Come­back kid is cen­ter of at­ten­tion

Af­ter two knee in­juries, Dal­las Wal­ton plays star role for Ar­vada West.

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Kos­mider

ar­vada» It can be mes­mer­iz­ing to watch a 7-footer dance, the blend of long limbs mim­ick­ing the branches of a tree whirling in the desert wind.

This was the scene pro­vided last week by Dal­las Wal­ton dur­ing a mo­ment of lev­ity at an Ar­vada West prac­tice. The Wild­cats were run­ning through their press-break of­fense and Wal­ton, af­ter catch­ing the ball near mid­court, floated a per­fect touch pass to a streak­ing team­mate for an easy layup.

In one fluid mo­tion, the skyscrap­ing cen­ter bent his knees in uni­son, curled his arms like a pray­ing man­tis, flexed his mus­cles and bobbed his head — a brief,

wor­thy cel­e­bra­tion of the art­ful as­sist.

Yes, Wal­ton was hav­ing fun. He’s earned it more than most.

“I’m just ec­static to be play­ing bas­ket­ball again,” Wal­ton said af­ter low­er­ing his spindly limbs onto the first step of the gym’s wooden bleach­ers af­ter prac­tice. “It’s some­thing that I’ve been wait­ing to do for a year and a half now. That yearplus of sit­ting out, want­ing to play bas­ket­ball but not be­ing able to play bas­ket­ball, that was hard. I’m ec­static to be back.”

There were times dur­ing the past two years that Wal­ton, an af­fa­ble, in­tel­li­gent se­nior, won­dered whether his tall bas­ket­ball dreams would be left un­ful­filled. The first torn an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment in his left knee, dur­ing his sopho­more year, was tough. So was the re­hab, the phys­i­cal ther­apy and the count­less games spent on the bench rather than on the floor.

The se­cond tear of the same ACL, when he was weeks away from re­turn­ing from the first in­jury, that was the set­back that chased away re­cruiters and churned doubt.

“There were times that I won­dered if I still wanted to be do­ing this,” Wal­ton said.

Close to two years af­ter suf­fer­ing his first torn ACL, Wal­ton is fi­nally back at home on a bas­ket­ball court, av­er­ag­ing 16.5 points, 11.5 re­bounds and 3.2 blocked shots per game. He’s a skilled big man with a soft touch, as com­fort­able putting the ball on the floor and pop­ping a midrange jump shot as he is catch­ing the ball and piv­ot­ing in the post.

On the de­fen­sive end, Wal­ton pa­trols the rim with the quick­ness of a thor­ough­bred whip­ping away flies with its tail.

“It’s amaz­ing,” team­mate Will Wittman said of Wal­ton’s shot-block­ing prow­ess. “Some­times you make mis­takes and your guy will go by you, and you know you have him back there to clean up the mess.”

Th­ese tools are highly cov­eted in a 7-footer, not to men­tion one who has sung in the choir, among other ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties, and car­ries a 3.97 grade­point av­er­age. That’s why Wal­ton holds Divi­sion I schol­ar­ship of­fers from Den­ver, Wy­oming and Middle Ten­nessee State, why he has been aca­dem­i­cally ac­cepted to Colorado School of Mines and why coaches from the Ivy League, Big Ten and Pac-12 have flocked to Ar­vada to see him play.

“I couldn’t be more ex­cited for him,” said Ron­nie DeGray, Wal­ton’s Billups Elite AAU coach. “See­ing the stuff he’s do­ing, av­er­ag­ing a dou­ble-dou­ble, see­ing all the coaches call­ing and com­ing into town, I’m just happy for him.”

None of this seemed guar­an­teed just one year ago.

On April 20, 2014, dur­ing the spring of his sopho­more year, Wal­ton was play­ing in a na­tional AAU tour­na­ment in Kansas with Billups Elite and went down with what he fig­ured was a mild sprain, or some­thing sim­i­lar.

“I re­mem­ber that night I got to the ho­tel room, took some pain med­i­ca­tion, iced it and was back play­ing the next day,” Wal­ton said. “Then, in the next game, I tried to make a jump for some­thing and it just gave.”

