The past and future for Shane Walker are back home in England. He left there in 2005 to pursue a basketball career in the United States that included playing for two high schools in three years and a college career that began at the University of Maryland and will end next month at Loyola. He will return to London this spring with hopes of playing for the host country in the Olympics this summer.
It is the present that consumes Walker, a 6-foot-10, 222-pound forward who is the only senior who starts and plays regularly for the Greyhounds (18-5, 11-2 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference). The present includes a first-place showdown Friday night against Iona (19-5, 11-2) at Reitz Arena, which is expecting its second straight sellout crowd.
"I am really just trying to take the season day by day, trying to get through the season and win as many games as possible," Walker said. "Of course, my family talks about [the Olympics], so it's in the back of my mind, but I'm just trying to stay focused on this season."
Still, it is remarkable that Walker is being considered as a potential Olympian even in a country where soccer — the sport Walker grew up playing and still follows passionately as a fan of Manchester United — is far more popular than basketball. Walker said that he never played any organized basketball until going to Bishop Ireton in Northern Virginia as a sophomore in high school and finishing up at national powerhouse Montrose Christian in Rockville.
"Growing up I never really considered myself a basketball player," Walker said after practice Thursday. "Not many people get this opportunity. It is amazing."
Those who remember Walker as a freshman at Maryland are also amazed. He came to Loyola after a year in College Park not looking to become a star but trying to "change the culture around here." Though far from a dominant player, Walker has become his team's most versatile inside player and perhaps its most important.
After averaging 10 points and seven rebounds his first two seasons, Walker has seen his numbers decline slightly to 9.3 points and 6.4 rebounds. But Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos believes that the stats are misleading.
"He knows every play, at the end of the game he's our best free-throw shooter, he knows where to go when we're running certain sets. He's been unbelievable this year on all the stuff that doesn't show up in the stat sheet," Patsos said. "Now he's starting to throw in some stats."
Last week in a road win over Canisius, Walker had a season high of 17 points and 11 rebounds. He followed that with a season-high 12 rebounds in a win over Rider and then came back with a 12-point, five-rebound performance in a win at Saint Peter's.
"My main focus is winning, so whatever it takes to win, whether it's taking a charge or switching out to a guard [on defense], it really doesn't matter. I just want to win," said Walker, whose late 3-pointer helped Loyola end Bucknell's 18-game winning streak in December. "Whether it's running into a brick wall, I'll do whatever it takes to win."
Had Walker tried that as a freshman at Maryland, the wall would've won. He barely weighed 200 pounds. He also lacked basketball instincts and confounded Terps coach Gary Williams by inexplicably taking 3-pointers that occasionally banked in.
"I remember being frustrated about not playing," said Walker, who averaged a little more than five minutes a game playing behind James Gist and Bambale Osby. "I remember having a great time, met a lot of great people. I'm thankful for everything Coach Williams taught me. I just remember having to work hard every day. It was tough, playing in the ACC, being a young guy who hadn't played much basketball. I was just trying to fit in. I felt like I did a good job, but you could always do better."
Loyola was a better fit, and not just for basketball.
"It's a nice little community. The school spirit since we're doing well is definitely picking up," he said. "I like the smaller campus. You don't have to rush to go to class. You can go to the gym whenever you want; you don't have to make the trek across the campus."
The sellout last week against Rider brought back memories for Walker of playing at Maryland, of going to a small, packed arena such as Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke — except that the fans were rooting for him.
"It took us to another level, which we haven't been at this whole year and it showed in the first half," Walker said. "This is probably the biggest game in Loyola history [against Iona]."
Walker stays in touch with some former teammates, in particular Gist, who is playing in Turkey. Gist's parents have become Walker's surrogates, and he often visits them for holidays and vacations.
Gist's advice to Walker is simple.
"Just to be as confident as possible. No one is going to give you confidence," Walker said. "Always compete at a high level and try to take the game over when it's possible. Let the game come to you, always stay in the team concept."
As solid as Walker has been on the court for the Greyhounds, Patsos is more impressed with his maturity away from basketball.
"He's been great off the court, too, which has always been a question mark: 'Will he grow up?'" Patsos said. "He's really been good with that. Every year he has grown up a little more. I am really proud of Shane. He's been a great leader for us on and off the court."
Former Maryland assistant coach Keith Booth, who came to Loyola as an assistant on the women's team this season, said the experience Walker had at Maryland probably helped him with the Greyhounds.
"There are some things you take away from that, how hard you have to work on a day-in and day-out basis," Booth said. "You see the maturation in his game. He's really improved in all areas."
Patsos, who spent 13 years as an assistant under Williams, recalls something his former boss told him about players who were not necessarily the stars of their team. In turn, Patsos has told the coaches of England's Olympic team the same thing about Walker.
Walker is currently among a pool of players who worked out for the national team last summer and are still in the pool of players being considered to join the team in the spring.
"Gary used to tell me there are certain guys — the [Byron] Moutons of the world, the Rodney Elliotts, the Terence Morrises, they're going to do what they do to help you win," Patsos said. "That's Shane."