Henry Walker’s meandering journey, which has taken him from the hardscrabble streets of Huntington, West Virginia, to the Heat — via the Knicks, Celtics, Venezuela, the Philippines and several NBDL outposts — never would have happened if he hadn’t made a decision that saved his life.
Walker, 18 at the time and now 27, was playing in an AAU tournament when his cousin Edrick called and asked if he wanted to attend Edrick’s 18th birthday party that night, about 45 minutes away. Walker declined because he thought basketball needed to be the priority that day.
The next morning, Walker learned Edrick, a friend and two others were killed overnight in a quadruple homicide on the streets of Huntington.
“It was a sign that basketball saved my life,” Walker said. “I think about it every day. Just looking at my daughter, I think this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been playing basketball.”
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Walker’s evolution — from an NBA nomad named Bill Walker to Henry Walker, a player now receiving significant minutes with the Heat — is a tale littered with adversity.
There was an ACL knee tear in eighth grade, another his freshman year at Kansas State and another devastating knee injury during a pre-NBA Draft workout for Golden State in 2008 that led him to slide to the 47th pick by the Wizards, who traded him to Boston.
After playing in 157 games for the Celtics and Knicks over four seasons, he bounced around, including part of the past two seasons under the guidance of Heat staffers in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
When he played his final game for the Celtics in April 2012, he had no idea it would take two years and 10 months to make it back to the NBA, his return coming last month when the Heat signed him to two 10-day contracts, and eventually for the rest of this season, with a team option for 2015-16.
“I had to understand it wasn’t about basketball for me,” he said. “It was the mental aspect, my preparation, how seriously I took my job, how I treated people. My coach at Kansas State, Frank Martin, used to tell me you can be a tough guy without being an [expletive] to people. That’s something I had to take to heart.
“When he told me that at 17, 18, I had no clue what he was talking about. Now as you get older, I’m thankful for those talks with Frank. It finally started to click for me.”
Fifteen months ago, Walker began using his middle name, Henry, to signify his maturity.
“I was in the NBA at 19; I definitely wasn’t ready for the life experience of being an NBA player,” he said.
Growing up in a drug-infested neighborhood in Huntington toughened Walker. His father fled when Walker was very young, and Walker lived with his sister and mother in an abandoned home that his mother renovated.
His mother worked two jobs, at Marshalls and Wendy’s, to support her two children and also, for a time, two cousins who moved in after Walker’s aunt died from AIDS.
“There are not too many people I know from that area whose fathers had been in their lives, so that was a common bond we all had growing up,” Walker said.
“All raised by their mothers, bleak situation. An environment with a lot of violence, a lot of drug dealing, a lot of people without a positive mind-set because they feel like they don’t have any options. Then you have people clawing to get out. It makes for a bad environment.
“Down the street from me was a 24-hour dope house. You would have junkies, dealers. It was an everyday thing. These people were my neighbors. I didn’t realize how crazy it was until I got out and see how other people live.”
Walker and his family moved to Cincinnati when he was 14, but his mother now lives in Huntington again, in a nicer area. She is taking care of Walker’s 3-year-old daughter until the season ends, living in a house that Walker purchased for her during his rookie season.
Walker mended his relationship with his father. “I used to have a lot of hate built up towards him, but I had to learn to forgive him.”
Walker, averaging 7.9 points and 3.6 assists, has earned the confidence of coach Erik Spoelstra, who has started him seven times and given him regular minutes at both forward positions.
Though he’s shooting 34.4 percent from the field overall, he made 4 of 8 three-point attempts in Wednesday’s win at Boston after making all three of them Tuesday in Milwaukee.
“He has a fearlessness,” Spoelstra said. “He does a lot of different things for us, and that’s what we like. He competes, particularly on the defensive end. He’s one of our better three-point spacers. He wants to make it so bad.”
And as Udonis Haslem said: “He won’t back down from anybody.”
Walker said simply: “I don’t want to go back” to the vagabond life outside the NBA. “I know I can play at this level.”
▪ The Heat listed center Hassan Whiteside (hand laceration) as doubtful for Friday’s game at Atlanta and guard Dwyane Wade (knee contusion) and center Chris Andersen (calf contusion) as questionable.
FRIDAY: HEAT AT HAWKS
When, where: 7:30 p.m., Philips Arena in Atlanta.
TV, radio: Sun Sports; WAXY 104.3 FM, 790 AM and WAQI 710 AM (Spanish).
Series: The Heat leads 57-45.
Noteworthy: The Hawks have won all three games this season, by margins of 11, 10 and two. Center Hassan Whiteside (hand laceration) is doubtful for Friday’s game, and Dwyane Wade (knee contusion) and Chris Andersen (calf) are questionable.