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COLUMN ONE

Still Lots of Room to Grow

Demetrius Walker is a man among boys on the basketball court. His coach wants to make sure the 12-year-old has a shot at a balanced life.

August 29, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Look at those hands. Those feet.

Anyone can see Demetrius Walker is taller and quicker than most every other player on the basketball court. They see his ballhandling and a short jump shot that consistently scores.

But people in the know -- the ones who watch most closely -- see his long fingers and size-16 shoes.

Already 6 feet 2, Demetrius isn't finished growing. His progress is chronicled by Web sites that cater to basketball fanatics, and at least one prominent observer of the game has already projected him into the National Basketball Assn. Fans go a step further, comparing him to LeBron James, who recently jumped from high school to the pros.

Demetrius hears what people say.

He is a respectful young man, quiet around strangers, and his response is brief. "I don't listen to any of that stuff," he says.

The Fontana boy tries to ignore the hype because he is, after all, only 12 years old.

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The crew cut and squint are pure drill sergeant. Joe Keller plays to that look, clamping his jaw tight when he hears predictions of greatness for Demetrius. "You don't want to hear that," Keller says.

Not yet, at least.

The 33-year-old coach is in a sensitive position. He runs a prestigious youth team, the Southern California All-Stars, that competes in tournaments throughout the nation each summer. Demetrius is his marquee attraction.

But there is something more -- he and his protege have become inseparable over the past few years. He teaches the boy manners and buys him food when he is hungry.

"He means a lot to me," Keller says. "Like a son."

The situation forces Keller into a split personality. As coach, he pushes Demetrius through workouts, two hours a day, six days a week, year-round, at various community centers and school gyms. He wants to see how good the boy can become, how far he might go.

As a surrogate father, however, he wants to protect. If Demetrius progresses through the basketball system, he will face daunting pressure from college recruiters, shoe company representatives and agents wanting to sink their hooks into him.

A talented kid can forget what's important. Things such as family and school.

Keller intends to guide him -- pushing here, shielding there -- but says, "I didn't plan it this way."

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They met four years ago, when Keller walked into a community center and saw Demetrius flying up court. During a break, the coach introduced himself, asking: "How are you?"

Demetrius acted cool, indifferent.

It was the wrong attitude. While Keller storms and curses on the sideline during games, he demands better behavior from his players. Yes, sir. No, sir. That sort of thing.

Upon meeting Demetrius, he remembers thinking, Oh man, I don't need this kind of trouble.

Yet he went against his instinct and invited the boy to practice. Maybe it was the extraordinary talent or that lanky frame, already 5 feet 2. Maybe something else. "He was a kid who needed someone," Keller says.

A sheepish grin breaks across Demetrius' face when he recalls those days. "Back then," he says, "I really didn't know manners."

He was 8.

At first, he felt his new coach's wrath. The glare. The screaming. Demetrius went home and told his mother, "I can't take this."

But Kisha Walker had been a power forward at Crenshaw High in the 1980s. She loved basketball and appreciated the value of coaching. Also, as a single mother, she knew what it was like to hold down a full-time job as a repossession specialist while studying nights for admission to the police academy.

"There's no quitting," she told her son.

So Demetrius sweated through conditioning drills and never missed a workout. Somewhere amid the hardship, a relationship emerged.

Basketball was the foundation. Any tough coach loves a kid who shows grit. Any kid with dreams of stardom will latch onto a coach who might take him there.

For Keller, the surprise came when Demetrius started calling him on the telephone.

"If I was sick, he called and asked if I was feeling better," Keller says. "If he called me up and I told him I was going somewhere, like to watch a high school game, he wanted to go."

On Father's Day, Demetrius gave him a card.

The boy had found someone to take the place of his biological father, who had left years before. He says: "I hung around [Keller] a lot and he did a lot for me, buying me stuff to eat when I was hungry and stuff like that.

If Kisha Walker had any misgivings about this relationship, they were swept away by the obvious changes in her son's attitude and behavior. Keller was a role model, she says. "My son listens to him."

One more thing -- Demetrius began to dominate opponents on court. By April 2001, at age 10, he earned a glowing endorsement from Hoop Scoop Online.

"His potential for growth is scary," wrote Clark Francis, a noted scout who tracks basketball talent on the Web site. "Right now, we're talking about an outstanding athlete who is very fluid and almost impossible to stop inside."

Those hands. Those feet. For better or worse, Demetrius was on his way.

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