My Interview With Jimmy Walker

The tall man quietly walked into the room with his customary ballcap and dark sunglasses on. He had been out of touch with the school and unreachable for well over a decade. He sat down in the studio chair without introduction and faced us. The interview with Jimmy Walker, PC's greatest basketball player, was about to begin.

In 1991, I had been hired by Dimension Cable, under recommendation by then Sports Information Director at PC, Gregg Burke, to serve as a consultant for a documentary that Dimension wanted to produce on the history of Providence College basketball. My job was to help edit film, so that the important moments would be presented, and to conduct interviews with past players and coaches, under the presumption that I would know what questions to ask.

In all, over a two year period, we conducted over thirty interviews with players and coaches that ranged from the 1940s through the 1990s, for a documentary that never saw the light of day. Included were tough to get (at that time) interviews with people like Marvin Barnes and John Thompson. But the one interview that we had to have was Jimmy Walker. After all, he was PC's all-time greatest player. The only problem was finding Walker, who had no contact with the college since his graduation in 1967.

In the spring of 1992, through the help of the school, plus several former teammates, including Mike Riordan, we located Walker. He was living in Kansas City, working as a maintenance man, caring for his ailing mother. When contacted, he agreed to be interviewed, with only two stipulations. There were to be no questions about his current life and no questions about Jalen Rose, who, it had recently been revealed, was his son, and who had just completed a remarkable freshman season as part of Michigan's Fab Five.

What follows is the interview conducted with Jimmy Walker…

RC: Talk about your recruitment to PC.

JW: Well, Dave Gavitt recruited me at PC because he had heard from a cousin of mine (Bill Blair) about what my basketball abilities were. And we went and played at a local community center and he had come down to watch us play. And from that point, he was sold on my athletic talent. It was my grades that I had to bring up before I could go.

RC: What was Dave Gavitt like?

JW: He was excellent. We went undefeated in my freshman year and he was the coach. We played, I think, twenty-one games. And in those twenty-one games we probably had the cockiest bunch of younf individuals that you could ever find. But we had a group that had meshed to play together under his direction. He had stressed things like mutual respect which carried beyond the basketball floor. You know, where somebody would see a basketball game and they would look at just our talents. But the things that we did were connected with mutual respect which was what he really stressed.

RC: Tell us about the magical 1964-65 season.

JW: Let me see… the '64-65 season. I think that we were undefeated for the first nineteen games. And this is off the top of my head; its kind of difficult to remember back to get it exact. But we had played nineteen games and we were rated number four in the country. And during that season it was still a learning experience for us and everything. We were getting all these mentions of being great and we were thinking about what type of subjects we had to deal when we got back to school and everybody was just talking about basketball. We had to be concerned with many other things, you know. There were distractions… I don't think that certain individuals really understood what those distractions meant to young boys with all that notoriety.

RC: Describe your feelings after the loss to Princeton and Bill Bradley.

JW: Bill Bradley had already been widely known before we played. We played Princeton in College Park, Maryland. And Bill was a senior, yeah, I was a sophomore. And at that time, I think they killed us, as a matter of fact. I had a personally good game, I had a lot of points and things like that. But we lost by probably fourteen [actually 40, 109-69]. I'm not sure of the exact number. But it was a large amount. And like I said, those types of things were still learning experiences and I took them just like that.

RC: What did the loss of Dexter Westbrook before your junior year mean to the team?

JW: Oh man, good question. Dexter Westbrook was a six foot eight talented athlete from New York City. And we were real good friends before we even came to Providence. [The two had played together at Laurinburg Institute, a prep school in North Carolina.] The loss of him was devastating because of the fact that he was the mainstay, our only big man and the person who made sure, for example, that I could get the basketball and do the things that I could do well. You know, without him, it made that difficult. So someone had to fill his shoes and they were awfully difficult shoes to fill. So it made us struggle a little bit.

RC: What was your relationship like with Joe Mullaney?

JW: Excellent. Coach Mullaney was probably the first to play a combination defense. Before they even started playing combination defenses, we were playing a combination defense. And for anybody that doesn't understand what a combination defense is, it's a zone and a man to man almost at the same time. And before those types of things became popular, he was using those types of strategies for defense. In the NBA, I don't think they started using them until almost 1970.

RC: Let me ask you about different teammates. Mike Riordan?

JW: Let me see… left handed, talented, nice guy from New York City who probably was the anchor forward. He was smart. He was a good person to be around off the basketball floor, which made it a pleasure to play with him. Probably if it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have been ranked fourth in the country during that year. People used to give me the notoriety, but I just made sure that if my name was gonna be in the paper most of the time, I was gonna make sure that my teammates, like Mike, were happy.

RC: Dexter Westbrook.

JW: Dexter Westbrook was also left handed, which made us a tough team to defend for other teams, because we had two people that were left handed. Our center was left handed and we had a small forward that was left handed. So Dexter's talent meshed well with everyone else's and it made our fast break work. And he was a player before his time. He was like an early James Worthy type of player, if you can imagine someone that talented as a sophomore in college.

RC: Bill Blair.

JW: Bill Blair was a jumping small forward. Let me see. I don't know if I can compare Bill to anybody because Bill had a talent all his own. Basically the type of things he did well was he ran well, played good defense, and passed well. You know, he was one of those players that they categorize nowadays as role players. So he was a good role player.

RC: Jim Benedict.

JW: Jim Benedict was probably the best long distance jump shooter on the team. You know, outside of myself, he probably had the best pure jump shot of any of us on a constant basis. And the difficult thing was, is when he thought he should shoot it. That's when he had problems with Joe Mullaney (laughs).

