Walker's happiness is what matters
Questions abound after freshman leaves, but both she and UConn will push forward
Connecticut players will always tell you about the perils of their freshman season with coach Geno Auriemma. However prepared they think they are, it's still more than they expect.
"He puts you in situations where you can't win," the players say of his most difficult drills, sometimes with wry fondness in their voices, other times with a sense of lingering frustration. They accept that it had to be that way, and some even come to enjoy the experience as they get older. They see that it pays off. But that doesn't mean they didn't hate it at first.
Now, with freshman forward Samarie Walker having left the UConn program, there will be no shortage of opinions from the large and very engaged Huskies fan base, fans nationwide, and media about why it happened.
Walker's decision to no longer play for UConn, saying she lacked the energy and commitment needed, will be talked about by all these parties in the broader context of recruiting in general. And in the micro context of what it means for UConn. And how that affects the rest of the women's hoops world, particularly this season when the Huskies saw their 90-game winning streak end but are still the defending national champions.
Those are all worthwhile things to discuss, but ultimately it is about one person's comfort level with the sport and a program. Right at the moment, it's likely that Walker might not even know what the next big step in her life should be, but feels a sense of relief just to have stepped away.
Let's start with the big picture: the hits and misses of recruiting, a process that is vexing even to those who've successfully done it for decades. Auriemma says now that there were signs of Walker's unhappiness that, viewed in retrospect, seem more alarming than they did in real time. But he also knows that's always the case, not just with recruiting but every human interaction that encounters difficulties.
If coaches got overly alarmed at every bump in the road that freshmen went through, the rookies would be even bigger basket cases than they already are. The transition to college poses at least some difficulties for everyone, and coaches and players just have to ride through the stormier waters.
Or the players decide to jump ship. Most of the time, that doesn't mean they're entirely done playing college basketball. That actually is pretty rare. Instead, they get a break from the game when transferring, and I think in some circumstances, it's really the time away from competition that they needed all along.
That's certainly not always the case. Sometimes they are really unhappy only with the particular situation/coach/school, and their feelings have nothing to do with any difficulties in dealing with pressure and competition.
But I really do think "the break" can be somewhat a healer to those who have weary or damaged spirits. They might move to a situation that might not even be much easier, really, than the one they left. However, they are approaching it with at least somewhat recharged batteries and a different sense of perspective.
That said, in the case of UConn, most programs that a player might go to after leaving Storrs are going to have less pressure. That's just a reality of where the Huskies are as a program. The expectations and demands are extremely high, but they're commensurate with the rewards.
Not every player needs or wants to play in that environment. Sure, it might seem like everybody's dream-come-true to play for a perennial national championship contender. But in reality, it isn't. There might be other aspects of life and college that a player values more than the NCAA title probability.
And that doesn't make them a "loser." It just means they prioritize differently than someone who might say, "My contentment with my athletic career will be largely defined on whether I win a national championship." Or championships, as the case may be.
In the past 24 hours, I've heard from a lot of folks with different viewpoints on this. Some suggest that Walker's departure is evidence that too often young people don't quite understand that their scholarship to play basketball is like a business contract. Some say she gave up too soon, and that she might look back with regret down the line.
Others are alarmed that UConn has had some high-profile "misses" in recruiting, with Walker and Elena Delle Donne, who opted to go back home to Delaware before even playing for the Huskies, the two biggest names. They express worry that Auriemma's time with the U.S. national team has left him with too much to juggle and that UConn recruiting has suffered for it.
When there's a departure like Walker's, people worry about a lot of things. Whether that's merited or not.
But mostly, folks have been showing concern for Walker and wishing her the best. We can talk about issues, such as the nearly year-round play and focusing on one sport at a young age, that can lead to people getting tired of competing even before college. And about the fact that recruiting regulations, while intended to protect players, might keep coaches and recruits from getting to know each other as well as they should.
However, the nature of Division I sports is not going backward to anything that's less high-stakes. These situations will always happen, even in the most successful programs.
Some student-athletes struggle a little as they adjust to college, some struggle a lot. Most get through it. But sometimes that necessitates realizing they made a very big choice and commitment that they really can't continue to stick with.
UConn will move forward with bigger roles for everyone. Considering depth and experience in the post was already some concern with Walker on the team, it will be more so now without her. This does make UConn's road to three-peating more treacherous. But teams have won national championships without much, if any, depth.
Walker is leaving an enormous privilege and opportunity, but one that has an emotional, mental and physical price that she apparently decided was too steep to pay. Her path will be a different one now, and what you hope is that she finds a place that feels right and allows her continued growth and happiness.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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