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Wednesday, March 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
High School Sports
By Sandy Ringer
She arrived with gold hair, gold braces and a golden arm.
"I was kind of scared," Malia O'Neal recalls of the first impression.
But Joyce Walker has proven to have the golden touch with the Garfield girls basketball program.
The third-ranked Bulldogs (21-2) have returned to the prominence they enjoyed when Walker wore the purple and white from 1977 to 1980 and throughout the decade that followed. They are among the favorites to win the Class 4A state championship this week at the Tacoma Dome after placing third last season.
It has not been the easiest of journeys, Walker admits. When she first arrived at Garfield four years ago, the program was mired in mediocrity. The team was 10-10 the season before and just 5-15 in 1998-99. There was a lack of discipline and desire.
Walker played the game with passion and coaches the same way. She expected no less from her girls. She had fire in her eyes and fury in her voice.
It drove some players away.
"It wasn't real pretty the first couple of years," said Walker, considered by many the best female player from the state. "I'm pretty aggressive by nature and I had to learn how to tone some things down. ... I wanted to pass on the love of the game to them and I didn't know how to translate that. It blew up in my face at first."
"I didn't have a whole lot of tact at the time," Walker said. "I remember one player who did the best she could, but I wanted her to do more. I did the Pat Summit thing, which was the absolute worst thing to do. She quit and it dawned on me that I had harmed this kid."
Walker went to the player and asked what she could do to make things right.
"She told me, 'Coach, you don't need to yell at me all the time,' " she said. "I learned something."
Walker apologized to the girl one-on-one and in front of the team. The player returned to finish the season, but did not turn out the following year.
Watch Walker coach and you'll notice she still yells. A lot. But it's softened with more caring and cheering.
"She's definitely mellowed," said O'Neal, a junior guard many believe is in the mold of her mentor. "When she first came, she wanted everyone to have that same amount of passion for the game that she did, and not everyone is going to have that. Some people just play for fun. She understands that now."
"I would say that because she plays with the same kind of love for the game and she never takes a possession off," she said. "She never used to let me work on her jump shot and I'd tell her, 'You've got the girl with the golden arm here and you won't let me work with you?' If Malia gets a jump shot, she'll be writing her own records."
But records aren't for everyone, Walker has realized. While she is still demanding, her expectations are more realistic. She even relaxes once in a while.
"Now, she actually sits down on the bench," O'Neal said.
The coach now has a bond with her players, according to O'Neal, and they know she cares about them. Before most big games this season, Walker catered a special lunch for her players, and she or her mom often cooked the meal. Her specialties are barbecue ribs or chicken and macaroni and cheese. She said its her way of saying thank you for all her players' hard work, plus allows her to make sure they get a nutritious meal.
At practices, though, Walker still hungers for perfection. During one recent session, the entire team had to run a set of lines for each turnover.
"It wasn't just the offense that had to run," O'Neal said. "The defense had to run, too, and they're the ones that caused the turnover."
Walker frequently takes the court and gives a quick lesson in shooting. And, yes, she can still play.
"She kills us at practice," O'Neal said.
There is a sense of urgency in every drill. That is Walker's way.
"She is such high energy," sophomore Samantha Tinned said.
It was an energy unmatched by other girls when Walker played at Garfield. She led the Bulldogs to second place at state her freshman year, and they won it all when she was a senior in 1980. Walker averaged 38 points during her Class 4A tournament title run, one of her eight tournament records that stand 24 years later. She became a two-time All-American at Louisiana State and, with no professional league in the United States at the time, went on to play in Italy and became the second female to suit up with the Harlem Globetrotters.
So, when Walker talks, her players listen.
"We know she knows what she's talking about," Tinned said. "She's been there."
And not just about basketball. Walker, an intervention specialist at Garfield, is open about her past battles with drugs and alcohol, too. Her induction into the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association Hall of Fame on April 21 coincides with her 14th anniversary of sobriety.
Walker travels around the country making motivational speeches. Her players get the spiel, too.
"She talks to me about it all the time," Tinned said.
Walker has instilled a sense of discipline in the program that is obvious to others.
"She's given them more structure than they had in the past," Redmond coach Pat Bangasser said. "She's got her girls playing real hard."
More discipline has meant more victories for the Bulldogs. They won 14 games Walker's first year, 18 the next and 22 last season. The boys basketball team, which has won a record 11 state titles was once the main attraction at Garfield, but now the girls team shares the spotlight.
"We were always in the shadow of it (the boys program)," O'Neal said. "Not any more. At first maybe five cheerleaders came to our game. Now it's like the whole cheer squad is there."
And Walker has given Garfield fans plenty to cheer about.
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