Basketball will make you do crazy things. Crazy like driving two-and-a-half hours one way to get your daughter to a better school for her hoops. But that’s the kind of family the Walkers are.
All four members of the family lay their heads to rest in Richmond, Virginia, but when it comes time for the oldest child, Jada, to go to school, her father, Jon, hits the road for a couple hours to reach New Hope Academy in Landover Hills, Maryland.
“The traffic is horrible going into D.C. Sometimes it can be anywhere from an-hour-and-fifty to three hours, just depending on traffic, especially in the winter time,” explained Jon, who took an assistant coaching position at the girl’s program at New Hope when his daughter enrolled. “Ten miles could be an hour, and that could be unbearable sometimes.”
The transfer paid off quickly as New Hope won the national title at the 2019 GEICO Nationals, the crowning achievement of Jada’s basketball career so far. If she wasn’t already getting plenty of attention, her performance in that tournament sent her name around some circles.
Jada is one of the top point guard prospects in the nation for the Class of 2021. The high school junior holds offers from Michigan, North Carolina State, Florida, Oregon and Virginia, among others.
But even national champions have to commute.
It’s a sacrifice Jada is willing to make, though, and one that she is very grateful her family duplicates.
“It means a lot. It means that my parents really care about my career and my education as well,” Jada said. “At first, I was hesitant, because I didn’t want to leave my friends. Usually people don’t go two hours away to play, but I knew it was going to be better for me, and it turned out good. We won a national championship, so I can’t really be mad at that.”
The daily journey has done more than helped Jada in her basketball life, though.
“It does strengthen the relationship,” Jon said about the time they spend together in the car, which often include basketball discussions. “A lot of times, when my son would be out of practice, he would take the drive with us, or we would go on the weekend to practice. She’s pretty easy, though. You don’t have to dive into basketball. She’ll ask you something first where it kind of leads into it, and then we’ll get away from it.”
Basketball and the Walker name are synonymous. Jada’s younger brother, Jaden, is about to start his high school basketball career. Her mother, AnnMarie Gilbert, has been the head women’s coach at Virginia Union since 2015 after previously leading at Eastern Michigan from 2007-12 as part of her years of coaching experience. She played at Oberlin College in in Oberlin, Ohio, and was highly decorated as a high school and collegiate hooper, setting 10 Division-III records before graduating in 1991. Jon has a strong basketball background, too, as a standout player for Virginia Union in college who has been in coaching and training for decades.
In fact, basketball runs so deep in the family that the first date between the now-married couple was to the gym to see who could make 100-consecutive free throws first.
Together, the Walkers operate as one hardwood force.
The parents have been molding their daughter for the sport for a long time, and their influences have trickled down to her.
“They treat me like a college athlete,” Jada said. “When I train with my mom, she makes me a do a bunch of the stuff her college players do. She pushes me, my dad pushes me. My parents always said they want me to be the number one player in the country, so that’s what I’m really working toward.”
Though she takes plenty from both, Jada said that each of her parents have instilled different values in her that are valuable in their own ways.
“I learned my discipline from her,” Jada said of her mother. “When I’m not playing well, she tells me I need to pick it up, coaches are watching you. ‘If you were to go to that college, what would do for them?’”
From her father came the aggression.
“My dad brings out the aggressive side of me,” she explained. “If I’m not playing hard, he’ll let me know I’m not playing hard. ‘Hey, you need to pick it up.’ That really helps me, because I eventually start playing better. I just go off. That’s what he calls it, I go off.”
It’s not just about offense, though. Jada has made her love for defense public, and Jon said it’s been important to him and his wife that they teach their children and importance of playing both sides of the ball.
“Most kids want to be offensive juggernauts, which she is, but we’ve taught her the game a little differently,” Jon explained. “She interprets the game really well and I think learning the game from a defensive edge, it allows you, in the end, to separate yourself. A lot of kids are taught offense, but there aren’t a lot of people teaching kids how to play help side, how to go over the screen if they’re a shooter or go under if they’re not a shooter, or how to big it out when a guard likes to penetrate.”
The ultimate goal is to have her ahead of her peers.
“She’s learning all those things so that by the time she becomes a senior in high school, she’ll look like hopefully a senior in college or a first-year pro, and that’s what we talk about,” he said. “You want to be a step ahead of the curve, and I think a lot of who play against her, they find that out.”
The instruction, the knowledge and the talent have all been passed down to Jada from her parents, for which she is eternally grateful. Without them, she isn’t sure she would be a national champion with a nationwide recruitment.
“I would say all of it,” Jada said of what of her success is owed to her parents, “because I don’t think I would be where I am today without them. I don’t know what I would be doing without them in my life pushing me every single day to be where I am.”