‘A joy to coach,’ HPA stalwart KJ Walker will continue playing sport he loves

  • Hawaii Prep's KJ Walker is surrounded by his family and coaches, back row, from left, dad and assistant Kelsey Walker, assistant Sefa Rocha-Tufaga, mom Dee Walker, Tre Walker, HPA junior, and coach Fred Wawner; front row, Kyran, 10, and Koen, 12.

  • Tribune-Herald photo KJ Walker will play college basketball on an academic scholarship at Oxford College of Emory University. The Eagles play on the junior college division and are connected to Emory, a Division III school in Atlanta.

Ever since KJ Walker stepped on a basketball court, he carried the weight of three younger brothers who looked up to him.

The coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2021 BIIF season, which would have solved the league’s biggest question: could Hawaii Prep become the first Division II team to four-peat?

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The Walker brothers (KJ and Tre, a year younger) worked well together and helped Ka Makani win BIIF titles in 2020 and ’19. Tre watched as an eighth-grader as KJ was on the BIIF title squad as a freshman in 2018.

The 5-foot-11 guard left a lasting impression on coach Fred Wawner, who has seen a lot of standout players in his program, which won its first BIIF crown in 2012.

“KJ Walker has been so, so valuable to HPA as a student, an athlete, and a leader. He has played in and won a ton of games in his career here at HPA,” Wawner said. “He started all four years and has probably been more productive than anyone who has worn our uniform. He was a joy to coach and I knew we had a chance at any gym we walked into.

“KJ’s skill level, understanding of the game, and ability to produce both with the ball in his hands and off the ball will translate well to the next level. KJ is a competitor. He will find ways to contribute to a team at whatever level.”

Walker will next play ball on an academic scholarship at Oxford College of Emory University. Never heard of it? The Eagles play on the junior college division and are connected to Emory, a Division III school in Atlanta.

The two schools are connected similarly like UH-Manoa and UH-Hilo.

Here’s another surprise: Emory has an endowment of $7.94 billion. Yes billion, not million. That’s more than Phil Knight’s Oregon, which has an endowment of $912.5 million, including $465 million from the Nike founder.

It’s highly unlikely the Eagles, both teams, will ever use old, beat-up basketballs.

According to Wikipedia, Emory is heavily funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, and the federal agency awarded the school $300 million in 2015.

Google Emory University pictures and the school’s landscape would rival any Ivy League school’s setting. It would be perfect for a Hallmark movie. Oxford College’s beauty would rank in any Top 10 junior college list.

Walker’s reaction was relief. He’ll major in engineering so he’ll have fun staring at the buildings if he ever tours the big-brother campus.

“It’s a huge relief, knowing my next step in life is set,” he said. “It’s a great school with a high reputation for a good education, and I get to play the sport I love. I couldn’t be more blessed.”

Walker can give an eternal shout-out to coach Wawner, who served as the recruiting coordinator.

“Coach Fred did everything, and it went through coach Fred,” said Walker, who also drew interest from Willamette, Fisher College in Boston, and Mount Mercy in Iowa.

Walker was blessed with hoopster genes. His dad played ball at Honokaa and his mom Dee also was a hoopster.

“He’s been the main person in my basketball journey, pushed me since I was little, helped me, worked out with me to get me bigger and stronger,” he said. “My drive in life is to be the best I can be and show my little brothers anything is possible. Tre and I battle every single day. I’m the player I am because of Tre and I work harder for my little brothers.”

During the 2019-20 season, Oxford College went 13-13 and lost in the conference tournament semifinals. Of the six returning players, only two are 5-11, and everyone else is taller.

There’s a prize waiting if he gets recruited to Emory, which is hugely successful. During the 2019-20 season, Emory went 22-5 and lost to Pomona-Pitzer in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Emory coach Jason Zimmerman is 236-108 in 13 seasons as the school’s winningest coach. The Eagles have made eight straight NCAA trips, the second-longest in Division III.

Of the 13 returning players only two are shorter than Walker, who started all four years at HPA.

“There are a lot of tall guys, but for a while, I’ve gone by the saying I’ll work on the things I can control,” he said. “I can’t control other people’s height, but I can work on myself to be the strongest and fastest player I can be.”

Walker had the typical hoopster background growing up. He started at 5 years old, playing for the Paauilo Tigers and in P&R. When he was in the fifth grade, he joined coach Benny Alcoran’s club team.

By the sixth grade, the club was playing in summer Las Vegas tournaments, and some of his teammates were Kealakehe High’s finest, Kainoa “Boo” Jones, Howard Robert, and Tito Cabico.

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Walker will fly up to Georgia in mid-August, but before he goes, he had one valuable piece of advice to his little brothers, Koen and Kyran, and all the other young hoopsters.

“Don’t worry about anybody else,’” he said. “Keep working on yourself and everything will fall into place.”