There were "Free Chris Walker" chants and shirts at Florida's win over Georgia last week. There will be plenty more #FreeChrisWalker tweets between now and when the NCAA finally does clear Walker to compete for the Gators. And there's frustration, behind the scenes, with the NCAA's lack of communication and efficiency in relation to Walker's eligibility.
But there's nothing we can do but wait.
I know that it's not fun. It's unfortunate that Walker's decision to take a trip to Kansas with a coach he trusted has delayed his college basketball career, just like it was unfortunate that an adolescence spent twisting in the wind left Walker with no choice but to delay his collegiate career by a semester.
And it's arguable that those fates are his "fault," in the sense that they are the consequences of his actions (and academic inactions). But it's also arguable — and, I think, both more compelling and more true — that Walker's mostly been a victim of his circumstances, abandoned or betrayed by the people who should have been capable of steering him in the right direction.
And so it was good that Walker committed to Florida, and got himself adopted by the Florida basketball program. Billy Donovan is one of basketball's most respected teachers and runs one of the better programs in the country for players who want to work hard. He's great with second chances and wayward souls — hi, Scottie Wilbekin and Damontre Harris — and great with developing players — Chandler Parsons comes to mind and people — Erik Murphy fits here.
But now Walker's getting punished by the NCAA for, at worst, being too young to not be dumb — and Florida's getting punished by the NCAA for, essentially, taking a chance on him. And it's the latter that feels most wrong, I think, and has made the most people mad.
On that front, though, I have news, both good and bad, and interpretation of the news, both good and bad.
Walker is probably going to be cleared at some point
I have heard, from a source I trust, that Walker will play before the end of January, which jibes with what WFTV's Christian Bruey reported last night.
In Gainesville today and was told Chris Walker will miss just 1 more game. Cleared after Bama. #Gators— Christian Bruey (@CBrueyWFTV) January 21, 2014
I have also heard, from sources that I trust, that Walker has not been officially cleared by the NCAA, which jibes with the statements provided to reporters by Florida since Bruey reported the timetable.
According to a Florida spokesman, there is no change on Chris Walker's status. NCAA has not ruled on eligibility yet.— Kevin Brockway (@gatorhoops) January 21, 2014
But I think the right and smartest takeaway from the last 24 hours is the one Pat Dooley hints at here:
Woke up to a returned text from UF AD saying chris walker has not been cleared for Saturday. Doesn't mean it can't happen— Pat Dooley (@pat_dooley) January 21, 2014
Walker hasn't been officially cleared yet, and so Florida is being very careful about commenting on his status — the program has been jerked around by the NCAA on Walker thus far, as Only Gators' Adam Silverstein ran down Monday night, and previous instances of optimism about Walker's status have been proven premature.
I also firmly believe that this most important piece of news about Walker is going to be announced by Florida, possibly by Billy Donovan in speaking to reporters, or "broken" by GatorZone's Chris Harry, Florida's in-house beat writer. There are a number of good reporters with sources in and around Gators basketball — Donovan's been in Gainesville for nearly two decades, after all — and they will keep their ears to the ground on Walker, but I just can't see Florida not owning this story for itself.
Donovan's comments at Tuesday's media availability, where he confirmed that there is no update to give on Walker's status, back this up:
"As it relates to Chris (Walker) listen to myself and the school," #Gators coach Billy Donovan says.— Adam Pincus (@adamDpincus) January 21, 2014
Donovan not pleased with erroneous reports. Says he won’t address Walker questions anymore.— Phillip Heilman (@phillip_heilman) January 21, 2014
Basically, though it's frustrating, you should believe Walker will be eligible when the people who have the most vested interest in announcing his eligibility do so, and believe that Walker is a Gator when you see him on the court during a game.
Walker may not meet ramped-up expectations
Walker was always going to need some time to adjust to college life. He's a small-town kid with tremendous athletic gifts and a rail-thin body that is not yet built to absorb blows from SEC players in the post. Patric Young, consistently (and usually unfairly) derided as "soft" by fans, has whipped Walker in practice, and Walker is still adjusting to those practices, especially without the benefit of a summer and fall designed to get him up to speed.
