Late in the game Thursday against Fast Break Prep (Tucson, Ariz.), Kyree Walker threw down an off-the-backboard self-alley-oop.
If he was making a mark for his going away bash, it was an exclamation point.
It was Hillcrest Prep’s (Phoenix) senior night, and though Walker is a junior, it might be the final high school game in Arizona for the five-star recruit.
He said he would “probably” reclassify to 2019.
“Most likely I’m posting my last game here at Hillcrest as a player,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen after AAU season’s over with, I haven’t decided yet, but probably this is my last game.”
The family hasn’t made any official decisions, but Walker has been taking extra classes and focusing on his training. He’s not just in a better physical state than he was a year ago, though.
Mentally, Walker has found a peace he did not have at the start of this season.
His mom, Barrissa Gardner, was diagnosed with cancer in May.
“Just the fact that I was trying to hoop and still be successful messed up the way I played,” Walker said. “In a huge way.”
It’s easy to forget he’s still a high school student.
In July, Gardner underwent her first surgery.
“It was a very difficult thing for a kid to go through,” she said. “I think that’s what people sometimes lose sight of with Kyree, that he’s still a kid. He’s achieved a lot and done a lot within amateur basketball, but he’s still a kid.”
The diagnosis wasn’t the only family matter plaguing Walker’s mind. Gardner’s father had died just three months prior, the second grandparent Walker had lost in the last couple years.
“I didn’t play so good and I take that on me,” Walker said. “My grandmother and my grandfather had passed away in the last two years so I’ve gone through that. So having my mom have breast cancer, it messed up me in a huge way mentally. … It showed — it showed.”
Head coach Howard Thomas said he could see it in practice and had to adjust the way he was coaching the five-star athlete.
“(There’s) pressure on him to be Kyree every time out,” Thomas said. “When he’s not Kyree, people are looking like, ‘Oh what happened, he didn’t perform last night.'”
While the stigma surrounding mental health in the NBA has diminished thanks to players such as Kevin Love, Thomas thinks there can still be shame at the high school level.
“It’s still high school kids so there’s still that immaturity there,” Thomas said. “If there’s a kid suffering through that, undiagnosed especially, high school kids can be rude.”
Luckily for Walker and his family, Gardner caught her diagnosis quickly. In November, she was told she was cancer-free. That lifted the weight off Walker’s shoulders.
“She told me everything was going to be fine. She told me just go out there and hoop, do what you can do, I’m going to be fine here, waiting for you, supporting you,” Walker said. “Hearing that, I try my best to go out there every time and just hoop, just go out there and kill.”
But the mental fight that cost Walker on the court cast a shadow of doubt upon him from the outside.
Thomas said that can affect his star player as well.
“I wish people had more of an opportunity to be around him, cause he’s such a great kid. When he reads stuff about him online, it depresses him. I’m like, ‘Hey man, you can’t let all that stuff get to you, man, you just gotta dial in and be the best version of Kyree. … It’s not always what you’re doing wrong, it’s somebody’s opinion.'”
“I’m carrying myself a different way now,” Walker said. “I print out the paper. Whoever in front of me, I’m X-ing out your name. Whoever in front of me, I’m coming. … I’m not being cocky or anything, I’m just making sure, like, disrespect me, Imma show why you don’t disrespect me.
He decommitted from Arizona State in late October to explore other options. The Sun Devils remain on his list of potential schools, but he’s not leaning strongly toward any specific program at this time.
Walker is still trying to prove he’s among the top players in his class – whether it’s 2019 or 2020 – as the season closes and AAU gets underway.
For the first time in a long time, that’s the only thing on his mind.
Gardner thinks the whole experience made her son stronger and taught him life lessons.
“I caught my cancer early, I acted quickly and I just wanted to let him know to take from me, I didn’t let it stop me, I still continued on,” Gardner said. “I didn’t try to let people know what I was going through. I just told Kyree that that’s just another test to himself and that’s just sometimes how he has to deal with life…
“I wanted him to use what we went through as strength and fuel.”