RC: Tony Koski.

JW: Like I said, all the guys that you mention, its funny, it seems like I'm saying almost the same type of things, because we had a real talented team. And certain broadcasters had made sure that certain of us had gotten publicity. But during that particular time we knew the types of things that we needed to do for the group of us, as players, to stay together more than just playing basketball. So Tony Koski was one of those types of people that kept us loose, kept our confidence level up. Kept us thinking in terms of the types of things that we had to do before the game, after the game, two weeks before midterm examinations. A lot of times, people don't think those things are important but they were to us.

RC: What do you remember about your fifty point game against Boston College in the Holiday Festival?

JW: Okay, well, for that game I thought we had prepared real well. We had people that had scouted Boston College and at that time, Bob Cousy was their coach. So we knew that they were gonna be prepared for us. And the thing that scared us the most was the fact that here we were playing in Madison Square Garden again. And no matter how many times you played in Madison Square Garden, for anybody that has ever visited Madison Square Garden knows that its an awesome place just to sit in the stands, let alone when theres twenty-two thousand people watching you perform.

So during that particular game we just made sure that all those little things that other teams and other people sometimes take for granted, we paid attention to. The type of things like making sure that the usual respect that we carried to each other off the basketball court, that we took those same things on the basketball floor. So it kind of made us not as nervous. And it also made it more comfortable for me to take the initiative too, to be the so-called leader at the time, when most of these guys are my friends and I'm supposed to be taking a lot of shots and I'm supposed to be doing a lot of scoring and things, and those types of things used to embarass me.

But during this particular game, it was necessary. And it was just ironic that I really didn't take a lot of shots… I think I took just twenty-six shots that day. And I had an enormous amount of free throws, I think it was about eighteen, I'm not really sure [ it was twenty]. But it was a lot. And its just that most of the things that I did, it was a situation where every single thing just worked. And that's really how we won the basketball game.

RC: Did you feel any pressure being the focal point of the team?

JW: Well, not really. To explain that… see, Dave Gavitt was, and still is, the kind of man that when you were around him, you could learn from him, the way that he was, the type of things that he stressed. The way that he was as an individual. So when your head started to get just a little bit too large, you know, he had the right things to say to bring you back into perspective. I was able to handle popularity a little bit better than I thought I could. But basically it was because of people like Dave Gavitt.

RC: Any other memorable games that stand out?

JW: That's a difficult question. I guess right after that fifty point Boston College game, we played Boston College again that same year. Twice, I think, in two weeks or at least in two and a half weeks. And in the two games I think I got ninety points. And the sad thing about it is, one of the players from Boston College told me that I had caused Bob Cousy to start crying. And that was tough to imagine. I'm thinking of how famous Bob Cousy is and somebody's telling me that because I scored a certain amount of points that he started crying. He was just that much of an emotional person that I think that trying to get his players to do certain things, and because they didn't work, he got emotional. It wasn't just because I caused him to. It was just because of things that he had done, strategies that didn't work.

RC: How would you describe yourself as a player?

JW: Unselfish. As I said, because most of the guys that played with me were real talented players. Not only were they talented players, its just that they helped me to be better. And the better I became then the more that I wanted to help them do certain things. You know, sometimes people talk about what selfish and unselfish really is. And I'm still trying to figure that out, its just that sometimes I had to be persuaded to take more shots because it was difficult for me to take the leadership role sometimes, even though I was supposed to. I had the ability to do it but the point of accepting that role sometimes was the most difficult thing for me to do.

RC: Are you disappointed that the team didn't go farther after your sophomore year?

JW: There really isn't anything that I can look back on in connection with Providence College that I thought was a disappointment. We did a lot of good things. You know, you can't control if certain players are ineligible or the ups and downs of college basketball. I don't think that there was anything I could look back on and say that it was disappointing after that sophomore year because the junior and senior years, they all had their upside. There were very, very good people to play around, the coaching staff was good. You know, we had a statistician named Jerry Kapstein who probably now owns two or three cities. To show you the type of people we had, and even the trainers, there were just people whose abilities didn't even develop until the seventies, there were so many talented people connected with the school. And I just can't look at us not achieving a winning status compared to my sophomore year to say that is a disappointment, because there were so many other things that made it a pleasure to be around, the people I associated with.

RC: How do you look back at Providence College?

JW: Oh, I've been enthusiastic about Providence College ever since, even almost before my freshman year. Because I used Providence in a way that was maybe a little bit different than other athletes might use a school that they go to. Before I went to Providence, I was afraid. Because when I was fifteen to seventeen years old, see, I was a very ignorant young boy trying to learn how to become a young man. I didn't have any knowledge about how to do that. Then all of a sudden, your athletic skills start to excel. But manhood-wise, I'm developing slow. And mentally, I've got a bunch of things, for example, that I'm athletically qualified to do, but I still have a great many things to learn as a young man. And Providence helped me to develop those things because of all the different travel that we engaged in, in those four years. And after Providence, I still had some growing to do, but it was a little easier because of the experiences. [End of interview]

In some small way, its possible that this interview helped to reconnect Jimmy Walker with Providence College. He returned to campus for the first time since 1967 in 2001, to take part in a golf tournament and the celebration of PC's 75th anniversary of basketball, where I saw him. He also visited the school for several games at the Dunkin' Donuts Center after that. Now he's gone at the age of sixty-three, and PC has lost its all-time best player.

Rest in peace, Jimmy Walker.

Scout Friars Top Stories