There is nothing average about Jerry Walker. From his towering 6-foot-7-inch, 240-pound stature to the mammoth Big East Tournament championship ring on his left hand to his buoyant personality—everything appears larger than life. At 31, Walker has played for the Seton Hall Pirates, the New Jersey Nets and spent seven years playing basketball abroad in countries like Spain and Turkey. Walker, however, shrugs off his bragging rights.
Founder of Team Walker, an academic and enrichment program for inner-city children, he prefers instead to focus on helping youths and their families. “Every year, I have a turkey drive for needy families,” he says. For Christmas, “I’ll dress up as Santa Claus and bring gifts to kids.” Despite his efforts, Walker doesn’t seem satisfied. “I always feel I want to do more,” he says. It’s this humility that propelled him from Jersey City, N.J., to the prestigious ranks of the NBA—and back.
While the love of basketball took root early for Walker, agility on the court didn’t. In the presence of his commanding size and personality, it’s hard to believe that he was ever short. Yet he says his height posed obstacles for him as a child. “I was discouraged at first because I was one of the smaller players—a lot of the other kids were taller than me,” he says. “I couldn’t really play.” Growing up in an impoverished neighborhood wasn’t conducive to big-time basketball dreams either. Attempting to shield her son from the perils of inner-city life, Walker’s mother was strict. “I was the kid who couldn’t play out on the street,” Walker says. “I would have to go inside early.”
Despite initial barriers, Walker gained recognition on the court at an early age. “By the end of sixth grade, I was starting to get my coordination,” he says. “By seventh grade, I was really good.” It was no wonder. At 12, Walker sprouted to 6 feet 2 inches. Suddenly, his natural talents flourished.
The following year, he enrolled in St. Anthony High School, becoming the first freshman ever to start on a varsity team, and was coached by the legendary Bob Hurley. And a few years later, Walker was playing forward for Seton Hall, where “he brought the team to the NCAA Final Eight on one occasion,” recalls Philip McGee, a member of the St. Anthony board of governors. But that was just the beginning of Walker’s basketball career.
Having dreamed of playing for the NBA, he joined the New Jersey Nets in 1993. His stint with the Nets was brief, and within a year Walker found himself overseas, playing pro ball for a handful of European teams. His sights, however, were straying from basketball.
During the off-seasons of his European tour, he began to develop Team Walker. The idea took off. Since its inception in 1997, Team Walker has recruited more than 500 children ranging in age from 8 to 18. The nonprofit organization runs on a shoestring budget, relying on donations, government grants and Seton Hall alumni contributions to make it work. Headquartered at PS 22 in Jersey City, Team Walker teaches children “life skills”—such as preventing alcoholism and teen pregnancy—and provides them an outlet to play sports like track and field, football and, of course, basketball.
For Walker, the program’s most important function is providing constructive alternatives to the negative influences of the inner city. “My high school coach, Bob Hurley, used to go around my neighborhood,” remembers Walker, “and you never wanted him to see you just hanging around. This helped keep me out of trouble, and now I’m trying to do the same and help keep these kids out of trouble. They’ll say, ‘Oh man, here comes Jerry!’ They’ll try to put out the cigarette before I get to them, because they know I won’t accept that.”
Walker also won’t accept disregarding the importance of an education. “In the inner city, the smart kids are the ones who are picked on,” he says. “But they are the ones who are going to make it. I’m trying to teach them that it’s cool to be smart.” Walker’s “three Ds”—dedication, determination and discipline—are the mantra of the program. “I tell the kids that if they apply these to their lives, they’ll be successful.” The ultimate reward that makes his efforts worthwhile, he says, is a college-bound inner-city child.
“The program pays off when I see some of these kids going to college, because in my neighborhood going to college is considered a success story.” But Walker admits that the children aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program. “Working with kids keeps me young,” he says. “I always know the latest dance moves.”
Community activism runs in the Walker bloodline. “It’s as if Jerry is genetically predisposed to helping people,” McGee says. Walker’s grandfather, James “Pop” Curry, who helped get people to vote and formulated the Martin Luther King parade in Jersey City, is an inductee into the city’s Hall of Fame. Walker says Curry is his most influential role model. “He was a real driving force in the city,” he says. “He was a voice.”
Walker may be an activist, but he hasn’t forgotten about life on the court. The former NBA player has aspirations of getting back on the court as a college basketball coach. It’s apparent that basketball has given Walker a drive, but it hasn’t given him an ego. “I live in West Orange now, but I’m still the same guy from Jersey City,” he says.
Jennifer Gonzalez is a journalism and media studies major at Rutgers-Newark.