Jersey Hero

by November 11, 2013

by Habeeba Husain / @HabeebaHusain

Former St. Anthony and Seton Hall basketball star Jerry Walker says the highlight of his career didn’t occur on the court.

That implies ranking as the second best eighth grade basketball player in the nation wasn’t the highlight. Becoming the first freshman to start a varsity game for acclaimed coach Bob Hurley‘s St. Anthony Friars and maintaining the starting position for all four years wasn’t the highlight. Neither was winning the state championship.

Winning the Big East Tournament and leading the Seton Hall Pirates to NCAA Tournament appearances as far as the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 weren’t his highlights either, nor was playing professional ball for the New Jersey Nets and overseas in Spain, France, Lithuania, Sweden and Turkey.

So what does Jerry Walker consider the highlight of his career?

“It actually came in the classroom, my American Journalism class,” says the 6-7 Jersey City native.

Walker had a final exam coming up for the class taught by then professor and now dean, Tracy Gottlieb. He gathered his notes and was proactive in going over the material. When time for the in-class review came, he answered every question Professor Gottlieb asked.

“Everyone in the class was like, ‘We wanna study with you, Jerry! We wanna see your notes!'” reminisced Walker. “That was a real highlight of my career because that never happened [before]—the whole class wanted to study with me. It was pretty cool.”

That moment Walker experienced in the Seton Hall classroom is what he aims to recreate for the kids of his hometown through Team Walker, a nonprofit organization founded by him and his brother Jasper in 1996.

What originally began as a summer basketball tournament for the city’s grammar, middle and high school students during Walker’s offseasons turned into a full-time commitment after his retiring. It provides the inner-city youth a place to go, people to look up to, and resources to use.

Team Walker offers afterschool programs for students that give them access to qualified teachers, tutors, and coaches. Twelve St. Peter’s College students pursuing the education field, 10 teachers, five rec aids from the Jersey City Department of Recreation, one social worker, and other role models all serve as positive influences for the 150 students who come daily to the afterschool program.

“A lot of kids are playing what we call a catch-up game,” explained Walker, president and CEO of the organization. “But once they get caught up and the lightbulbs go off and they understand they could learn—then they’ll get more into it.”

That’s the best part of the job, according to Walker—seeing that career highlight take place in the classroom for a kid who was told he’d never learn.

Team Walker’s No. 1 mission is to educate the youth. But Walker felt a little guilty preaching education to kids when he never got that college degree himself.

So in 2003, Walker returned to Seton Hall to complete his communication major with a minor in religion. Now, he has the paper to back up his message.

With the mentoring from Team Walker, students realize they have educational futures, and some landed academic scholarships for college. Former Team Walker pupil, Tyshawn Taylor, now plays for the Brooklyn Nets.

In addition to its academic tutoring, the organization provides year-round services for some 500 kids such as, educational field trips, athletic recreation including basketball, swimming, fencing, and cheerleading, musical instruction, summer day camp, food and toy drives and community service activities.

In the summer for example, Team Walker puts on a free farmers’ market every alternate Saturday for parents and seniors. During the Thanksgiving season, the organization holds a food drive to collect donations that will be given out to Jersey City residents in need. Walker gets the kids involved too. They put together baskets with notes and then present them to the seniors of the town as a community service.

The efforts to better the local community were a tradition in the Walker family for 60 years. Walker’s grandfather, James “Pop” Curry, did much work for the Lafayette community in Jersey City—getting people jobs and exposing kids to life beyond the projects—all while taking caring of his own 16 children.

Curry was inducted into the Jersey City Hall of Fame for his social work and had a street named in his honor, James Pop Curry Drive.

“After my grandfather passed on, I’ve seen a void that wasn’t being filled,” Walker said. “So I felt obligated to [run Team Walker] because that’s the way he raised us.”

With his brother a co-founder, aunt a volunteer, mother a cheerleading coach, daughter a volleyball instructor (and surely more), Walker’s whole family followed the footsteps of Pop Curry. Two summers ago, an honor knocked on his Communipaw Ave. office door too.

In July 2011, First Lady of the state Mary Pat Christie recognized Walker as a New Jersey Hero, an initiative that celebrates New Jerseyans who give back to their communities. Photos from the ceremony can be seen in the windows outside Team Walker’s humble office.

The Team Walker staff runs administrative work from this storefront abode, about a minute’s car ride from James Pop Curry Drive. The afterschool activities take place at nearby Elementary School 22. But there’s a new building on the block.

Three-stories tall and built on values and hard work stands Team Walker’s brand new Learning Center. Construction is close to finished, and both Walker and the kids can taste it.

“They’re walking by it everyday like, ‘When’s it gonna open?!’” Walker smiled.

The building houses six classroom areas to accommodate the 150 kids who come each day, a cafeteria and kitchen, a multi-purpose room, and office space for Walker, his staff, and a conference room. It’s strictly a learning center at this point, focused on academic advancement for students, as well as job training and other resources for parents. The elementary school used currently will still house the sporting activities, even after the Learning Center opens.

Team Walker hopes to occupy the Center in three months. Due to unforeseen circumstances with building restrictions and underground problems requiring already completed projects to move around and massive cleanups respectively, there’s still about $308,000 left on the bill.

Walker and his brother originally invested their own savings from playing basketball into the organization, and later achieved nonprofit status. The organization receives funding from the city and state; however, to get the Learning Center open and running, Walker plans to hold some fundraisers. Anyone can donate through the Team Walker website to help raise the last dollars.

People ask Walker all the time why he does what he does. He’s got a degree, he could be coaching basketball for a lot of money, so why Team Walker?

“I try to do a lot of good will stuff and try to develop the kids minds because I know the kids can do it,” he said. “They absolutely can learn when given the proper tools. That’s what we’re embarking on now by doing this.”

A big part of that development relies on the 3Ds—dedication, determination and discipline—the motto at Team Walker.

“We figure if you apply those three words to your life, you’ll be successful,” Walker said.

On the court, Walker was the intangible guy, doing a lot of little things that didn’t show up on the stat sheet but made a difference in the game. He was a vocal leader, put his heart in the game, and emotionally involved himself throughout high school, college, and the pros.

Now, he brings that leadership to his nonprofit organization. Influenced by his role models grandfather James “Pop” Curry, favorite player Julius Erving, and former Georgetown coach John Thompson, Walker serves as the role model for Jersey City kids.

“If I’m walking around the neighborhood, and a kid is doing something wrong…if they see me, they’ll stop right away, ‘Oh my God, there goes Jerry!’” he said.

Walker’s the playmaker, setting up the kids for their highlight-worthy basket, and teaching them how to assist others along the way.

“It’s like a revolving circle,” Walker said.

Or maybe, a never-ending highlight reel.

Learn more about Team Walker here. Photos courtesy of Positive Impact Partners.