Jordan “Jelly” Walker wasn’t a nationally-known basketball player when he showed up at UAB. Yes, he was a solid player at Tulane. What he’s done at UAB over the past two seasons took him to another level.
At some point soon, his time at UAB will end. The only game that Walker, as well as five other UAB seniors, is guaranteed is Thursday’s Conference USA Tournament quarterfinal game against either Rice or UTSA. Keep winning, and the Blazers will keep playing.
Walker, a candidate for a second consecutive C-USA Player of the Year award, sat down with 1819 News to talk about what his time at UAB has meant to him. The conversation turned into much more.
What are your thoughts on your two years at UAB?
They have been everything. They have been amazing, simply amazing, from on the court to off the court. They’ve been just amazing and incredible. I’m truly thankful for everything that happened here. Obviously, everybody knows who I am because of basketball, just because of me being at UAB. It’s hard to put into words sometimes. All I can say is it’s simply amazing, and I just feel beyond blessed. To be able to come to a school, have the ball put in my hands and have a coach who truly believes in me, even on my bad days, it’s been nothing but amazing.
You were a solid player at Tulane, but nothing like you’ve been at UAB. Could you have looked ahead and seen what these two years were going to look like?
The goal coming here was to get player of the year. That was my goal, like my individual goal. And definitely get to the NCAA Tournament as a team goal. I had never been to the NCAA Tournament. When I was at Seton Hall, I was getting surgery on my thumb, so I had never actually been to the NCAA Tournament. Being a key catalyst to why we were in the tournament, that was the best time of my life. No, I didn’t see this. Of course, you would hope for it. I didn’t think it would happen the way it happened. I say all the time to my friends, that God is the best storyteller. You want to tell your own story, but the way he puts it, it’s nothing that you could even imagine. I know I’m capable of scoring a lot. I know I’m capable of playing really well. But, the way it happened and how it looked, I never imagined. I watch my highlights to this day, sometimes, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how it did that.’ It looks surreal.
To have a coach that puts the ball in your hands and said, ‘Go,’ was that the first time in college you had that?
Yes. Ever. Ever. Not just in college but my entire life. Since I’ve been in AAU, middle school, high school, I never had that. I always had to prove that I should be on the floor. Then I had to prove again that I should start. Then I had to prove again that the ball might should be in his hands from time to time. Then I had to prove maybe he really is the best player on this team. Of course, AK, I had to show him. It was like, ‘We went out and got you. Now you’ve got to show it.’ I did that the first day I stepped on campus, first practice. For him to put the ball in my hands and truly believe in me, I’m talking on my good and bad days. He’s seen both. He’s seen days in practice where I don’t practice well at all. He's seen days in practice where I’m the best. He’s seen games, obviously, where I played horrible. He’s seen games where I’m like a man on a mission. He truly believes in me, no matter what.
Sometimes, I go home after a bad game or something, and I like think like, maybe he doesn’t want me with the ball sometimes. That’s what I’m used to. I don’t do it to disrespect his character, but that’s the type of coaches I’ve played for. My leash was so short that when I did something wrong or didn’t have a good performance, it was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know if we can still rock with him.” But AK rocks with me. Every time. Good and bad days. That’s what I respect most about him. He truly stands by me – on my good days, on my bad days. I say all the time, that’s all you can ever ask for in a coach. That brings the most out of a player. All I can say is thank you to AK. I can’t stop thanking God that he put a coach like that in my life, so I can show how good I truly am.
Were there times last year, particularly starting with the Middle Tennessee game at Bartow Arena, when you sat at home and thought about all the good things that were happening?
All the time. To this day. Someone sent me a picture of Seth Greenberg having me as the player of the day. Stuff like that is crazy to me. I saw a tweet the other day. I think after the Rice game, Dick Vitale tweeted about me. That’s crazy to me because I know him. I know that dude. If you’re a basketball player and you really watch college basketball, you know who that is. For him to know my name it’s surreal. I go home sometimes, and it feels like it’s not even real. But, then I wake up the next day, and I’ll be alright. It really is real. For the most part, it makes me go even harder. It makes me feel like what I’m doing, truly is paying off, and all the hard work I’ve put in my whole life is truly coming out, and I’m reaping the rewards. I’ve never been in a position like this before. I’ve never been talked about the way I am now, to the point of if I have a bad game, people are talking about me. Before, it was like, ‘We’re going to talk about him a little bit, but if he has bad game, it don’t really matter. We don’t really know him.’ Now, it’s like if I have a good game, it doesn’t really matter. If I have a bad game, it’s like, Oh my God, the world ended.’
Was it difficult coming into this season with a target on your back?
