Former Clark Atlanta University (CAU) point guard Anthony “AJ” Williams was awoken by a WhatsApp message request on his phone from a reporter.
Playing professionally in Australia for the Geelong Supercats, Williams was asleep at 3:27 a.m. when his phone dinged. But when he saw the topic of discussion was former Panthers men’s basketball coach Darrell Walker, he was ready to chat. Even before sunrise.
The coach and the National Basketball League (NBL) rookie point guard still keep in touch despite the time difference, and on Monday, Walker did his latest piece of coaching from afar when he flew the 500-plus miles to Atlanta in order to watch his former players walk across the stage to accept their diplomas.
Williams may not have been there in body, but Walker, current head coach of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock’s men’s basketball team, was there in his stead, in both body and spirit. Williams knows that his relationship with the man who coached him during his final two seasons at Clark Atlanta is much bigger than basketball.
“What coach Walker did for me on Monday means so much to not only myself but to my family,” Williams said, following graduation day. “That was the first thing we spoke about when he was recruiting me out of junior college — he was going to make sure all of his guys graduated.”
Finishing What They Started
All of Walker’s “guys” did just that this week as not only Williams but Austin Donaldson, Damien Davis, Tajai Johnson and Jalen Mitchell — the core of Walker’s team for two seasons that made two NCAA Division II tournament appearances and was Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) tournament champions — finished what they started.
The CAU gig was his first head coach job on the collegiate level after decades in the NBA as a player and coach. To Walker, the success he and his team had on the court might have changed the culture at Clark Atlanta, but the degrees they earned will change their lives.
“These are the guys I recruited, the guys I told their parents that I was going to get across the stage,” Walker said as he posed for pictures with former players and anyone and everyone else who asked, his impact on campus still resonating after a year away in Arkansas. “This is the group that put CAU back on the basketball map. I’m looking forward to seeing what they have planned for the rest of their lives.”
I want to make sure I continue to mentor them [his CAU players] and teach them about life. I didn’t want them to have to go back to school in their 40s like I did.
Asked what it meant to have Walker come back to town for graduation, Austin Donaldson, who transferred to CAU from Georgia State in order to play for Walker and received his degree in psychology with a minor in business, said, “It was a blessing to have him as a coach. On court, he made me a better player, and off court, he’s still helping me, making calls, connecting me with people.”
Freshly minted bachelor’s degree holder and former Panther power forward Damien Davis had similar sentiments on seeing Walker waiting with the Davis family following graduation.
“It was really important because I learned a lot from him over the years, about basketball and about being a man,” he said.
Williams echoed those sentiments.
“From our first conversation, coach Walker has been the best thing that happened to me; he’s been amazing,” he said. “[He] showed me the ropes, how to be respectful and carry myself around, even after leaving Atlanta to go coach in Arkansas, he’s still the same guy that recruited me.”
‘Knew He Would Be Here’
Walker arrived in town on the Friday afternoon before graduation and made his rounds, catching up with former Clark Atlanta colleagues and the like.
But his first priority was making sure his players — after all, they still are his players — were ready for graduation.
“These guys still call me all the time,” Walker said. “I want to make sure I continue to mentor them and teach them about life. I didn’t want them to have to go back to school in their 40s like I did.”
An All-American at the University of Arkansas during the early 1980s, Walker left school early for the NBA, was a first-round draft pick and, eventually, a champion as a member of the 1992-93 Chicago Bulls.
None of that compares to what he is feeling while taking pictures with these newly minted college graduates.
“I made sure I was going to be here for this,” Walker said. “It feels good to have watched them walk across that stage and achieve their dreams.”
Donaldson knew Walker wouldn’t have missed this for the world.
“This may sound strange, but I didn’t know for sure if he was coming to graduation, but I knew he would be here.”
Former Panthers guard Tajai Johnson, a California native who trusted his last two years of eligibility to Walker and his staff, was grateful to see his former coaches on graduation day.
“It’s a blessing, and I’m so thankful.”
Following the ceremony, Chicagoan Jalen Mitchell, who also played for Walker, might have said it best about his former coach coming back to Atlanta for graduation, “It’s cool because he kept his word, and I’m glad he’s here.”
More than 9,600 miles away, Williams agrees with those sentiments.
“I could never thank coach Walker enough, he’s been everything a young guy like myself needs, especially going into the real world, and I’ll always appreciate everything he’s done for me on and off the court.”