports media wants to do is have a guest who will speak with unimpeachable credentials about what life was like in Syria before and at the start of the unbearably violent Civil War in which it is currently engulfed.
It is a shame. Just as basketball was its own language in Aleppo, Syria, allowing Samaki Walker to connect with people in a country where he spoke only scraps of the language, this game without borders could act in a similar fashion here at home. It could be a platform where Walker educates this country about irrational fear and humanizes refugees currently living in a state of demonization. He is former NBA player with no political agenda other than telling the truth as he saw it: a truth that could break through this climate of suffocating fear.
“It’s important to talk about and I’m here to do it,” Walker says. No doubt. I also believe we have a country where at least a large section of people are willing to listen. The question is whether we have a media that has the courage to contact Samaki Walker and ask the questions.