Not at all. I think AK, he’s done great with me for that one. He’s always told me I don’t care what other people say. They’re not in these trenches with us. They’re not in the foxhole with us. He says, ‘As long as the coaches on this team think you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and your teammates still rock with you, don’t worry about anyone else, whether it’s good or bad.’ Obviously, I see both. It’s a social media world. I have a lot of followers on all my social media platforms. Of course I’m going to see it. He’s done an excellent job with me when it comes to that.
He did that with me before the NCAA Tournament. He sat down and spoke with me about how this life is. I’d never been in that position before, and he knows that. He sat down with me and said this is what comes with it. You have to be ready for that, but that’s what you want. When you’re a star player, and you’re doing what you’re doing, and you got to be OK with it. It’s not really hard at all. It’s actually funny to me sometimes.
When I got hurt, some of the things that people were saying, like, ‘UAB is better without Jelly.’ I thought, ‘Wow, maybe you guys forgot everything I did at UAB.' It doesn’t hurt my feelings or anything. It just makes me laugh. I definitely see the good stuff, and I appreciate the people for the good stuff. They go out of their own way to talk good about me, and they don’t really know me like that. For someone to take time out of their day and put something on social media for all their people to see, I truly appreciate that.
What was your life like growing up?
I grew up in Long Island, Port Washington, Nassau County. I got seven siblings. I'm the second to the youngest. My oldest brother Jamal passed away, going on five years now. It was tough. We never really had a lot, but we had each other. Maybe that's why I work so hard because I never really did have a lot. All I had was basketball, for real. My parents are good parents, but everyone can't get everything they want. It's not the way the world works. When I was younger, I didn't understand it. As I got older, I realized my parents were doing the best they can.
How did your brother Jamal pass away?
He was murdered in Detroit. He was back and forth from New York to Detroit. That was the hardest time in my life. I didn't care about nothing. I didn't even want to play basketball any more, honestly. I stopped playing basketball for like a good month and a half. I didn't touch a basketball at all. I didn't care. My mom, she stopped speaking. She couldn't speak, like nothing, for real. It was a hard time for my family. My older brother, Jamal, he was like the father figure for us. He took care of us a lot. Still, to this day, it's hard, and I get emotional about it. There are days when I say, 'Hey, that's life. You got to keep living.' But, the pain don't never go away. A lot of people say the pain will go away. Nah. The pain don't go away, especially when you lose a brother. You never think about losing your brother. You have thoughts in your head about my mom, my dad, my grandparents. You think I might lose them. They're older. But, you're brother, you don't think like that.
When I lost him, I don't even remember me before. I truly don't. Once he died, I feel like that part of me died with him. I was at St. Pat's my senior year, right before the season. He died in November. I'll never forget it. I was in New Jersey. My mom and dad, they came and got me. I was looking at my mom, and she was crying. My dad, he just put his head down. We were driving back to Long Island. I didn't want to go back to Long Island. It was like, 'For what? We got school the next day.' On the drive back, my mom told me. I didn't want to believe it. As soon as I got back to my house, I saw my brother Ahmad. He don't cry. When I seen him crying, he just looked at me and I just dropped down. He came and hugged me, just held me. I knew it was real.
Was gun violence something you saw a lot as a kid?
Nah, not really. Washington Heights is a little town. We didn't have nothing. We might not see the gun violence or killing, but not having money, that's me, that's my life. Not having a lot of clothes, wearing the same shoes all the time, same outfits. It's really how I've been my whole life.
Did you decide early that basketball was going to be your vehicle?
I played a lot of sports when I was younger, football, baskeball, basketball. I knew I liked basketball when I was five. I knew that was my favorite sport. When I stopped playing every other sport, I was like 10 or 11. I seen what basketball could do for a lot of other people. It's like, maybe I can make it too. Seeing what it did for their family's life, from them not coming from nothing to their families having at least a decent amount, where they don't have to worry about paying the bills. I'm like, that's my passport, my ticket.
As long as I keep working hard enough, I can change my family's life. That's what keeps me going all the time. I know my family is still struggling. I know my family don't got a lot. I know I can be the person that can change that. That motivates me. Of course, the game of basketball, I truly love the game. I love everything about it, the good and the bad. I know, at the end of the day, the game of basketball, you can make a lot of money off this game. If you play it right and you're a good person, you stay out of trouble, you focus on basketball and keep working, it can come. I know my height might be an issue, not to me, but other people might think so. I know that I'm good enough to make a lot of money to play this game.
The cliche is every kid from New York who plays basketball learned on the playground. Is that true?
Yes, it is true. I have a lot of family in the city. Whenever I'd go see my family, there's basketball courts everywhere. Even in Long Island, there's basketball courts everywhere. I grew up playing basketball. When I was younger, all of my friends played basketball. We'd all knock on each others' door and say let's go play basketball. Eight in the morning, nine in the morning, we're on the court. That's where I learned it.
