University of Miami

Why is UM playing in Reading, Pa.? Because coach promised this player he would.

Freshman guard Lonnie Walker IV, left, at practice with University of Miami basketball coach Jim Larrañaga.
Freshman guard Lonnie Walker IV, left, at practice with University of Miami basketball coach Jim Larrañaga. ASSOCIATED PRESS

It became very clear, as soon as University of Miami coaches began recruiting Lonnie Walker IV, that his connection to his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, was unusually deep.

Reading, best known for its pretzels and for its railroad being a space on the Monopoly board, is a city of 87,500 residents about an hour outside of Philadelphia. It is one of the poorest cities per capita in the nation, the kind of place where high school athletes give people hope.

Nobody embodies that more than Walker, which is why UM coaches promised that if he chose Miami over other finalists Villanova, Syracuse, Arizona and Kentucky, the Hurricanes would schedule a road game in Reading so that friends and family — especially his grandmother Eleanor “Mama El” Carter — could see him play.

They kept their promise. The 11th-ranked Hurricanes (3-0) face LaSalle (3-2) on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Santander Arena in Reading, the 7,160-seat arena where Walker’s high school team competed in the conference playoffs on the way to the State 6A Championship. A sellout crowd is expected, including “Mama El.” The Reading Eagle published a preview on the big event.

“During the recruiting process, we saw that Lonnie had a unique relationship with the people in Reading,” said UM coach Jim Larrañaga. “Everybody knows him. Kids ask for his autograph after practice. Adults want pictures with him. During one of our visits, Lonnie asked us to meet his grandmother and grandfather. It was very clear they weren’t able to travel to Miami if we got him, or even to Philadelphia. So, we told Lonnie if he ends up deciding to come to University of Miami, we’ll bring our program to Reading and play in front of his family, friends and high school teammates.”

Walker is one of the most highly-touted recruits in UM history. The 6-4 freshman guard with the 6-10 wingspan was a McDonald’s All-American, a Jordan Brand Classic All-American, the Pennsylvania Player of the Year, and a five-star recruit. Although he has played only three college games, and has yet to break the starting lineup, he is already projected as a first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

UM assistant coach Adam Fisher was the first member of the Hurricanes staff to see Walker play, and immediately told Larrañaga this is a kid they should pursue. Fisher grew up in Pennsylvania, and had worked as a manager at Penn State and an assistant recruiting coordinator at Villanova, so he had connections in that area.

Fisher made it his personal mission to show Walker how much UM cared about him, not only for basketball, but also for his academic interests. Walker is an excellent student, and considered pre-med, but now says he plans to study business.

University of Miami men’s basketball coach Jim Larrañaga spoke publicly about the recruiting corruption probe for the first time on Monday Oct. 23, 2017.

“I just got a really good feeling about Miami from the beginning,” Walker said. “I felt a connection with the coaches, and the campus is beautiful and it has very good academics, so it was the perfect fit.”

Walker can’t wait for his homecoming game. He twisted his ankle in the win over Florida A&M last Thursday, but is expected to play — maybe even start.

“I always brag about [our Reading fans],” Walker told the Reading Eagle. “I can’t wait, because now my teammates are going to realize what type of fans I have.”

Larrañaga agreed: “Lonnie’s a celebrity in the town. I think it will be electric, from start to finish.”

No. 11 UM men vs. LaSalle

When: Wednesday Nov. 22, 6 p.m.

Where: Santander Arena, Reading, Pa.

Records: UM (3-0), LaSalle (3-2)

Radio: WINZ-940 AM