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Saturday, May 5, 2007 - Page updated at 02:01 AM

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Garfield girls basketball coach stepping aside

Seattle Times staff reporter

Basketball legend Joyce Walker will temporarily step aside as girls coach at Garfield High School because of health issues, according to principal Ted Howard.

Walker, who said in February she is battling lung cancer, told her players Wednesday on a telephone conference call that she is taking a leave of absence.

"She said she wasn't feeling well and that she's trying to get better," senior Chanieka Williams said. "She said it's going to take a while, but she still wants to be there for the team."

The job opening was posted on the Seattle School District Web site Friday, and Howard said the position will be filled on an interim basis. He is leaving the length of Walker's absence up to her.

"Joyce is irreplaceable," he said.

Walker, 44, won state championships at Garfield as a player (1980) and coach (2005). She was an All-American at Louisiana State and a member of the Harlem Globetrotters, and is regarded by many as the best female player from the state.

"She'll come back when she can handle it," Howard said. "If Joyce is ready to come back at midseason, would we let her? You bet. That would be like Michael Jordan leaving and coming back at midseason."

Howard said he had several conversations with Walker the past few weeks about her status and that she ultimately realized she didn't have the time and energy to put into program and her players right now.

"There's more to basketball than just the season," Howard said. "Joyce is more than just a coach. She is a personal counselor for a lot of kids and that's an important piece. She can't do it right now and she wants to make sure her 'babies' are taken care of. That's what she calls them."

At first, Williams said Walker was emotional as she told her players she was stepping aside. "Then we just made her laugh," Williams said.

Walker did not return phone messages Friday.

Shirley Walker-Wroten, Joyce's sister and another storied former Garfield athlete, said it was a difficult decision to take the leave.

"She's still having a hard time dealing with it," Shirley said.

Her players are supportive.

"Everybody is excited she's taking care of herself," Howard said. "They love her and want her to get better."

Walker, who recently completed her seventh season at Garfield, told The Seattle Times she was diagnosed with lung cancer about the time basketball season began in December but went through a denial period and did not tell her family or team members for several weeks. She said her doctor told her she could wait until after the season to have three small malignant spots removed.

Walker missed several practices, was noticeably fatigued and lost nearly 20 pounds. She ultimately told her players about the illness and assured them the prognosis was good. Garfield, which lost three KingCo 4A games during the span, rallied to nearly qualify for the state tournament, falling one victory short.

Howard said he hopes an interim coach will be named within a few weeks with the understanding that the job is Walker's when she wants it back.

"That's a hard job to sell," he said.

Sandy Ringer: 206-718-1512 or sringer@seattletimes.com

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