Lonnie Walker (above) is trying to establish his legacy as the best ever to come out of Reading HS. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2016-17 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
Caked with perspiration as he took a few well-deserved moments to catch his breath — just a few minutes after wowing a sizable number of spectators on a cozy court at West Chester University — Lonnie Walker promptly reverted to Lonnie Walker.
Watch the 6-foot-5 Walker on the floor launching deep jumpers or soaring well above the rim to procure a rebound or displaying his creative gene while tormenting a wannabe defender with a dazzling move off the bounce and a variety of adjectives will follow.
Chat with him a few minutes later and the aforementioned values that Reading High’s talented youngster espouses are in play and as solid as concrete. Maybe even stronger.
Even as Walker talks about what’s approaching on a not-so-distant horizon for a Red Knights basketball program that last season reached the semifinals of the PIAA’s Class AAAA playoffs before falling to Allderdice at Chambersburg High School’s oven-tight and rock-concert-loud Field House, his approach is unwavering and matter-of-fact.
Walker remains upbeat despite the departures of such standouts as Khary Mauras, Damon Stern, Oenis Medina and Keyon McCutchen because he knows how diligently the returning Red Knights are preparing for what comes after a splendid 28-4 campaign highlighted by their deep state run as well as Berks County and District 3-AAAA titles.
Of course, the arrival of 6-6 Tyrone Nesby from Berks Catholic and 5-9 Justin Hummel from Fleetwood, has plenty to do with Walker’s mindset.
“I’ll approach it how I did last year, just take it day by day,” admitted Walker, who landed on Pennsylvania’s Class AAAA all-state team (first team) after averaging nearly 17 points per outing. “Be gracious, confident and humble.
“And not only that, we got a couple great players, Tyrone Nesby and we got Justin Hummel, who can shoot the ball. Surrounded myself with a lot of good shooters, so missing Keyon, Khary and Damon, it hurt but we gained a ton of good players.
“I’m not worried. I’m not anxious,” added Walker, who spent this particular day playing alongside his teammates at West Chester’s Big 64 preseason event. “I know what this team can do. I know what we can do at our full potential and I feel like we can do a lot of things. So, just going day by day, be gracious.
“I feel as though we’re working harder than anyone in the country. We’re working. We’ve got a good school. We’re lifting from 3 to 4, from 4 to 5:30 we’re doing skill work and from 5:30 to 7 we’re going to yoga as a whole team.
“So we’re all together.”
Standard stuff from Walker, just one of Reading’s guys even if he’s busy trying to figure whether he wants to attend Arizona, Kentucky, Miami, Syracuse or Villanova — the final five schools on a high-profile list, each of which wants him to choose them.
Maybe it’ll happen before his final high school season. Then again, maybe not.
Walker is planning to visit all five before arriving at a difficult decision.
“My dad has told me not to rush it,” Walker said of his father, Lonnie III.
So, in the meantime, Walker works.
In addition to Nesby (14.8 ppg, 65 treys) and Hummel (15.0 ppg, 44 treys) — adding Walker’s 43 treys, those three combined last season for 152 3-pointers — Rick Perez’s club also returns energetic 6-1 senior Isiah Cook (7.5 ppg).
Varsity veterans who could figure into Reading’s eventual rotation include 6-0 junior Xavier Starks (1.4 ppg), 5-10 junior Hector Dixon (1.8 ppg), 6-2 junior Khari Whitfield (2.3 ppg) and a number of others. Youngster Daniel Colter, a 6-4 soph, also could factor.
Reading coach Rick Perez (above) and his Knights have their sights set high in 2016-17. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“For us, we have been blessed because we have such a big support system,” said Perez (102-43), who is about to enter his sixth season at the Reading helm. “A lot of those are from our youth program. They are constantly putting these young men in position to be successful in our program.
“What I see happening the next year is the turnover is not going to be such an issue because you’ll see our next group of young men ready to fill in at those positions. We’re lucky,” Perez continued. “We truly have a program.”
A program — Reading has reached only one state final, behind the great Stu Jackson and head coach Jim Gano in 1973, losing to General Braddock — that figures to contend for PIAA supremacy in the state’s new 6A classification.
Walker, obviously, will have something to do with how Reading fares.
“We’re lucky because he’s our hardest worker,” Perez said. “If he was our best player and not our hardest worker, I’d be very concerned for what our future looks like.
“But he’s our best player and he’s our hardest worker, so that in itself is what our program is about. He’s instilling things that his legacy will forever impact, if the guys who get to observe him work the way that he does. He’s a great young man.
“He’s a great starting point for us, but he is a key component along with our entire support system,” Perez added.
All of them — Walker, Cook, Nesby, Hummel, Perez and the rest of the Red Knights — will face another ridiculously difficult schedule meant to test Reading High constantly while preparing everyone for what they hope is a lengthy March ride.
Tests against Coatesville, Imhotep Charter, Chester, Carlisle, Pottsville, McCaskey, Largo (Md.) and Boys’ Latin (Md.) supplement a nonleague slate that also includes the York Tournament (Williamsport, South Philadelphia and the host Bearcats) and Reading’s own holiday event (Math, Civics & Sciences, Steel-High and Upper Darby).
“Just get ready for everything,” Walker said.
That’s why everyone — and that’s everyone in Reading gear — works so doggone hard. Not only do they play for their school, but they also represent their community.
“Our city needed hope and it relied on our basketball program — and they got it,” Perez said. “And they got it in the form of a team. They got it in the form of a program.
“And, most importantly, they got it in the form of a young man they can look to who’s the prototype of what can happen in our city,” Perez added, paying homage to Walker.
While Walker spent part of the summer playing with Philly-based Team Final on the AAU circuit, he also attended the Skills Academy offered by Cleveland Cavaliers great LeBron James and tried out for Team USA’s under-18 national team — but didn’t make it.
Those experiences have served as fuel that’s stoking Walker’s insatiable drive.
“I’m just chasing the ghost, that’s what I call it,” Walker said. “When I was at the Skills Academy, LeBron said there’s this ghost that he’s chasing. I’m chasing that ghost. I want that ghost that’s always better than me, that motivates me, that makes me play harder, work out harder. There’s always someone working harder than me.”
So, whether leading by example or offering a word of encouragement or constructive criticism, Walker is trying to get his Red Knights on board as they get ready to take on a laundry list full of grueling challenges.
“I’ve got to bring this team together, be a leader,” Walker said.
Even a month or two before preseason practice begins in earnest, the Red Knights are building chemistry through their devoted fitness regimen as well as their on-the-court work. And Walker’s desire and leadership skills are at the front of Reading’s bus.
“We’re ironing everything out and we’ll see where it goes from there,” Walker said. “I gained about five pounds, six pounds, just off the lifting itself. I’m just very proud of how I am. This summer kind of humbled me in a way, just made me work a ton harder.
“Surrounding myself with these players, we only have one goal and that’s to win,” Walker continued. “And that’s how you win, as a team.
“Right now it’s pretty impressive. Everyone’s going hard. There’s no complaining. … We want something that hasn’t been done at Reading High.”