DECATUR — At about 5 p.m. on Saturday, Eisenhower senior R.J. Walker, his father, Eisenhower coach Rodney Walker, and his mother, Karen Walker, joined a Zoom meeting with the University of Idaho coaching staff.
R.J. had a sense of what was coming. An hour-and-a-half later, the coaching staff offered him a scholarship, the first Division I scholarship offer for reigning Herald & Review Macon County Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
“I’m still in shock,” R.J. said. “It is like every kid’s dream to get a Division I offer and being able to have your school paid for. I don’t really know how to explain it. My mom was tearing up, my dad was proud. It was a dream come true.”
He averaged 16.7 points shot 37 percent on 3-pointers last season and he was also one of the team's top on-ball defenders, averaging 3.1 steals, though he missed six games with an ankle injury.
Idaho first contacted R.J. following a summer AAU game and stayed in touch throughout the process with Zoom meetings and phone calls because of the current recruiting restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rodney Walker played basketball at New Mexico State following his career at St. Teresa and a two-year stop at a junior college. R.J. knows all about his father's basketball success and the long career overseas. Following in those footsteps, while blazing his own path, has always been the goal.
“I knew I always wanted to do that growing up as a kid and be like my dad," R.J. said. "It’s all starting to come together and it just feels great."
Rodney said that Idaho assistant coach Doug Novsek has connections to the Central Illinois area, and to former Stephen Decatur standout Tarise Bryson, who played at Illinois State and is now an assistant coach at MacArthur. Rodney said the whole coaching staff was personal with R.J., getting to know him on a level beyond basketball and has been monitoring R.J. for a while before the offer.
"It's one of those things, R.J. is a smart kid," Rodney said. "I tried to tell him about my (college basketball) experience and he can use some of that to help him with his decision. ... “It’s great to see him putting in the hard work and always listening to me and staying put and trusting the system."
The offer came at the end of an emotional week for the Walker family, the city of Decatur and the basketball community with the untimely passing of MacArthur girls basketball coach Mike Williams on Wednesday morning. Williams and Rodney Walker were partners in the creation and management of the Sky Ice AAU program and Williams was a close family friend.
Williams longed for every one of his kids to play in college and Division I was always the goal. R.J. knew it and knew how much this offer would have meant to Williams.
"It's pretty sad because I know big Dubb always wanted me to get that offer and he was always talking about posting it and stuff," R.J. said. "I know he's still looking down on me, but it would have been nice to have him here with me to celebrate."
Rodney said Williams was instrumental in keeping R.J. prepared to go through the NCAA clearinghouse, which looks at a prospective Division I or Division II student-athlete's academic standing. Williams knew R.J. was bound to get an offer.
As Rodney sat outside on Saturday evening, a brief mist fell down on him. He thought of Williams and how "big Dubbs is probably up there jumpin' around."
"I can see him smiling down because he played a big part in R.J's development," Rodney said. "That was his goal that he had one Division I program signed out of his program. ... He would be doing cartwheels right now. I know he'd be smiling down."
PHOTOS: Eisenhower beats Mattoon in regional semifinals
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25
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