- David Auguste, ESPN NFL
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This story appeared in the Greater Cincy edition of the December ESPN RISE Magazine.
Samarie Walker steps onto the court for Chaminade-Julienne (Dayton, Ohio) during pre-game warm-ups wearing her No. 23 jersey, Kanye West's "Heartless" bumping from her black iPod Touch.
This is her moment. It's her time to relax before shouldering the load as the Eagles' top scorer and the No. 10 recruit in the ESPNU HoopGurlz 100.
Before the start of the game, Walker looks up to the stands and raises an eyebrow. Her intended target, her father, returns the gesture. Just like that, it's on. The 6-foot-1 wing player transforms from a shy senior into the UConn recruit who poured in 15.5 points per game last season to lead Chaminade-Julienne to the district finals.
"I tell myself, 'Go out there, and nothing else matters,'" Samarie says. "Right when I get on the court, I say, 'Go kill. Take no prisoners.'"
While a simple eyebrow raise might seem like an insignificant gesture, it is one of great significance between Samarie and her father, Sam. It's Samarie's way of acknowledging her father's contributions to her career, and a way of letting him know that she's ready to perform. For Sam, it's a reminder to his daughter that he will never miss one of her games, and that he is proud of all of her accomplishments.
The two have forged a strong relationship through basketball, and the sport has changed both of their lives for the better.
"[Sam] was kind of a driving force when she was growing up," says Samarie's AAU coach, Jim Clayton. "They're just spitting images of each other."
But 16 years ago, it didn't appear the two would have such a strong relationship.
Before Samarie was born, Sam, a former prep standout from Illinois who tried out for the Chicago Bulls in the early '80s, was selling drugs to get by. He got arrested and was facing 15-30 years in prison when he posted bail. Sam couldn't envision himself sitting in a cell while his wife raised Samarie alone. So he skipped bail, stopped dealing and, after Samarie was born, moved the family to Dayton.
"I told my wife I wasn't going in because I have to at least see her grow up," Sam says.
Sam turned his attention to his family and rekindled his love of basketball. He began coaching girls' hoops in the area and frequently played at parks all over Dayton. His past soon caught up with him, though, as Sam was tracked down and arrested. But at his hearing, the judge saw the changes he'd made in his life and sentenced him to only three months in prison.
"He had felt like I was rehabilitated and didn't need jail time," Sam says.
With his life on the right track, Sam turned his attention to Samarie, who began to show an interest in basketball as a toddler. She often accompanied him to games, and she would occasionally run onto the floor and demand the ball from other players.
"That's how they kind of knew I was going to play," Samarie says. "It was just me looking up to my dad. I guess looking back, I was destined to be a baller."
Sam played an active role in Samarie's love of basketball. He would regale her with stories of his high school success and work tirelessly to teach her the game. To take advantage of her size, Sam spent a lot of time teaching her post moves. But he didn't want to limit his daughter's options on the court, so they spent plenty of time perfecting her perimeter play as well.
"I had told her, 'If you are big, coaches want to put you down on the blocks. I don't want you trapped down there,'" Sam says. "She knows the game, and she can do whatever she wants to do."
Under Sam's tutelage, Samarie continued to improve while playing youth ball. When she was 8, she made a bold proclamation to her father.
"She said, 'Dad, I'm going to Chaminade-Julienne, and after that I'm going to UConn,'" Sam recalls.
That prediction was inspired by a chance encounter with Tamika Williams while Samarie and her father were practicing at a local court. At the time, Williams was a star at Chaminade-Julienne who would go on to play at UConn and in the WNBA. Williams came to the court for a workout as an awestruck Samarie looked on. Samarie began following Williams' career with the Eagles, and after watching Williams play in the state title game against Pickerington in 1998, Samarie's dream of attending Chaminade-Julienne was born.
That dream eventually came true when she entered Chaminade-Julienne in the fall of 2006. Joining a squad that had reached the state title game three of the past four years, there were lofty expectations for the team. And Samarie hoped to come out of the gate firing on all cylinders. But she struggled in her debut, finishing the contest 2-of-14 from the field.
"I cried so hard after the game," Samarie says. "[My dad] said I had more games to play."
Samarie rebounded from the performance and went on to post a solid freshman campaign. She had a breakout sophomore season and was named to the All-Ohio team as a special mention.
"She was our most talented player as a freshman," says Duane Williams, who was an assistant with Chaminade-Julienne at the time and was named head coach this past summer. "She would give in to [her teammates] instead of being the dominant player. She matured into a more well-rounded player."
As a junior, Samarie earned the No. 1 ranking in the ESPNU HoopGurlz Super 60 and fulfilled her second major basketball goal by committing to UConn just before the start of the season. And her father has been there to support her every step of the way.
"My dad was always there to push me, while my mom makes sure I stay focused," Samarie says. "He's taught me a lot. He tells me to do everything he didn't do and don't do everything that he did do, and it'll make me a better person and a better basketball player."