Fourteen years ago, M.J. Walker was a little kid watching the player who would become his basketball idol.
“I remember watching LeBron James in the dunk contest,” Walker recalled. “I remember we had that old TV with the big back, just watching LeBron in awe.”
Fast forward to Thursday, when M.J. (short for Michael Jr.) Walker got his chance in the spotlight.
He experienced a dream come true. In front of a packed gym at Jonesboro (Ga.) High School, Walker received his honorary jersey with the McDonald’s Hometown Heroes presented by American Family Insurance in town.
In addition to extended family, friends and schoolmates, Walker was joined by his parents, Jackie and James, as well as his older sister, Amoni.
The young man who wears No. 23 in honor of James and the great Michael Jordan is one of just 24 high school seniors who will play in the prestigious game.
“It just brought this dream into reality,” Walker said. “When I got selected, it felt great. But today, having not just my family behind me but having the whole school here, I could feel the emotions. I could really feel the honor of being selected.”
The 6-foot-5 shooting guard recently surpassed 2,000 points for his career and is in the middle of a season in which he is averaging more than 28 points per game. He has played in three straight state championship games for the Cardinals, winning in his freshman and sophomore years. Jonesboro is again one of the better teams in Class 6A and is among the favorites to make it to the state championship game.
And with the 40th annual McDonald’s All-American Game scheduled for March 29 at Chicago’s United Center, Walker will be joined by his teammates in the Windy City.
“My dad was talking to a lot of representatives to raise money for my teammates to go to Chicago with me,” Walker said. “They helped get me in the position I’m in now. It means a lot to know that they’ll be there to support me.”
RELATED: More McDonald’s Hometown Heroes
Walker is still undecided on where he will go to college. He has taken one official visit, to Florida State, but has also been offered scholarships by 10 schools that include Kansas, UCLA and Maryland.
“It’s still up in the air right now,” he said. “After the season is over, I’m going to start locking in on it, taking my last couple of visits and making my decision soon.
“In addition to wanting to feel comfortable with the program and the coaches, I definitely need to make sure I’m in a stable place academically,” Walker added. “I want to be at a place where I have a great feeling with my teammates, can create a bond with them and adapt to each other’s playing style.”
According to the 247Sports Composite, the five-star recruit Walker is ranked as the No. 4 shooting guard and the No. 22 player overall in the class of 2017.
Like his favorite basketball player, Walker was also once a top football recruit. As a free safety and a wide receiver in his sophomore year, he was all-region. He fielded football scholarship offers from the likes of Clemson, Miami and Michigan, among others.
Still, basketball seemed like the best path.
“I played both coming up and I definitely was a competitor in football, but it got a point where injuries were a separator in both,” he said. “I kept getting hurt in football, and I had to make a decision. I love football, but my passion was for basketball.”
Looks like he made a wise choice.
Walker will play on the West team. Fellow Georgia stars Collin Sexton from Pebblebrook (Mableton, Ga.) and Wendell Carter from Atlanta’s Pace Academy will be playing for the East team.
Having also played for the team that won a gold medal at the 2016 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in July in Valdivia, Chile, Walker is embracing the familiarity he will have with his fellow McDonald’s All-Americans.
“You know a lot of these guys, you play a lot of them from Team USA, from a couple of camps,” he said. “It makes it fun.”