Chattanooga basketball prospect Jamaal Walker, now ready for his first Mocs’ season, has overcome loss of home to a tornado and family bouts of COVID-19, twice testing positive for the virus himself.
The facemask shields the smile on his face as he talks about what it will be like to make his debut for his hometown University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball team. The glimmer in his eyes, though, can’t conceal the excitement.
“When I play basketball, it’s my safe haven,” he says. “Nothing will be going through my mind about everything that has happened. I’ll be out there at that moment, ready to play.” After all that Jamaal Walker has been through since mid-March, it’s easy to understand why he craves the sanctuary that basketball provides, considering:
- The coronavirus wiped out the last six weeks of his on-campus freshman experience at UTC, moving him back home.
- That house was destroyed by the Easter night tornado that ripped through East Chattanooga on April 12.
- A few weeks after moving into a new house, Jamaal and his parents—Alfred and Jamika—contracted COVID-19. Alfred, who has asthma, required hospital isolation.
- And just when apparent normalcy had returned to his life, Jamaal tested positive for COVID-19 for a second time in September.
No one could blame Walker if he had thoughts of “Why me? I’m a very religious person,” he says. “I have faith, but sometimes we all have our doubts, and I was like, ‘Why me? Why does this happen to me?’ But I learned you have to look at the positives. Everything you go through builds character. I wish I hadn’t gone through all of that, but everything happens for a reason. I feel like I’ve become a better person just off those experiences.”
A sophomore academically and a redshirt freshman in basketball—meaning he has four years of eligibility remaining—Walker arrived on campus in August 2019 knowing he would be a spectator his first year. The East Hamilton High School graduate came to UTC as an undersized 6-foot-4, 172-pound guard. He worked hard both in the classroom—where he is an education major—and in the weight room, putting on 20 pounds of upper-body muscle.
Once COVID-19 shut down on-campus learning last March, Walker moved back into his family’s house in the Yorktown Estates subdivision in the East Brainerd area of town. On Easter night, his world was literally spinning. He says he knew it was storming outside but didn’t think anything out of the ordinary until his younger sister, Jada, came to get him. “My sister comes in and says, ‘I think we should go in the bathroom and just stay in there because that’s what you do during a tornado,’” he recalls. Jamaal and Jada went into the small, windowless room. They were quickly joined by their parents, who had been awakened by the pounding rain.
“A few minutes after we entered the restroom, there was a rumbling noise outside. It was surreal,” he continues. “The four of us were praying on the restroom floor, just embracing each other as a family. Then it sounded like something broke, and a tree fell into our house—in the room right next to where we were bunkered in the bathroom. “After that, it sounded calm, like the tornado went away to another part of the neighborhood. We left the restroom and looked into the next room—and a tree was there. It was crazy.”
The Walkers, now without power and phone service, went outside to investigate. “It was pitch black, the darkest I’ve ever seen outside in my life,” Jamaal says. “You only saw flashlights. Then I saw a neighborhood in the distance that I didn’t even know was there. It was visible now because all the trees were knocked down.”
After assessing the damaged house, it was decided it would be easier to move than to remodel. Just weeks later, shortly after taking up residence in the new home, the family was shaken up again. COVID-19 found its way into the Walker family. “I’d say my dad had it first, then me and my mom,” says Jamaal, who initially resisted getting tested. “Eventually I did, and it came back positive—which at that point wasn’t a surprise. My mom and I had symptoms like fatigue and loss of taste and smell. But we were only concerned about my dad, because he has asthma and was really in danger.”
Alfred Walker’s breathing issues became so bad that it necessitated three days of hospital isolation in his third week of experiencing symptoms. “I’ve never seen him so weak. He could barely talk,” Jamaal says. “My dad’s a loud person, always happy, always trying to make people smile. Just seeing him unable to breathe, especially when he went to the hospital. It wasn’t looking good for him, and he’ll tell you that himself.” If two harrowing family experiences weren’t enough to rattle a teenage college student, throw in a second bout of COVID-19.
“But the way my summer went, it just makes you value life more. How precious life is, how quickly it can go away in just one second.“
Walker started feeling ill again in late August, running a 102-degree fever, but an initial COVID-19 test came back negative. Not wanting to chance it, his parents had him take a second test. He didn’t find the positive result shocking. “I didn’t feel like I was in danger or anything like that,” he says. “But the way my summer went, it just makes you value life more. How precious life is, how quickly it can go away in just one second. I guess as a young kid, many people don’t think about it, but life’s too short. I am really just happy to be living.”
After quarantining at home for a second time, Walker is healthy again and preparing for basketball season as he looks to become the first Chattanooga native to spend a full season on the UTC roster since Dontay Hampton 2012-2013. Making his initial on-court contributions for the Mocs will be an affirmation of the peace and haven that the sport brings to him. “Basketball is something that really makes me happy, and I just love it here,” he says. “When coach tells me to get in the game, it will be exciting.”