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Friday March 2, 2012Defying the Odds: Fireplug Point Guard Walker Ready for O'Dome Farewell as Gators Face Top-Ranked Kentucky

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --The basketball factory at Christ the King in Brooklyn turned out the likes of Khalid Reeves, Lamar Odom, Speedy Claxton, Jayson Williams and Derrick Phelps on its way to multiple Big Apple city championships, so it only made sense that Billy Donovan listened when the CK coach called to recommend one of his players. 

 

The coach gushed about the prospect that everything Donovan was looking for. Fine, Donovan said. Send him down for a visit. 

 

It was at basketball camp, summer 2006, that Erving Walker, all 5-foot-3 of him, was introduced to the Gators coach. Donovan shook the kid’s hand -- “He looked like he was 10 years old.” -- and asked a member of the staff to give Walker a tour of the facility. 

 

Then Donovan went to his office and called a certain New York coach.

 

“You’re kidding me, right?” he said. 

 

Well, eventually Donovan saw Walker play. Then saw him play again. And again. 

 

It wasn’t long before Donovan wanted Walker as much as Walker wanted Florida, and just like that he committed to the Gators. 

 

And just like that it’s all coming to end more than 1,700 points and 500 assists later. 

 

Walker, the 5-8 fireplug point guard, will be honored Sunday before playing the final home of game of a stellar career when the 16th-ranked Gators (22-8, 10-5) host No. 1-ranked Kentucky (29-1, 15-0) as a sold-out crowd at the O’Connell Center says goodbye to the only senior on the squad. Walker will take the court for his 138th game in a UF uniform -- he’s never missed one -- as the fourth all-time scorer in school history (1,707 points), second all-time 3-point-maker (276) and first in assists (519). He's not yet, either. 

 

“He’s had an amazing career,” junior forward Erik Murphy said. 

 

At worst, he has three more games to go. 

 

“When you’re in the middle of it, it seems like it’s going slower,” said the soft-spoken Walker, who will be joined on the O’Dome floor by his parents, Kim and Robert Walker. “But now that it’s basically over, it seems like it’s gone by fast.”

 

His mother agreed. 

 

Seems like yesterday that Robert Walker took his 3-year-old son to the gym for the first time and came home gushing about how good tiny Erv was at basketball. The ball couldn't have been much bigger than he was. 

 

“I’d be like, ‘Yeah, right.’ That’s just his daddy exaggerating,” Kim Walker said Friday. “But then I went to see the two shoot some and I was like, ‘Oh, how cute. He made a little basket.’ And Erv would get so excited.”

 

He was hooked on the game. Pretty soon, so was his mother, who actually was the coach for the first organized game Walker ever played. He was five. His team lost 8-4 and, yes, Walker scored all four points. 

 

“I cried after the game,” Walker said. 

 

Kim vividly recalls those first tears, but also knows this last home game will bring some of her own. She’s not only Walker’s mother, but his best friend. 

 

“He’s definitely a mama’s boy,” Murphy said. 

 

Not a day goes by when Walker and his mother don’t talk, so high noon Sunday -- against the high-flying Wildcats, no less -- figures to be an emotional one. Maybe not so much for the stoic Walker, but certainly for his BFF/MOM. 

 

“Oh, don’t make me think about that,” she said. “I’m just so proud of him. One chapter is about to close, but another is about to open.”

 

The ending has yet to be written, but Walker’s basketball story should give every player who ever thought he or she was too small to play the game a reason to believe. For that determination and want-to, Walker credits his mother. 

 

“She was the one who always told me to work hard, to be myself and to always stay composed. And she always knew what I was capable of doing. She encouraged me,” Walker said. “Whenever I’m down, she knows exactly what to say.”

 

Forever, Walker has been the smallest body out there, but always displayed a heart that belied the rest of him. That combination wore on his mother until she finally figured it out. 

 

Many times over the years, Kim watched Erv get knocked around by bigger players, especially when his skills began to flash in AAU and high school competition. Oftentimes, when her boy went spilling across the gym floor, she went for the gym door.

 

“I’d need to take a few minutes, take a few deep breaths,” Kim Walker said. “But he’d always bounce up like nothing ever happened.”

 

Walker committed to Florida the summer before his junior year, but when word began to spread in basketball circles about the dynamite NYC mighty-mite, more schools came calling. Villanova and St. John’s were especially aggressive. 

 

A month into his junior season, Walker got a call from Donovan. The Gators were going to sign another hot-shot point guard prospect in Jai Lucas, a McDonald’s All-American, who became a necessity as a late signee when Taurean Green departed a year early. Donovan explained Walker’s scholarship offer was still there, but that the program needed another point guard after Green’s early departure. 