The di­ag­no­sis came shortly af­ter. The ACL tear would re­quire surgery and a nine-month re­hab that would go through the middle of Wal­ton’s ju­nior year at Ar­vada West, where he had trans­ferred af­ter his first two years at Ral­ston Val­ley.

Wal­ton was up for the chal­lenge. And it didn’t seem long, he said, be­fore he was near­ing a re­turn to a team that was in the midst of an im­pres­sive sea­son be­hind brothers Thomas and Luke Neff.

On Jan. 20, 2015, just a week or so away from a re­turn to the court, Wal­ton was do­ing a sin­gle-leg hop drill, in which he would bound for­ward off just one foot, test­ing the strength of his hips.

“I hit 6-foot-10 with (the non­in­jured right) leg, al­most hit 7 feet,” he said. “So I was try­ing to match it with (the left) leg, just as you would to get cleared. So I hit 6-5 with that leg and I was like, ‘No, I’m go­ing to keep go­ing.’ I hit 6-8, 6-9. Then I tried again ... and it snapped.

“It was very clear. You could hear the snap. It was very graphic. You just knew.”

At a hos­pi­tal, an MRI con­firmed Wal­ton’s worst fear: He had torn his ACL again.

“The feel­ing was tremen­dous sad­ness for the kid,” said Matthew Wal­ton, Dal­las’ father. “We felt hor­ri­ble for him.

“For us, it was re­ally let­ting him know that it wasn’t the end of the world, be­cause at that point, as a teenager, it was the end of the world for him.”

Matthew Wal­ton’s heart broke as he saw his son’s head drop at the doc­tor’s di­ag­no­sis. But in min­utes, he learned the re­solve burn­ing within that son, one that hadn’t al­ways been ap­par­ent. Af­ter all, suc­cess in school and in bas­ket­ball came so eas­ily.

“To get the news from the doc­tor, you could just see him sink,” Matthew Wal­ton said. “It was, ‘Oh, my good­ness, not again.’ But in the same mo­ment he was also like, ‘OK, let’s do this. Let’s get the surgery out of the way.’ It just made me say, ‘Wow.’ ”

Dal­las Wal­ton had a long road back, but he also had a blue­print. He went through the same steps he had trav­eled a year ear­lier, at­tack­ing the process even more vig­or­ously the se­cond time. He was de­ter­mined to prove he could come back bet­ter than ever, even as the coaches who had been re­cruit­ing him so hard had stopped call­ing.

He also had the ben­e­fit of what he called “an amaz­ing sup­port net­work.” DeGray and Wal­ton’s other AAU coach, Mar­cus Ma­son, in­sisted Wal­ton travel with the team dur­ing the spring and sum­mer, keep­ing him around mo­ti­vat­ing team­mates. Ar­vada West coach Jeff Par­riott and as­sis­tant Dan Pier­son also pro­vided shoul­ders to lean on.

“We all just tried to say, ‘Hey, stay with it.’ When he’s not on the floor, when he’s re­hab­bing, that can be a lonely deal,” Par­riott said. “So I think ev­ery­body tried to let him know that we were there with him.”

Fi­nally, af­ter two surg­eries, two years be­tween games, sweat poured and demons bat­tled, Wal­ton was ready to re­turn to the court for Ar­vada West’s first game of the sea­son — Dec. 1 against Smoky Hill. All he did was score 18 points, rip down 18 re­bounds and block four shots. He was off, and he hasn’t slowed since.

Those col­leges that had slinked away have picked up the phone again, burned fre­quent-flier miles to come to the Den­ver area to see the tal­ented, danc­ing 7footer who has re­fused to quit.

“The thing I learned the most about my­self is that I don’t give up easy,” Wal­ton said. “I learned that in or­der to get some­thing, you have to work for it.”

Ar­vada West’s Dal­las Wal­ton, a 7-footer, tries to block fel­low se­nior Will Wittman from scor­ing at prac­tice last week. Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

Ar­vada West se­nior Dal­las Wal­ton (55) bat­tles for a re­bound at prac­tice last week. He is av­er­ag­ing 16.5 points, 11.5 re­bounds and 3.2 blocked shots. Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.