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Hoops Godfather Helps Chicago Star Escape The 'Hood

By Justin Breen | March 28, 2016 6:14am | Updated on March 28, 2016 6:31am
 Darien Walker and Valparaiso are heading to the NIT's Final Four in New York City.
Darien Walker and Valparaiso are heading to the NIT's Final Four in New York City.
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Valparaiso University Athletics

CHICAGO — Before, and likely after, Darien Walker steps onto the court at the world's most famous arena, he'll call David Johnson.

It's been that way for years since Johnson first took Walker under his wing while Walker was a seventh-grader — and his plan was to use basketball to escape Englewood.

Johnson, whose son Dabriawn played on the same Lindblom Park courts as Walker, saw his former self in Walker — smart, athletic, a boy with dreams who needed family structure.

And so Johnson would take Walker to games with Dabriawn when they became AAU teammates, and he would go to Walker's games or keep track of them online.

First those tilts came at Simeon, then a pair of junior colleges, and now at Valparaiso University, which plays Tuesday in the National Invitation Tournament's Final Four in Madison Square Garden.

 Darien Walker (l.) as a guard at Valparaiso University and (far right) with David Johnson and Johnson's son, Dabriawn, following their eighth-grade graduation.
Darien Walker (l.) as a guard at Valparaiso University and (far right) with David Johnson and Johnson's son, Dabriawn, following their eighth-grade graduation.
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Getty Images (l.); Brenda Johnson

Every day, Walker said he calls Johnson at least once — to talk hoops and life, and how he's a few months away from earning a bachelor's degree and so much closer to getting that ticket out of Englewood.

"One of the lucky ones," Johnson said. "I told him many years ago that we're going to start this journey together. He's proof when I'm teaching other kids to never give up."

Said Walker, a senior Crusaders guard: "He's my godfather. He told me that there are bigger and better things out in the world to go witness, but that it's not always an easy route to get there."

Basketball Was His Way Out

Ninety percent of Simeon's students are "economically disadvantaged," but Wolverines coach Robert Smith said Walker had even less things than most of the school's student body.

"He's a kid that comes from a different kind of background, so he had to work for all he got," said Smith, who said Walker had to take a CTA bus to school all four years and his immediate family rarely went to his games.

"I think that gave him a chip on his shoulder, just trying to prove to people how good he was and get himself out of that community and bettering himself. We talked a lot about that," Smith said.

Walker's objective even as a boy was to utilize his hoops skills to ink a college scholarship, get a degree and start a career. He said the reality many South Side teens face is that to get out of the hood, "it would be harder for someone who's all about academics than someone who's real talented with basketball."

Johnson first noticed Walker at Lindblom's outdoor courts, a middle-schooler with a "high-energy motor." Walker started tagging along with Dabriawn, and when they needed rides to the park, games or anywhere else, Johnson would play chauffeur. He also trained his son and Walker with basketball drills and workouts.

"I had never done training before; I was just trying to support the kids," Johnson said.

Johnson understood the odds Walker would need to overcome to go to college. He grew up in housing projects on the West Side but managed to graduate from and play basketball at Lane Tech. He attended one year of college, but dropped out because of the birth of his first child.

"Coming from the projects, I don't think you can get lower than that," said Johnson, a long-time truck driver. "I was one of the fortunate ones to have a good foundation in my education. I realized a lot of things other kids didn't know."

Johnson made sure Walker never gave up on his Division I dream, even as he bounced around a pair of junior colleges — first Arizona Western and then John A. Logan in Downstate Illinois.

He transferred to Valparaiso in 2014 and made an immediate impact as the Crusaders reached the 2015 NCAA tournament. This year, after a regular-season conference title, they advanced to the NIT's Final Four and meet Brigham Young on Tuesday.

"Having him as a part of our program for the last two years has been really special," Valparaiso assistant coach Roger Powell Jr. said of Walker, who's averaging 8 points and 3.7 rebounds a game this season. "His toughness, positive attitude and desire to win or all characteristics that he got from growing up in Chicago."

When he's back in Chicago, Walker frequently stays at Johnson's home. While he's away, the phone calls — to Johnson or his wife, Brenda — are part of Walker's daily routine. He said both Johnsons will certainly be at Valparaiso in May when Walker graduates with a degree in communications.

"It's a blessing having Dave in my life," Walker said. "He's really guided me through this whole thing."

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