7th-grader who can dunk faces life-changing decision
Jarace Walker, a 6-foot-2 seventh-grader on Southern Middle School's ninth-grade team, is ranked among the Top 10 players his age in the country. And he can dunk the ball in games.
The junior high kids rose from their bleacher seats in hopes of seeing magic.
Their classmate dribbled free down the right side of the court — looking as if he might take off and soar to the basket and do the unthinkable.
The way college players and pros do on ESPN highlights.
The way some high school stars do.
But a seventh-grader?
The kids yelled almost in unison that afternoon in the Susquehannock High gym.
At the last moment, though, 6-foot-2 Jarace Walker simply laid the ball in the hoop. And his buddies sat down with a few groans.
Why didn't he dunk like before, that confident one-handed jam that stunned the crowd not once but twice? Or even the time he threw down with two hands after his coach chided him during an AAU game?
Asked about it later, Jarace smiled and answered politely, a bit shyly. He simply didn't like his angle on his approach.
There certainly will be plenty of time for dunking for this 13-year-old who already is being sought after like most will never know.
Soon enough, he and his family must make a most difficult, even life-changing decision.
He either will attempt to resurrect a long-dormant Susquehannock program, in part by leading others around him, as he attempts to earn a scholarship to the college of his choice.
Or he will leave his family, friends and school behind, in a sense.
Because some of the most prestigious high school programs in the country are calling less than an hour away ...
• • •
The first thing his mother noticed were his hands.
While Marcia Walker's fourth child, and her only son, weighed just a bit over 7 pounds at birth, his hands seemed to be misplaced, they were so large.
So it was not surprising when Jarace began to grow like corn after a June rainstorm, his coordination sprouting right along with him.
His father, from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent, stands 6-4 and says his sisters are only an inch shorter. Jarace's mother, from Guyana, is 5-11 and a former track and field standout in high school.
One of his sisters, Sherelle, starred in volleyball at Susquehannock and then played for the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Another, Jaden, is a standout for the Warriors girls' district title basketball team.
Jarace excelled even more quickly. Susquehannock coaches remember him in first and second grade towering over his classmates and dribbling the ball for hours at a time around his neighborhood. Now, some say the seventh-grader is good enough to be a varsity starter, if PIAA rules allowed it.
He not only is the tallest player on the court during ninth-grade games, he usually is the best passer and 3-point shooter and a fierce shot-blocker. He wears size 15 shoes and runs the court fluidly on a frame that continues to grow.
Despite his size, ball-handling may be his most impressive skill, said Tony Miller, who coaches his school team.
And, always, it seems, he is playing basketball, whether it's practicing with his sister's team or playing pickup games with the varsity boys. On weekends, he stars for elite AAU and Premier Youth Basketball League teams around Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Even at his New Freedom home, he works by himself on nearly eight-foot hoops in the living room and his bedroom.
Though still 18 months from high school, he is beginning to become a desired commodity. Online basketball sites rank him among the Top 10 seventh-grade prospects in the country.
Maybe more importantly, a handful of elite private Maryland high schools that double as basketball powers are recruiting him hard. Some have been for two years. They promise not only a college preparatory curriculum but national exposure by playing with, and against, some of the top talent anywhere.
"It's exciting to see the videos and the rankings, but it's all about getting to high school and then college and possibly the NBA," Jarace said. "Rankings don't really matter to me that much."
Rather, he talks about how his freshman team shifted gears in mid-season to roll off seven straight victories. He jokes about the friendly competition with his 10th-grade sister, who loves to drill him on defense.
Mostly, Jarace is still a normal kid with self-avowed strict parents who both work in Maryland.
"Strict like, now he doesn't have a cell phone, hasn't had it in two weeks, because he was a little rude," Marcia Walker said in February. "We don't tolerate rudeness, back-talking. So we run a pretty tight ship. It's just our culture. And Jarace, because he's so tall, tends to think he's older than what he is and can do different things.
"So we have to remind him that he's 13 … and he needs to be humble."
He seems a bit too good to be true, particularly for a Susquehannock boys' program that hasn't qualified for the postseason in a decade, let alone won a coveted District 3 title. Its only one came in 1982.
"He's already developed a unique ability to make the players he plays with better," said Susquehannock varsity coach John Zerfing. "Think of Eli Brooks elevating the whole Spring Grove program ..."
It is a most intriguing comparison.
Four years ago, the spectacular, do-it-all Spring Grove guard and his family had their own critical decision to make. Brooks also was being recruited by elite private schools.
Would he leave York County to become part of a highly-publicized all-star team, in a league full of future Division I college players?
Or would he stay home and elevate not only his teammates and life-long friends but also, in a sense, an entire community?
Spring Grove's Eli Brooks has been on the radar of Division I college programs and the recruiting season heats up in July with several AAU showcase tournaments.
In the end, Brooks listened to the advice of his father and varsity coach about how staying at Spring Grove would ultimately make him a better all-around player. He said learning how to deal with adversity and becoming a leader were two of the biggest prizes earned.
And, sure enough, the senior just led the Rockets to two of their best basketball seasons in school history, helping to pack their gym each night, boost program numbers and get their whole town buzzing in winter like maybe never before.
Along the way, Brooks continued to star on a Philadelphia-area AAU team, and he earned a full ride to play for Michigan in the Big Ten.
"You know what happens when you're around a lot of good players, you can become one-dimensional," father James Brooks said about those elite private school teams. "You're a shooter, so you don't have to dribble or rebound. (But) when you play with mediocre (talent) you have to facilitate. If it's going to happen, Eli has to be a part of it. If we need to take a charge, Eli has to do it. All those things add up. The kid's become an elite player willing to do all of the things (few) elite kids do.
"Here's the thing," Brooks said, continuing on. "You are going to be known for something in your lifetime, either as part of a team that fell right in line or you're going to be the beginning of a change."
• • •
A seventh-grader who dunks in games.
The talk is starting to get ahead of Jarace Walker now. It's a nod to his impressive and yet unknown potential at a time when colleges, and even high schools, are recruiting younger than ever. A time when more high school athletes at border schools like Susquehannock are leaving their districts to specialize at private schools in Maryland in lacrosse, soccer and baseball.
The Walker family says Jarace will remain at Southern Middle School next year where he will, again, play for the ninth grade team, and far above his competition.
But then, he must decide where to attend high school.
He and his family say they are still unsure of the outcome and are not concerned about it yet. Some of the options are boarding schools, while others would require daily transportation. Some offer scholarships, others do not.
When Jarace was asked about the subject in front of his parents, he said, "I just want to finish out middle school and then leave for high school. Not leave just yet."
His father quickly interjected.
"We have not come to that conclusion yet, honestly," he said. "(Jarace) seems to like it here. We're just going along step by step."
One of the schools that wants him is Bishop McNamara in Forestville, Maryland, where his AAU coach helps out. McNamara plays in the nationally known Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, which includes powers like DeMatha, Gonzaga and Paul VI.
"I don't really think sometimes he understands the potential he has," said AAU coach Jay Gavin. "He's not a cocky kid or thinks he's better than what he is. He wants to continue to work and be better and be coached."
Just as he's beginning, only now, to glimpse into the future.