La-Quiem Walker was facing the crossroads of his young basketball life. In 2017, Walker had just finished a dismal junior year at Lincoln High School and was watching his dream of playing college basketball fly out the proverbial window.
“My confidence just wasn’t there,” said Walker, who averaged three points per game and four rebounds per contest his junior year with the Lions. “My confidence was just not as high as it should have been.”
Although Walker stood an impressive 6-foot-9, his opportunities to play college ball were dwindling to slim and none.
“From a skill set standpoint, I thought he had a shot,” Lincoln head coach Bill Zasowski said. “He had a lot of upside. But after his junior year, I just didn’t see it.”
So as Walker prepared for his senior year, a light went off inside Walker’s brain.
“It was a big summer for me,” Walker said. “We won the Jersey City (Recreation) Summer League and it just went up from there.”
“He started to get it,” Zasowski said. “He put it all together. His shot selection was really good and we let him shoot it. No one was going out to guard him. He worked hard at his shooting range.”
Walker averaged 8.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and almost three blocked shots per game for the 20-8 Lions, who won two rounds in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II state tournament against Matawan and Manasquan, before falling by a single point (46-45) to Carteret in the sectional semifinal.
Former Lincoln standout La-Quiem Walker, now of Tennessee-Martin
One would figure that Walker would have had a host of college scholarship offers after that fine season, but the offers were few.
“I have no clue why that happened,” Walker said. “It was real frustrating. But I just had to keep on working on my game.”
Walker had a chance to attend a local NCAA Division III school, but he really had hopes of playing Division I basketball one day.
So Walker then realized that if he wanted to make that dream come true, he was going to have to attend a junior college, attain good grades, play better basketball and hope that someone would take notice of his fine frame and his burgeoning talents.
Zasowski heard from a junior college in Illinois, Kaskaskia College in Centralia. Although Centralia is an hour south of Chicago, it was actually light years from the Windy City.
“When Coach Billy told me about the school, he told me it was in the middle of nowhere,” Walker said. “I did want to get away for a little bit, but this made me appreciate it more. The only thing I could do there was focus on basketball and school, so that’s what I did.”
Just how different was Centralia to Jersey City?
“Well, we used to go to the Wal-Mart for fun,” Walker said. “We would go there to play. The employees all knew who we were.”
Walker didn’t exactly set the world on fire during his freshman year at Kaskaskia and the Blue Devils, averaging just five points per game.
“But I was surrounded by a good group of guys,” Walker said. “They were good role models for me. I listened to them. They were so strong in my eyes.”
Walker worked on his overall game, especially his offensive prowess.
“I worked on my mid-range shot,” Walker said. “I put up 400 shots a night. I used to get kicked out of the gym by the janitors. I would shoot until the lights went off.”
As a sophomore, Walker improved his game, averaging 15.6 points and nearly 10 rebounds per contest. But on Nov. 2, 2019, tragedy struck Walker and his family. His older brother Sirheen was shot and killed on Lexington and Bergen Avenues. Sirheen Walker was 30 years old.
“When that happened, a different switch was turned on,” Walker said. “Not only was he my brother, but he was the provider for my family. I knew I had to step up and be the man in the family. I was going to do whatever the team needed to win. I was going to be the leader. I wanted to be the leader. I used to be the quiet one, but now I had to step it up for my younger brother and two older sisters. I wanted to make my Mom (Tina Beamon) proud.”
Walker said that he participated in a JUCO showcase, where a host of mid-major Division I coaches attended.
When Walker was asked if a Division I scholarship was the goal, he emphatically answered: “Yes, sir.”
“That’s what I worked for,” Walker said. “That’s what was supposed to happen.”
Walker performed very well at the showcase and he received solid offers from schools such as Appalachian State and Virginia Commonwealth.
But Walker was impressed with the straight-forward approach of Anthony Stewart, the head coach at the University of Tennessee-Martin.
“We had a good connection,” Walker said. “I did my research about the school and I liked what the school had to offer. Coach Stewart told me what he wanted from me and what he wanted me to do. I said what I wanted. It really was a good fit.”
So last week, Walker signed his national letter of intent to attend Tennessee-Martin in August. He becomes the first Lincoln product to sign a national letter with a Division I school since current Lincoln girls’ head coach Tommy Best signed a letter to attend Lafayette in 1979. Best would later transfer and finished his college career at St. Peter’s.
“I didn’t think I was the last one to come out of Lincoln since Coach Best,” Walker said. “Not many get the chance to come out of Lincoln and go to college. This is proof that good grades are important.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Walker has not been able to visit Tennessee-Martin.
“I will go there sight unseen,” Walker said. “I did a Zoom meeting with the coaches, but the whole thing is a little overwhelming. It feels good. It’s something I’ve always wanted. I wanted to get the chance to get out of Jersey City.”
Zasowski was overjoyed to be able to have a former player go to the D-I ranks.
“I’m ecstatic for the kid,” Zasowski said. “That’s what sports is all about. He wanted to take it as far as he could. It was great to see him reach his goal.”
And Walker stuck to his guns, traveling from Jersey City to Illinois and finally Tennessee, all just to pursue a dream.