By Roscoe Nance
Lonnie Walker was a three-sport athlete at Alcorn State who was the SWAC Freshman of the Year in basketball in 1965 and All-SWAC the following season.
But he never gave any thought to being selected for the SWAC Hall of Fame. His focus was on pushing his wife, former Alcorn State women's basketball coach Shirley Walker who won 12 conference titles and was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, to be enshrined and being a positive role model for the younger members of his extended family.
"I'm trying to set an example for them," says Walker, who was the first in his family to attend college, "trying to be someone they can be proud of."
Walker's family has even more reason to be proud of him as he will join his wife in the SWAC Hall of Fame during a ceremony Thursday night in Birmingham, Ala.
"This means a whole lot to my family," Walker, who as the oldest boy among nine siblings was required to be a family leader while his mother and father were away at work when he was growing up in Houston.
In addition to playing basketball at Alcorn, Walker played tennis and was a catcher on the baseball team. He says he was only doing what he had always done at Fidelity High School in Houston, where he played five sports also running track and quarterbacking the football team.
"I was just talented," he says. "Basketball was the sport that I prepared for. Basketball was my passion."
Walker as a player and assistant coach had a key role in Alcorn becoming a basketball power from the 1960s through the mid-1980s. He played on teams that won SWAC championships from 1966-68; the Braves had winning records in 19 of the 22 seasons that he was Davey Whitney's assistant, and they appeared in the NCAA Tournament five times and the NIT twice.
One of the highlights of Walker's playing career was the Braves' victory against Arkansas AM&N - now known as Arkansas-Pine Bluff - his freshman season. The Golden Lions were 17-0 at the time.
"That's where our success started," Walker says. "We wore their tails out."
The next season, the Braves were SWAC co-champions with Southern; they won the SWAC championship outright in 1967 and '68 and represented the conference in the NAIA Tournament in Kansas City.
Walker was ahead of his time as player. He was a 6-4 guard during an era in which athletes his size usually played in the frontcourt.
"He represented the movement that took place when the NBA went to taller guards," says Jessie Conerly, Walker's teammate at Alcorn, who grew up in Columbia, Miss. "He could handle the ball well. I said 'man, a big guy like that handling the ball.' Where I came from big guys like that had to get under the basket."
Walker and Conerly were part of a 10-player freshman class that Coach E. E. Simmons recruited in 1964. Bob Hopkins took over Alcorn's coach Walker's junior season after Simmons was killed in a car accident. Hopkins, who set the collegiate scoring record with 3,759 points while playing at Grambling State, says Walker could have been a prolific scorer in a system other than the one he employed at Alcorn. Nine Braves averaged double figures scoring.
"He was probably one of the more talented players," Hopkins says. "Being from Houston, he is a lot like the players from Philadelphia, Washington and New York City. Every time he got the ball he felt could beat his man one-on-one. I had fun with him. He could attack off the dribble as any player I ever had. He got caught in a numbers thing. He was super-talented. Any time was Lonnie time. He could do it. We short-changed him because we had so much talent."
Walker came to Alcorn on the advice of Mary White, an Alcorn graduate who was the wife of Walker's high school basketball coach Calvin White. He had never heard of Alcorn and had no idea where it was. Still he turned down scholarship offers from a number of schools, including Texas Southern, Prairie View A&M, Grambling, Wiley and Michigan State, which wanted him to play football.
Walker played high school football against Bubba Smith, who grew up in Beaumont, Texas, and went on to an All-America career at Michigan State. Walker says he never considered the offer from Michigan State because his mother didn't want him to play football. She didn't like that idea that he spent Sunday mornings in the whirlpool recovering from the pounding that he took the previous Saturday in his high school's games, and he told her he wouldn't play college football.
He says he never gave any thought to what sort of football career he might have had had he gone to Michigan State during an era when black quarterbacks were still a novelty other than at HBCUs.
"They probably would have had me at defensive back," he says. "I didn't think about getting the opportunity to play quarterback. I probably would have been better defensive because of my size."
When Walker arrived at Alcorn, he didn't tell anyone that he had been a high school quarterback, especially football coach Marino Casem, who was also director of athletics.
"No question I would have been a football player if he had known," says Walker, adding that he is not certain that Casem to this day knows about his football background.
Walker ended up on the baseball team because his high school teammate Gene Brown was a left-hander on the Braves' pitching wanted Walker to catch him. Hopkins put an end to Walker's baseball career when he became basketball coach.
Walker was head basketball coach at Alcorn 1989-93, succeeding Whitney who was fired in his second tenure as coach of the Braves. He produced the Braves' only winning season since Whitney was let go when the Braves were 15-14 in 1991-92.
"It was something special being at Alcorn," says Walker, who has been at the school as a student athlete and employee for more than 40 years, and currently is employed in student housing.