Bill Walker: Into the Wild

With his arrival at Kansas State, Bill Walker finds himself in uncharted territory. But if you’ve seen him play, you know he’s got the talent & focus to find his way.

Words :: Ben Osborne

Portraits :: Edward Sczudlo

Directly across the street from the Kansas State University athletics facilities is the school’s Hal Ross Flour Mill, which is part of the school’s Department of Grain Science and Industry. A sprawling 16-acre complex that also includes the International Grains Program Conference Center and fields dark and massive enough to send a quiver of fear down the spine of this Brooklyn-residing writer, it’s a setting that does not exactly evoke thoughts of basketball. The college game may have its share of heartland heritage in this country, but in recent decades it’s become a sport increasingly dominated by urban-bred ballers who are more comfortable in the bricks than the sticks. As such, it’s no surprise that—with all due respect to past greats Rolando Blackman and Mitch Richmond—the number of stud ballers who have come to this Midwest Manhattan is small.

So why am I out here, shivering in the dusk of late autumn, as a photographer snaps photos in the shadows of the flour mill? The reason is the recently matriculated student-athlete Bill Walker, and if he lives up to the expectations people have for him, there figure to be a lot more media members following me out here.

The Punks readers among you should know Walker by now: a 6-6, 225-pound Vince Carter-in-training who spent the last two high school seasons (and part of a third) at Cincinnati’s North College Hill HS, running alongside OJ Mayo and aggressively taking on defenders with as electrifying a style of play as prep watchers have seen in years. And, as you same fans also know, Walker is now a Wildcat.

“I would say I’m happy here,” Walker says a couple of weeks before he’s eligible to suit up in his first college game. “It’s just different when you come down from Cincinnati to Manhattan, Kansas. I’d never been here before and it’s a culture shock, but I’m a quiet guy, so I fit in around here.”

In interviews—and away from the court in general—Bill Walker is indeed a quiet, thoughtful 19-year-old, with a girlfriend back in Ohio and so resolute a focus on his NBA future that he doesn’t have time for nonsense.

Funny, then, that so much else about him is loud. For one thing, there’s the way Walker plays. Attacking the rim, eagerly chasing loose balls and hustling to stop opposing scorers, he is an impossible-to-miss force of nature whenever he’s in a game. As new K-State coach Bob Huggins says, “I’ve seen Bill play since probably eighth or ninth grade, and besides the fact that he was always really athletic, the thing that stood out about him is that he plays with a great spirit. And that is still true.”

For another, there’s all that has been written and said about Walker by the basketball-observing press. When your high school hoop career is orchestrated more like that of a professional athlete’s, these things happen. Along with his mother and sister, Walker moved to Cincy from his hometown of Huntington, WV, during the eighth grade. The move was prompted by the advice of Walker’s AAU coach and father figure, Dwaine Barnes, who also brought Mayo to Cincy and helped enroll them both at North College Hill. For two seasons, NCH was the talk of the high school basketball world, winning consecutive titles and packing gyms throughout Ohio. There was also enough discussion of the pair’s careers and future that the Cincinnati Enquirer could’ve run a serial called “OJ and Bill” and sold tons of copies.

The hype around Mayo and Walker reached a crescendo last summer, when Mayo transferred back “home” to Huntington High and Walker was ruled ineligible by LeBron’s old friends at the Ohio High School Athletic Association for having played high school games at his previous school in ’02-03 before enrolling at NCH later that same year. Unable to play at the high school he’d grown comfortable at, but possessing nearly enough credits to get his diploma, Walker considered two choices: enroll at a prep school for one year, or graduate high school early and start playing college ball ASAP.

Motivated in large part by the fact that Huggins, who Walker had always wanted to play for, had a new team that was desperate for big-time players, Walker wrapped up his high school requirements, got cleared by the NCAA and moved to the Little Apple. As we went to press, lift-off was scheduled for the first game after first semester ends—December 17 in K-State’s case.

“I was disappointed, but I couldn’t let it break me,” Walker says of the OHSAA’s ruling. “I’ll always remember all the people that came to the games there and the fans that appreciated us. I was happy that I could bring some excitement to the community. But I had to find another way, another route, and I did that.”

While Walker concedes that he would have loved to say a proper goodbye to the NCH fans and play in the McDonald’s All-American Game as a high school senior, he doesn’t hesitate in saying that college was the best move for his game. “Going to prep school and playing against the same guys again, there wouldn’t have been any point,” he reasons. “It wouldn’t have been as much fun, and I want to challenge myself. I’m really looking forward to this challenge of playing against college guys.”

Bill’s not the only one gassed. “We can’t wait,” says Huggins. “I don’t know how soon he’ll be ready to play a whole game, but we’re going to play him as much as possible.”

During a 16-year career at the University of Cincinnati that ended prior to the 2005-06 season, Huggins often attracted even more attention than OJ and Bill, with his winning ways (a 399-127 mark at Cincinnati) mitigated in some people’s opinions by his insistence on recruiting troubled kids and a DUI arrest in ’04. Basketball-wise, he earned a rep for working his players very hard, demanding aggressive play at both ends of the floor. In any event, Huggins has long been able to attract top talent, and that hasn’t changed even at Kansas State, where the quiet atmosphere is coupled with a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since ’96. But with Huggins there, the Wildcats’ lack of hoops history didn’t matter to Walker.

“I wanted to play for Bob Huggins. If he would have stayed at Cincinnati, I would have been a Bearcat,” Walker says before explaining his logic. “It’s his intensity. He wants to win, and he takes that to another level. He’s not going to let anybody slack, and he’s going to jump on everybody the same, every time. It’s not like because I’m who I am, he’s not going to say anything to me. He’s going to get on me like I’m the twelfth man. That’s what I came for. I know with his work ethic together with mine, we can do some great things.”

Without making any firm predictions, Huggins says, “I know that Bill’s going to be able to do a lot out on the court. For his whole life on the court, he’s been going to the basket and having success. But he’s worked on his shooting to the point that he is a very good shooter. He just doesn’t think that way all the time. If they’re going to play way off him and give him open shots, he’s going to need to step up and take them.”

“Everyone sees the scoring, but the thing about that is that my game isn’t just built around scoring,” says Walker, who averaged 21.7 ppg and 10.1 rpg last season at NCH. “I plan on coming in and doing a little of everything: helping the team rebound, getting assists, getting steals, being a force on the defensive end. I have goals—I want to be one of the best players in the NCAA, and I want to take this team to the Tournament. They haven’t been to the Tournament in 10 years, and I want to be part of the first group of guys that does it. I’m working toward that.”

Walker seems far too committed to winning to give K-State anything less than his best effort for as long as he’s wearing purple and white. But, even more than most top-10 prospects, he’ll be putting in his work with one eye firmly on the next level. “I’ve been looking at the NBA as where I was headed since the 10th grade,” he says. “I watch NBA games all the time, and I do it as an opponent of those guys. I still love watching them—I’m entertained and taken in by it—but at the same time, once I knew that was what I wanted to be, I watched more intently on what guys do and I started to take moves from some guys and implement that in my game.”

For Walker, no one gets copied more than VC. “I like how he evolved from being an all-out dunker to a shooter where guys had to play him honest,” Bill says. “Like Vince, I’m never going to be labeled as a jump shooter—I’m a slasher. But I do plan on adding that to my game so that it can be easier to do what I like to do.”

For the rest of this story and much more on Bill Walker, pick up SLAM 105, on newstands now.