For the love of the game
November 8, 2016
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As a young basketball player in San Diego, University of San Diego High School alumnus Luke Walton ’98 naively believed he could play in the NBA. However, when he reflects about his journey ascending toward assuming the reins as the Los Angeles Lakers head coach, he remains grateful.
“The love for the game of basketball has never left me,” Mr. Walton said. “I think that because the passion for basketball is still there for me, I’m able to put in the time and effort, and I’m willing to make a lot of different sacrifices in many aspects of my life that allow me to succeed in what I’m doing.”
The Lakers did not only hire a new head coach for this season who played for the team from 2003 to 2012, but they also hired a fellow Don who helped lead the Dons to the CIF State Championship in 1998.
“When the L.A. Lakers call, you make it happen,” Mr. Walton said.
In fact, Mr. Walton’s recent move to the Lakers now makes him the youngest active coach in the NBA.
Mr. Walton’s USDHS head coach James Tomey, who now serves as the head basketball coach at the Francis Parker Upper School, was taken aback when he first heard the news.
“I’m a little surprised that he’s a head coach this quickly, but I’m not overly surprised,” Mr. Tomey said. “He was always a couple steps ahead of everyone else when he played [basketball] in high school.”
Coming off of his coaching position with the Golden State Warriors, Mr. Walton will move back to Southern California, closer to his family and friends he remains connected to today.
“I had a great childhood, and a big part of that growing up was at Uni High and the friends that I made and the education that I got and the basketball team that I played on,” Mr. Walton said. “That’s kind of the same kind of environment and dreams that I have for my kids – that they can stay healthy and be happy in whatever they become passionate about in life.
“Hopefully, they can follow their dreams like I was able to.”
With two young children at home, Mr. Walton knows how to juggle myriad obligations. With the responsibility of coaching the Lakers resting on his shoulders, he in part credits his high school teachers for providing him with the proper foundation to handle coaching in the NBA.
“Seeing the type of influence that good teachers had on me and now being able to be a teacher, if you will, I’m trying to give back those same experiences [to my team] that I got from when I was at Uni,” Mr. Walton said.
From his USDHS teachers and coaches, Mr. Walton learned the influential power of positive role models, including current CCHS teacher and coach Mr. Chris Grazier, who served as assistant basketball coach during Mr. Walton’s USDHS basketball career.
“What I always admired about Luke is that his life allowed him to experience some amazing things,” Mr. Grazier said. “Considering him and his history, and that he’s been around the highest level of the game, he’s always made everyone he interacts with feel important, whether it’s his coaches or the janitor.”
Mr. Walton’s teammate from his USDHS basketball team, Justin Green ‘00, who played in the NFL for four years before becoming the University of Montana’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator, shared similar positive remarks about Mr. Walton.
“He was a guy that made you better on the basketball court,” Mr. Green said “He was an extreme encourager. He lead more by example than by his voice, and he was a guy that you wanted to play with and be a better teammate for.”
Mr. Green said that when he played on the same basketball team as Mr. Walton at USDHS, he was confident that Mr. Walton’s special talent for the sport would one day lead him to achieve great things.
“No question that I believed he would be this successful in his career,” Mr. Green said. “He had a coach’s mind as a player. He’s very smart and comes from a great basketball pedigree.
“Luke outworked a lot of guys and I think that’s a part of his claimed opportunity, and I don’t doubt he will outwork guys as a coach. He has moved up as fast as he has because that’s how good he is. I’m excited for his opportunity.”
From his camaraderie and lasting friendships with his high school teammates to his education at USDHS, Mr. Walton even recalls little memories from his days in the classroom.
“I remember Mr. Trotter, who taught history class, used to walk around with a ruler in his hand and pretend it was a baseball bat, and he would randomly take a swing at an imaginary baseball when he was teaching us,” Mr. Walton said.
With such a high profile job today that requires him to communicate with many different audiences on a daily basis, Mr. Walton finds it ironic that he was afraid of public speaking in high school.
However, Mrs. Lisa Ogden, a former USDHS and CCHS speech and communications teacher, helped him master the art of public speaking.
“Speech is a big part of my life now,” Mr. Walton said. “[Mrs. Ogden] had a great ability to make me feel comfortable talking in front of people.”
Although Mr. Walton may not hesitate to speak in front of crowds today, he knows his education at USDHS allowed him to take the next step in his life with confidence.
Mr. Walton was fortunate enough that his passion for the game of basketball and his talent fostered his success at USDHS, at the University of Arizona, and in the NBA.
According to research conducted by the NCAA, only 0.03 percent of high school basketball players advance into the NBA, and Mr. Walton represents one of three men in 100,000 who shatter people’s expectations.
“I learned in high school that if you’re willing to work hard and you have teachers that believe in you, then you can succeed,” Mr. Walton said. “There’s no secrets or shortcuts to becoming good at something. You have to be passionate about it and you have to be willing to put in the work.”
Mr. Walton recognized that his success in his career measurably stemmed from his foundation at USDHS, especially coming from those who had faith in him, as he said. Among Walton’s meaningful educators was his USDHS head basketball coach, Mr. Tomey.
“Luke had great talent and basketball IQ,” Tomey said. “He was very likable and very coachable. All those virtues and qualities have helped him rise in the coaching profession. I think that people identify those wonderful human qualities that he has and his ability to relate and communicate with people.”
“So, coaching was a natural progression for him.”
The work ethic and mindset Walton exhibits daily ground his career.
“I think that at that level in high school, sports to me are meant to be fun,” Mr. Walton said. “Obviously, if you get to this level, it becomes a business as well. When you’re in high school, you should have fun playing whatever sport you’re passionate about or whatever sport you have dreams of. You shouldn’t worry about trying to become a professional.
“Work hard and have fun playing the game.”
Mr. Walton also offered additional advice to Dons going through the daily grind without truly living in the moment, in which he encourages students to take a minute to reassess priorities in order to live a fulfilling life.
“Enjoy every aspect of life that high school has to offer,” Mr. Walton said. “Even if it’s just study groups, or prom, or playing with your teammates, embrace what you’re doing and try to get the most out of it.”
Four Quick Questions with Luke Walton:
Favorite teachers from Uni? Coach Tomey, Coach Grazier, Mr. Trotter, and Mrs. Ogden
Favorite memory from Uni? Winning the CIF State Championship his senior year
Favorite thing to eat for lunch at Uni? The nacho stand
Favorite place to visit back in San Diego? El Cuervo Taco Shop