My brother Ahmad is the one who taught me how to play basketball. He taught me everything I know about basketball. He taught me everything I know. He went to Stony Brook (University) to play basketball. He was seven years older. We played all the time. He never let me win. Bro, I didn't like my brother when I was younger because of the way he used to train me. If I messed up something, start over. It would be to the point where he would never let me cheat. I feel like that's why now I never cheat the process, to the point where before I leave the gym, after my workout or practice, I got to make 20 shots straight or 50 free throws straight. If I miss, I'm not leaving until I get it right. He instilled that in me and it makes me a better player because it makes me a perfectionist.
St. Patrick is a national high school basketball power. How did you end up there?
My guy, Cory Underwood. He saw me when I was 13 years old. He always told me, you can be a professional basketball player. You can make it to the NBA. He is the first one who ever told my parents that this kid's got something. He's the first person to tell my parents this kid can make it. He played in the NBA, in the G League, overseas and stuff like that. He saw I was a good kid and wanted to help me. That's all he's ever done is help me, with my recruitment, with everything. He's the main reason I came to UAB.
He's the one who got in contact with the coaches at St. Pat's. I was at (Long Island Lutheran), and I wasn't playing. I was just sitting on the bench for two years. I never got off the bench. I was there my ninth and 10th-grade years. I barely played and when I did, it was the last couple of minutes. Like I'm not telling a story, I've never been the guy. I went to St. Pat's. I played as a junior, I was the sixth or seventh man, but I was behind Bryce Aiken. He's phenomenal. My senior year, I was the point guard, and I had a lot of great players with me. Nick Richards, he's in the NBA now, Jamir Harris, he's at Seton Hall, Marcus McClary, he went to Monmouth, a couple others. We had a lot of players. That was the first time I was like a key player on the team. It was like. You got to play good, you got to be a good point guard in order to win. I knew I could go score. There were games I scored 30. But, for the most part, we had a lot of good players, and my coach really didn't let us just score like that. I had to be a facilitator. We ended up winning the Tournament of Champs, which is literally the championship of the whole state of New Jersey.
Have all of your experiences, good and bad, made you the person you are today?
Everything I've been through in my life helped shape me into the man I am today. I know there are going be more things in my life that will help mold me and shape me into the person I'm supposed to become. That's life. You can't control it. You can't stop it. That's for everyone. It's every person, whether you play basketball, whether you're a doctor, whether you're just on the streets. What I've learned in my life is you can't let one experience define you. You've got to keep living. Not having a lot or my brother passing away, or not being able to be around my family since I was young, because I was living in another state, that's just life.
Sitting the bench or being a starter, all I've ever said was that's just life, and you control what you can control. All I can do is control the way I attack life, be the best person I can be and the best basketball player I can be and treat people the way I want to be treated. That's all I can do every day. I try to put a smile on people's faces and play basketball to the best of my ability. That's what I want to do and basketball is what I want to be my job at the end of this. Going through everything molded me into the person I am. I would say the main thing it did was it humbled me. It made me understand that I'm no better than anybody else. There are people going through way worse things than I went through. Or there are people who are going through the same things I've been through. I can't judge nobody or think I'm better than anybody. I try to understand that I'm me, and you're you, our lives may be different, but we're the same. I try to wake up every day and try to be a good person, try to be good to people.
You spoke about the excitement of having your mom at Senior Night, especially since she's faced health problems. How much has she shaped who you are?
My mom, if it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be here. I don't mean by giving birth. I mean, there are a lot of situations I could have been in. But, having the teaching and lessons from my mom at a young age and constantly getting that instilled in me, she saved me from a lot of things. There are a lot of people I grew up with who are in jail or not doing the right way. A few of them have passed away. Having my mom be that backbone and keeping me away from all the negative stuff saved me.
For her to instill in me and teach me to be that level-headed person and keep me on the right track. If it wasn't for her, I don't know where I'd be today. My mother is the main reason, outside God himself, I am in the person I am today. Seeing her makes me so happy, especially since she's sick now and on dialysis. I know God is going to fix that. I got big faith in the man upstairs. I talk about it all the time. I'm not really worried about that. Seeing my mom, her coming to see me play makes me happy. She hasn't been able to come a lot recently because I'm so far away, whether it was at Tulane or here. It's far. She's everything to me.
She had to work. She had to provide for us. My mom is a social worker. She's constantly helping people get food stamps, trying to get them jobs and stuff like that. My mom, she's a mother to everyone she encounters. If you get down, she gives you a lot of lessons. She's been through a lot of things in her life, a lot of things.
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