Walker can get milestone win tonight at Prairie View

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2005

LORMAN &045; Shirley Gibbs met Lonnie Walker when they were freshmen on the Alcorn State campus in 1965.

They met, became friends and stayed that way until it finally dawned on both of them they might just be meant for each other. They eventually got married in 1969 after both graduated from Alcorn, and they eventually moved to Houston where Shirley Walker found work coaching softball, track and field and volleyball at the junior high and high school levels at schools in the Houston ISD.

Her husband then came back to Alcorn as assistant men’s basketball coach and head women’s coach, but Lonnie had a better idea. He handed the job over to his wife, who officially took over heading into the 1978 season.

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It’s hard to say if either of them were convinced they’d stay at Alcorn this long, but they have. After two sons have come and moved out of the house, 27 seasons, 400-plus wins, five conference championships and enough clippings and photos to blanket the walls of her tiny office, Walker is poised to hit another milestone today when her Lady Braves play at Prairie View A&M.;

A win would give her No. 450 for her career.

&uot;It’s been good,&uot; said Walker, the Bude native who came into the season ranked 33rd among NCAA’s winningest coaches. &uot;They brought me in, and I took over the team. It was a big learning experience, but it was a lot of fun. Coach Walker was the assistant men’s coach &045; you had to wear two or three different caps back then &045; and what little time he had he would help me.&uot;

Walker may have landed a high-profile job by today’s standards as a Division I head coach, but those days of playing in the old Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women were well below the radar by today’s standards.

She went to the old gym to find students to serve as assistants, and they didn’t get paid. She took walk-ons, some of whom turned out to be some of her harder-working players in those early years.

Walker won her first game as a head coach &045; a 97-74 win over Blue Mountain &045; and eventually won her first four games as her Lady Braves of 1978-79 finished 15-10 overall.

&uot;All my basketball knowledge came from Coach Walker,&uot; Walker said of her husband of 36 years. &uot;All my basketball knowledge, coaching and what not &045; it came from him, although I played the game myself. You name it, I did it. It was something new. There weren’t many teams winning. The only team winning at that time was Delta State.&uot;

The Lady Braves had their ups and downs those first five seasons, but Walker finally found a right combination in the 1983-84 season when the Lady Braves claimed the SWAC’s regular season title.

It was the first of three straight regular season crowns, and those may have been the result of what the coach found in recruiting players from areas outside of Mississippi as well as in her own backyard.

That’s when doors started to open.

&uot;After I got into it, I went to Chicago and said I wanted to be competitive,&uot; Walker said. &uot;I went to Chicago recruiting. It was my first recruiting trip. I visited a lot of schools &045; King, Marshall, Collins. I came out of there and recruited some kids out of Michigan.&uot;

The efforts paid off, and the Lady Braves won 60 games over a three-year stretch before stumbling and later picking it back up in the late 1980s. The 1990-91 season was the first of six straight seasons where Walker’s club won a regular season championship, and they claimed tournament titles in 1991 and 1992.

But back then the women’s NCAA tournament hadn’t grown to its current format, and the SWAC and other lower-tier conferences didn’t get automatic bids. The conference champ went into the open round, an at-large system where the best teams from there got invitations into the tournament.

Walker and others served on a committee to establish the automatic bid, but when Jackson was the first to do so in the open bid system and got into the tournament representing the SWAC, she was proud.

Grambling later got the first automatic bid from the conference.

&uot;Jackson State played Louisiana Tech,&uot; she said. &uot; I was sitting in the stands watching. Jackson State participated in that tournament, and I felt like that was my team. I was just glad to see someone from my conference to get in there. We kept fighting. On that Division I women’s basketball committee, we had to get things up off the ground.&uot;

Walker’s Lady Braves of this season, meanwhile, have hopes and dreams of doing the same thing, but they have to finish out the season today and Saturday at Texas Southern to prepare for next week’s conference tournament in Birmingham, Ala.

The Lady Braves (13-3, 17-7) have a chance tonight to help their coach reach a milestone, and she’ll in turn use her wisdom to keep a club that’s loaded with experience on the right track headed into the tournament.

&uot;I think it’s going to be tough, and I’ve gotten to where I do believe in myself and the players,&uot; Walker said. &uot;It’s just like when you teach a kid his first step, and this is the way I respond to my kids &045; every ball game is going to be a different ball game and every team is going to play us totally different.

&uot;We’re just going to look at Prairie View right now and not Texas Southern. I’m from the old school &045; I like to take care of that first team we’re up against.&uot;