Dec. 19, 2011
By Amy Hughes
The holiday season is always a time for giving and thinking of others, but UCLA women's basketball is taking that sentiment to another level this week.
The Bruins will travel to Philadelphia, Pa. this week for its final two non-conference games of the season: a Tuesday evening game at Temple, followed by a Thursday afternoon game at Saint Joseph's.
This trip holds added significance, as Philadelphia is the hometown of junior Markel Walker.
"It's a big commitment for us to try to get every young lady back to their hometown, especially ones who had the courage to come across the country the way that Markel Walker has," said UCLA head coach Cori Close.
Walker missed the first seven games of the 2011-12 season while recovering from thumb surgery. She returned to the court on Dec. 13, at LSU, scoring 11 points in 25 minutes on the floor during UCLA's 58-41 loss. In her second game back, against Tennessee last Saturday, Walker added another 11 points with eight rebounds and four assists in 31 minutes off the bench.
"She has been sorely missed," said Close. "Markel is one of the smartest `basketball IQ' players I've ever coached. She sees the purpose behind what we're doing, and she really understands the `why' behind it. A lot of players will do what you ask or are disciplined or skilled, but she takes it to the next level in that she understands exactly why. That facilitation, not just of her own skill level and being able to put points on the board, but her basketball IQ for facilitating everyone else's proficiency is really huge."
"I was happy to be back," said Walker of the LSU game. "I didn't perform the way I thought I was supposed to in order to help my team. It definitely felt good to be back on the court. It's always hard to sit out and see areas on the court where you can help, so I was glad to get back out there."
As the Bruins use the 11 days between the end of finals and an abbreviated Christmas break to improve as much as they can, Walker sees opportunities for improvement everywhere.
"We have to take one game at a time, learn from it, grow, give everything we've got," said Walker. "Every time I step on the court, I try to help my teammates in any way that I can."
"Our big focus has been on how much better we can get in these 11 days, in this practice, this shootaround, this drill, this repetition," said Close. "We always say it's family, school, then basketball. Right now, you don't have school, so we're going to commit a high amount of time and focus to basketball and see how much growth we can experience as a basketball team going into conference play right after Christmas."
Walker's holiday trip home will begin when the team flies to Philadelphia on Monday, December 19. Walker grew up in Philadelphia, spending much of her time at one of the city's community centers, located two blocks away from her house.
"My mom played there, my older sister played there, cousins, family," said Walker. "It's like a tradition. It's a recreation center that I grew up with. I've been going since I could walk."
The Bruins will visit that same community center on Wednesday, the day between games, to help with a shoe drive. In partnership with Samaritan's Feet, the hope is to outfit 100 local children with a new pair of shoes.
"It's something Coach Cori thought of," said Walker of the shoe drive. "She talked to a couple of the community center people around my way and decided to do a shoe drive for the kids. I'm just happy that we are able to give our time and provide sneakers for people where I'm from."
"It's a fundamental core value for me," said Close of the motivation behind the shoe drive. "I think my top goal for young women that leave this UCLA program is that they leave givers and not takers. For me, this is an opportunity to practice that belief, to plant those seeds that it is more meaningful to give than it is to receive. It's so cliché, but it's really a challenge to fight our selfish urges and really live a life that gives more than it takes. If we can use this opportunity to make that seed go a little deeper, that's a privilege."
Walker is very aware of the impact that the community center had on her own life and hopes to continue that influence for others who follow in her footsteps.
"In the future, I want to open up a community center as my way to give back to the people that grow up in the same place I came from," she said. "It could give them an outlet and help them grow. It definitely feels amazing to be able to give back to them and have this great opportunity."
Close sees this visit as a way to give back to Walker herself.
"When we serve the people of her community, we serve her," Close said. "It's who we want to be as a program, giving back to the people around us, but it's also about investing in the people surrounding Markel and helping her facilitate her dreams of impacting kids in inner-city neighborhoods. This is really about investing in her world and in her people."