 

Walker’s response: “Coach, wherever I go there’s going to be competition. I still want to come. Do you still want me?” 

 

The answer was a resounding “yes.” 

 

“Coach Donovan never made me any promises. He just told me to come in and work hard. I liked that,” Walker said. “There were some coaches who would tell you anything to get you to their school, but you knew when you got there it was going to be a whole different ballgame. Everything Coach Donovan told me was pretty much genuine.” 

 

Kim Walker had some parting words when she dropped her son off in Gainesville in 2009. 

 

“He’s yours now, too,” she said. 

 

Donovan has done a nice job raising his playmaker. How many 5-8 guards go to major Division I programs and leave as the No. 4 scorer and all-time assists leader? There’s been incredible highs and a few lows -- Walker said the zenith of his career to date was reaching the Elite Eight; the nadir losing in the Elite Eight -- but nothing he’d do differently. 

 

 “There’s no shot I regret taking,” Walker said.

 

Donovan was told of that statement. 

 

“I probably have a few.” 

 

Walker and Donovan have had many heart to hearts over their four years together. Even last week, Donovan was criticizing Walker for his on-court demeanor -- “a care-freeness” -- and explaining again how point guards need to be more animated and more vocal to be leaders.

 

But that’s never been Walker, and it won’t be on Sunday, either. 

 

That’s OK. 

 

“I love his fearless attitude,” Donovan said. “He’s had an incredible career here. Far beyond any expectation I ever had for him.”

 

More than anyone ever had for him. 

 

Except his mother. 

 

“She’s seen her little baby grow up,” Walker said. 

 

Seen him excel. And not just as a basketball player. 

 

“Team play. Passion. Motivation. We’ve always talked about those things, but we’ve talked about growing up and integrity and standing tall through adversity,” Kim Walker said. “Bring that approach to life, I tell him, like he brings it to the court.” 

 

At home, he gets to do it one last time. 

 

 

GATORS GAMEBOX

No. 16 Florida vs. No. 1 Kentucky     

Tip-off: Sunday, noon (O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.) 

Records: Florida 22-8, 10-5; Kentucky 29-1, 15-0          

TV: CBS (w/Marv Albert and Steve Kerr) 

Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 220/XM 199

Game notes: Florida notes; Kentucky notes 

Need to know: The regular-season finale for both teams will be a rematch of the the Feb. 7 game at Lexington won by the Wildcats 78-58. Kentucky is trying to become the first Southeastern Conference team to go 16-0 in league play since the Wildcats did it in 2003. ... The Gators have lost two straight, playing dreadfully in a 76-62 loss last weekend at lowly Georgia and coming up short in a far better effort Tuesday with a 77-67 loss at Vanderbilt. ... UF needs to win to clinch the No. 2 overall seed in next week’s SEC Tournament at New Orleans, while a loss would drop the Gators to the No. 4 seed. ... The game will mark just the third time in Florida basketball history the Gators have faced a No. 1-ranked opponent on their home floor, and the first time at the O’Connell Center. Not surprisingly, the other two times were against Kentucky, but not since 1978 (lost 86-67) and before that in 1954 (lost 97-55). ... The Wildcats have won 21 straight dating to a one-point loss (on a 3-pointer shot at the buzzer) at Indiana on Dec. 10. Their last outing was a 30-point blowout of the Georgia team that held Florida to its worst shooting performance from the 3-point line (5-for-23) this season. ... UF is led by junior G Kenny Boynton (17.1 ppg), freshman G Bradley Beal (14.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and senior PG Erving Walker (12.6 ppg, 4.7 apg), who will be playing the final home game of his stellar career. The Gators, however, will need big-time efforts from C Patric Young (10.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and F Erik Murphy (9.9 ppg, 4.1 apg) in the frontcourt -- especially boxing out -- to stand any chance against Kentucky’s long and athletic big men. ... The Wildcats are led by 6-10 freshman C Anthony Davis (14.1 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.7 bpg), who is a favorite for NCAA Player of the Year honors and be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft in June. ... Freshman F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (12 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and sophomore F Terrance Jones (12.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg) give the Wildcats two more starters averaging more rebounds than UF’s best on the boards. ... G Doron Lamb (13.5 ppg) killed the Gators from the outside in the first meeting. ... Kentucky ranks first in the league in nine of 16 major statistical categories (including scoring, field-goal percentage and defensive field-goal percentage) and second in three others. 

 

 

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