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March 31, 2009

Pure Silver: Spotlighting Walker

Ever since my nine-year-old son first learned to dribble a basketball, he has locked in on a specific athletic dream. Whereas a lot of kids harbor fantasies of playing in the NBA, of winning championships, of being the next Michael Jordan, my little dude is shooting for a different standard of success.

As he announced years ago, and has repeated many times since: I want to play college basketball, and I want to have my number retired by my school.

The subject came up once again last Sunday morning as my three children and I watched the last burst of excellence from the great Ashley Walker in a Cal uniform. The amazing senior power forward had just stepped outside to drain a three-pointer, part of a stirring opening 13 minutes that gave Cal a 31-23 lead over No. 1 Connecticut—the undefeated Huskies' biggest deficit of the season—in a third-round NCAA tournament game.

"Dad," my son asked, "will Ashley's jersey be retired?"


































It was a good question, one which I couldn't answer definitively then and have spent a decent amount of time pondering (yeah, I know, I need to get a life—or, as my bosses at Yahoo! Sports might prefer, figure out which small-college wideout the Saints are drafting in the fifth round) since the Bears' season ended with a 77-53 defeat to UConn.

My son, I suspect, has had a crush on the 6-1 forward ever since, during a game at Haas, she reached down and rubbed his blue Cal sweatshirt just before inbounding the ball. And I suspect his father is not alone in regarding Walker as a player who, every time I watched her play, became more and more endearing.

Love alone, however, doesn't automatically lead to a glass-enclosed uniform at Haas Pavilion. Unlike picking more conventional honors, like MVPs or All-Americans, retiring a player's jersey is a delicate, tricky endeavor. Even inducting members of the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame, a process in which I've had the honor of participating since 2007, is less daunting by comparison.

A retired jersey not only confers a sort of immortality upon the recipient, but it also creates a conundrum for future generations. Because there is a scarcity of usable uniform numbers, especially in basketball, this is not a move that should be made recklessly or taken lightly.

I came into Cal with Kevin Johnson, became friends with him as a freshman and watched him spur a transformation of a dormant men's hoops program that, among other lasting effects, turned Kip's from an afterthought to an enduring South Berkeley hotspot. At the end of his career, after he'd set the school scoring record and led the Bears to back-to-back postseason appearances after a 27-year drought, I remember suggesting in the Daily Cal that his number (11) be retired.

A few years later, it was—and that proved to be a very cool thing for the university. Seeing Johnson's jersey hanging at Haas Pavilion evokes images of a Cal great who went on to become terrific NBA All-Star, a nationally renowned community leader in his hometown of Sacramento and, more recently, the city's first African-American mayor.

The next two jerseys to go up weren't such great calls. First, someone got the bright idea of honoring Alfred Grigsby, a standout freshman power forward in the '90s whose career was derailed by injuries, for what I would charitably describe as perseverance. Yeah, Grigbsy stuck around for six years, but John Blutarsky lasted seven, and I don't recall Faber College retiring Bluto's ratty "College" sweatshirt.

Less offensive but more controversial was the subsequent decision, in 2004, to retire Jason Kidd's number 5 jersey. I like Kidd, a fantastic collegiate player who has enjoyed prolonged NBA stardom, but the dude only went to Cal for two years and was basically renting space at Harmon Gym before turning pro.

Combine Kidd and Grigsby into one person, and I'd consider retiring that guy's number.



























Earlier this season the school hung a fourth jersey, Darrall Imhoff's No. 40, honoring the star center from Cal's 1959 NCAA champions (and 1960 runners-up). I have no problem with that decision, but two words come to mind: Slow down

Seriously, once Mike Montgomery gets his empire up and running, there are going to be loads of star players cycling through, and we're going to want to remember all of them. That said, unless you want to see dudes wearing No. 97, we might want to wait awhile before taking any more numbers out of circulation.

The women's program, partly because it was so irrelevant between about 1990 and Joanne Boyle's arrival in 2006, has exercised greater restraint. Only Colleen Galloway's No. 13 hangs at Haas, and that wasn't a matter of much debate: Her number was retired in 1981 as she was completing her record-setting career.

My suspicion—and recommendation—is that Walker's 44 will end up joining Galloway's in the rafters.

Though eclipsed early on by class members Alexis Gray-Lawson (the 2005-06 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year) and Devanei Hampton (the '06-07 Pac-10 Player of the Year), Walker kept ascending and ended her Cal career as the team's best and most pivotal player.

Walker was named a third-team All-American by Associated Press on Tuesday, adding to a list of accomplishments that include breaking Galloway's career rebounding record and finishing second to Galloway on the alltime points list.

It goes beyond that, however. When I think of Walker, I think of a natural leader who played with passion and ferocity while maintaining an upbeat, composed persona. Most important of all, when I picture seeing next year's team take the court without her, I feel a pit in my stomach.

As bright as Cal's future is, what with the Scary Seven coming in next year and so much potential glory on the horizon, it will suck not having Walker be part of it.

I'll miss Hampton who, plagued by persistent knee problems, peaked early before nobly gutting out her final two seasons. And I'm excited that Gray-Lawson, who redshirted after tearing her ACL early in the '06-07 campaign, gets a final year to leave her imprint in Berkeley.

Meanwhile Walker, if all goes well, will become an effective if undersized WNBA power forward and will remain close to the Cal program in the years to come.

But my son and I would feel a little bit better if her jersey could stick around at Haas forever.

Circling the Center of the Universe

--The Bears' softball team stumbled in late March, losing five out of seven games (including its Pac-10 opener to then-No. 2 Washington), but don't stress out about that rough stretch. For the first time since 2006, Diane Ninemire has the players to make a serious run at the Women's College World Series, and if you don't believe me ask the formerly fourth-ranked UCLA Bruins, who got pounded at Levine-Fricke Field over the weekend by scores of 7-6 and 9-5. With an influx of fleet-footed talent (freshmen Jamia and Elia Reid, Frani Echavarria and junior transfer Shannon Thomas), Ninemire has more speed than she ever has and ample power and pitching to go with it. I can't wait to see this team play in person.

--Don't be deceived by the Cal women's tennis team's No. 8 ranking either. The Bears, coming off their first trip to the NCAA championship in '08 (they lost to UCLA), just defeated the Bruins in Westwood by a 6-1 score, and second-year coach Amanda Augustus' team is a very legitimate national title contender.

--Be sure to keep up with The Center of the Universe in The Gameface every Friday on Yahoo! Sports, and don't miss the Cal-themed emails on Trippin' Tuesdays.



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