And I've been told recently that Walker's still not a world-beater in practice, to the point that I'm fairly confident he's going to be little more than a role player in his first few games. To put one source's expectations in context: DeVon Walker might get more minutes than Chris Walker in the latter's first game.
And, though I think a month of watching high-level basketball played by his teammates from the bench is great for Walker's motivation, there's a chance that he will look out of his depth early on, making the same fans who have clamored for his clearance lament his lack of capability.
That would be a shame for a couple of reasons. First, Florida's done basically everything it can possibly do to temper expectations on Walker, whether through Donovan consistently stressing that Walker was always going to need time to get up to speed or Harry repeated hinting at the same. There's no reason for a high-information Florida fan to believe that Walker will be more than a fringe contributor at this point, other than blind faith that his surpassing athleticisim will make up for what he lacks in understanding of the game.
And, more importantly, Florida's developed into a damn good team without Walker.
Florida is going to be good no matter what it gets from Walker
I think the ideal contribution Walker could give this Florida team is the sort of inexhaustible energy that Donnell Harvey, a fellow mid-year addition, gave the 1999-2000 team that eventually made the NCAA Tournament final with substantial help from Harvey. Harvey was never a refined player at Florida during his scant half-year in Gainesville, and hasn't really refined his game in his professional career — which has been long, and relatively successful, as he's been a force in the Philippines and China of late &mdsah; and makes money balling despite being basically the same player he was 14 years ago.
Walker's built differently than Harvey, though, slender instead of sinewy, and his game is different. He plays above the rim more than Harvey did, with levitation-like ups, but he floats more than he bangs — and verticality, not violence, isn't really something this Florida team lacks.
Dorian Finney-Smith is likely a better rebounder than Walker will be. Casey Prather is definitely a better slasher. Will Yeguete's a better energy guy. Young is a better and more refined post player. All the things that Walker does well — or, rather, that he did well against high school competition — are things that Florida has figured out how to do well.
That's a good thing for Florida, even if it makes integrating Walker more difficult. Florida hasn't really struggled to stay with other teams from an athletic standpoint, and has out-executed a few teams — Memphis, Arkansas, Auburn — late in games based on experience Walker simply can't replicate without years in the fire.
Florida's not 15-2 and 4-0 against the SEC by accident; this is a very good team coached by one of the best basketball coaches in the nation, and, of late, its success has been almost overshadowed by the feeling that Walker will swoop in and make the Gators elite.
I can't get with that. I think they already are.
The wait for Walker will be worth it
Still, though, Florida will get better with Walker — it just isn't logical that a Donovan-coached Florida team could add a player of his blue-chipv caliber and not get better. Maybe he makes it a little easier to defend inside when Young is in foul trouble, or maybe he makes for a nightmarish point forward duo when he's paired with Finney-Smith, or maybe he just it easier for Kasey Hill to throw up alleys that Walker oops for seismic shifts in games. While we don't know what Walker will bring, it's safe to assume he'll bring something, and that's rightfully exciting.
But that's exciting for us as Florida fans; we also ought to be excited for Walker as fans of a young man who's grown up with few opportunities finally getting to seize his greatest one. I can't imagine how Walker's going to react when he finally gets the news — if I could Vine one thing about this Florida basketball season, it would be that — and I can't wait to see how he reacts when he throws down his first dunk. We have been waiting what seems like a long time for Walker's debut, but he has been waiting his entire life for this moment.
There's a bit in Robert Heinlein's sci-fi classic Stranger in a Strange Land about "waiting until waiting is filled" that was sort of a catchphrase between me and a couple of my friends in high school. We were all outside the mainstream at our school, part of the bunch that actually liked the teachers and felt cloistered by being in a small town in Florida where there was nothing to do and little to wait for but the moment we could leave; "waiting until waiting is filled," for us, was about feeling like there was a future worth living for, a person worth loving, a world worth seeing. We've all had good and bad things happen in our lives since then, but that philosophy served us well in those days.
I think it would serve Chris Walker well right now. His wait is nearly over. His time is nearly here. And there's nothing better for him to do than wait until that moment when waiting is filled.
I'll be waiting with him, and I'll be so, so happy when it arrives.