BIRMINGHAM —The basketball court is where Jordan "Jelly" Walker feels most comfortable. In the words of the UAB standout, “I eat, sleep, breathe basketball.”
For the past three weeks, a bruised foot has kept Walker off the basketball court for the most part. He’s missed five games and had been limited, at best, during practice. Officially, he was cleared to come back about a week after the injury he suffered against Western Kentucky on January 11. Pain in his foot has not allowed that to happen.
“I don’t want anybody to feel that I don’t want to play or I haven’t tried to play,” Walker said. “I tried to come back multiple times in practice and stuff like that. It just kept hurting. I couldn’t move well. I couldn’t play defense, couldn’t move the way I wanted to move or cut the way I wanted to cut. For all the people, I don’t want them to feel that he may be cleared, he can play. No. I can’t. The type of player I am, if I’m not playing to my full potential then, obviously, I’m not helping the team. It’s not like I’m a 6-10 center where I don’t have to run, and I can just shoot hook shots or something. That’s not me. I use my speed, my agility, my quickness, my elusiveness. That’s what makes me so dynamic. If I’m not able to do that, I feel like I’m not benefiting the team. I never did not want to play."
Walker is getting closer by the day, he said. He practiced on Monday and said he felt “decent,” and was warming up to try again on Tuesday. Whether he plays on Thursday at Bartow Arena against 19th-ranked FAU will probably come down to a game-time decision once again.
“We’re doing everything we can to get me back out there as fast as possible,” Walker said. “All I can do is take it a day at a time.”
All of this started with an injury on a play that began with Walker out in front on a fastbreak against the Hilltoppers. He had a player trailing closely behind and he “tried to put him on my back to slow him down.” The defender tried to work around Walker, and the UAB standout stepped on the side of the defender’s foot. He knew immediately something was wrong.
“I was on the court, and I was literally whispering to my team, ‘I think I broke my foot,’” Walker said. “When I was walking on it, even on the court, it felt like it was the size of a tennis ball under my foot. I was walking on it, running on it, constantly. My adrenaline was pumping during the game, so I was like alright, it doesn’t feel that bad. Once the game ended, I couldn’t even walk on it.”
The pain was so great, Walker said, that he had to use crutches, along with a boot, for a few days. He had x-rays and an MRI the following day and several times since. All the tests were negative, and it’s been called a deep tissue bruise by UAB head coach Andy Kennedy.
Walker said he’s worked with UAB trainer Bryan Koch at least three times daily since the injury. He said he’s doing everything asked of him during the rehab but hasn’t reached a point where he can play with anything close to comfort.
At one point, though, it appeared the reigning Conference USA Player of the Year was ready to return. He was included in the game plan against North Texas, which was the fourth game after the injury, and hoped to play. Walker said he had trouble getting through the walkthrough on game day but still took part in pregame work with the team.
“It was hurting – a lot,” Walker said. “Trying to do pregame, I was trying to go as hard as I could but couldn’t really use it. I told my coach, to be honest with you, I don’t think I can play. I know he was probably frustrated with me because the game plan was for me to play and we were on a bad streak. Obviously, that frustrated a lot of people. Like I said, I didn’t want to jeopardize my team’s success because I was trying to be prideful.”
Walker understands the frustration; he mirrors that feeling. It hasn’t been easy watching his team slide down the Conference USA standings. It also has been difficult to see a promising season personally be put on hold. Walker has spent the season tussling with Antoine Davis of Detroit Mercy for the lead in the national scoring per game. He was averaging 23.8 points per game when his season froze. That is good enough to place him in a tie for second with Penn’s Jordan Dingle, but Walker is not listed right now because a player has to play in 75% of the team’s games to be eligible. Walker has played in 16 of the team’s 22 games. He’s also probably lost a chance at being considered for some of the national awards.
“I don’t have any more years left,” Walker said. “This is my last year. Having all the hype around me and playing as well as I was playing, it hurt to go down like that. You dream of that stuff when you’re a kid, being on the all-point guard list or the Wooden or Naismith or being the preseason player of the year. You dream about that stuff. Playing the way I was playing and feeling the confidence I was feeling, it hurts me. Seeing my team struggle and me not be able to play, hurts me. All I can do is continue to get my treatment three to four times a day, continue to stay prayed up, continue to do what I’m doing and hopefully I’ll be able to play.”
When that day happens – perhaps this week at some point – don’t expect Walker to ease back into action.
“At the end of the day, when I come back, I’m still going to be me,” Walker said. “Some people may say, when he comes back, he may slowly go into things. I’m going to be me, no matter what. Me, playing the way I play, has helped win us a lot of games the last two years. I’m definitely going to be me, whether it's starting or coming off the bench.”
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